As Star Wars fans swarm to cinemas to see why Anakin Skywalker went over to the dark side, opponents of “space weaponisation” are accusing the White House of emulating Darth Vader by trying to use new high-technology weapons to control space.
President George W. Bush ordered a review of space policy in 2002 after a commission chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, now secretary of defence, concluded that the US could face a “Space Pearl Harbor”. The White House says space policy, last revised in 1996, must be updated to protect US satellites.
Opponents and some supporters of space weaponisation say the Pentagon has already made progress towards developing space weapons, including some that could be deployed within several years.
“The White House is trying to ‘spin' the issue,” says Theresa Hitchens, the vice-president of the Center for Defense Information. “The controversial nature of offensive space weapons is readily apparent to them. Therefore the party line including out of the air force is to stress the need to ‘protect' our satellites.”
Richard Garwin, considered one of the pre-eminent US weapons scientists, wrote recently in Spectrum that the US has spent billions of dollars researching and testing offensive space weapons.
While the US is light years away from developing anything like the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo's prized spaceship in Star Wars, the air force is looking at a number of futuristic space programmes, some of which would be explicitly used as weapons.
One that has been funded is the common aero vehicle (CAV), a hypersonic space craft that the air force in its 2003 Transformation Flight Plan says would “guide and dispense conventional weapons...from and through space“. It estimated the CAV programme could be completed by 2015.
Others under consideration are hypervelocity rod bundles nicknamed “Rods from Gods” and space-based radio frequency energy weapons. The Rods from Gods, tungsten metal rods dropped from satellites in space, “would provide the capability to strike ground targets anywhere in the world”, according to the air force.
Energy weapons employing high-power radio-frequency transmitters to destroy a military's command and control system could be used as anti-satellite weapons, according to the air force.
The air force says its priority is not weapons in space but instead “defensive countermeasures".
“The Department of Defense achieves space superiority through actions in three areas - space situation awareness, defensive counterspace and offensive counterspace - that are collectively known as space control,“ says Lieutenant Colonel Frank Smolinsky, an air force spokesman.
“Space control is critical to attaining and maintaining space superiority and we intend to pursue it as a high priority in a concerted, integrated manner.“
As evidence that it is not weaponising space, the air force points to decisions to cancel the CAV, and Rods from Gods, which had not yet been funded. But critics argue that much of the funding for space programmes is included in the classified “black” budget, so it is hard to determine what the US is doing.
James Roche, former secretary of the air force who oversaw the Transformation Flight Plan, says the Pentagon has allocated money for advanced research on the CAV.
According to Jeffrey Lewis, a research fellow at the University of Maryland, the air force has renamed the CAV, which ran into Congressional opposition out of fears that Russia could mistake it for an incoming missile, as the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle.
Mr Roche argues that the CAV is not a space weapon, but simply an attempt to reduce the flight time of missiles by utilising the physics of space flight. He adds that the military is being prudent in assessing such future capabilities, which he says has become increasingly necessary as US enemies realise the increasing importance of space to the US military.
“One of the thoughts for the long run is to be able to put a weapon in space...something as benign as Rods from Gods and to be able to hold at risk anybody who is threatening you,” says Mr Roche.
“You need to have some form of deterrent. For the government not to be thinking things through, and not to be looking at what technical possibilities are, would be dereliction.”
Mr Roche says the military also needs to consider kinetic or non-kinetic weapons that could destroy satellites that pose a threat, but he adds that such programmes are a long way from the controversial “star wars” programme envisaged by Ronald Reagan.
Michael O'Hanlon, a defence analyst at the Brookings Institution, argues that the White House can plausibly deny that it is weaponising space because money has not been allocated for many weapons designed specifically for deployment in space. He adds that some weapons, such as the CAV, are more difficult to classify because they could also be used for non-space purposes.
But Mr O'Hanlon says there is no doubt that the US wants to weaponise space, and is developing some systems, such as microsatellites, that could be used as weapons in space.
“We are already making progress by having the missile defence programmes because they have the latent capacity to shoot down satellites,” he says.
Everett Dolman, professor at the Air Force's School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, agrees that the US is close to being able to deploy space weapons.
“With only the proven technology the US has developed to date...it could adapt and field a comprehensive space weapons capability that includes space-to-space and space-to-ground weapons,” he says.
In contrast to some opponents of space weaponization who argue that the US should negotiate a treaty banning space weapons, Mr Dolman says the crucial question for the US is whether it can afford to be second to put weapons in space.
In refuting claims that the White House has not signed up to weaponise space, Mr Lewis points to a recent five-year $673m budget request from the Missile Defence Agency to fund the “Space Test Bed", a constellation of space-based interceptors that would target incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Theodore Postol, professor of science, technology and national security policy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the amounts of money thrown at researching systems such as Space Test Bed are miniscule in comparision to how much would be required to do them.
He adds that the programme is a pipe dream that is unnecessarily provoking US allies and other countries.
“If you are talking about a real space-based intercept capability, it is the dumbest idea you can think of,” says Mr Postol, who worked in the Pentagon in the 1980s when the military first started talking about Rods from Gods.
“The US is pointlessly causing fear that might cause appropriate reactions on the part of our allies...it is pulling the tiger's tail for no purpose,” says Mr Postol.
Russian, China, and some US allies, are increasingly raising concerns about what they believe are US moves towards weaponising space. While the administration may not explicitly endorse putting offensive weapons in space, these countries believe the Pentagon's research efforts will force an expensive arms race in space weapons because they cannot afford to be left behind if they believe the US will ultimately change policy to allow deployment of space weapons. Mr Garwin wrote in Spectrum that deployment of offensive space weapons could have “profoundly negative implications for the balance of power”.
Vladimir Yermakov, senior counsellor at the Russian embassy in Washington, this week said Russia could respond with force if the US put a “combat weapon” in space. Russia has declared that it will not be the first country to put weapons in space, and is working at the United Nations to urge the US not to pursue space weaponisation.
China is also concerned. Hui Zhang, an expert in space weapons at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says: “To respond to US moves towards space weaponisation, the first and best option for China is to pursue an arms control agreement, as it is advocating now.
“However, if this effort fails and if what China perceives as its legitimate security concerns are ignored, China would very likely develop counter-responses to neutralise such a threat.” Countries opposing space weaponisation are concerned that even without a White House policy on deploying offensive space weapons, they will have to respond, because the US could quickly change policy after developing some of the weapons currently being researched.
“There are all kinds of concepts any one of which is a policy decision,” says Mr Roche. “Some of them would require changes [the administration] are talking about now.”
But some former air force officials believe that the day when the US will put weapons in space is a long way off.
Retired General Chuck Horner, who commanded the US air campaign during Operation Desert Storm in the first Gulf War, argues that the air force is not likely to develop many of the weapons outlined in the Transformation Flight Plan.
"The space advocates in the air force seek parity with their air oriented friends," says Gen Horner. “They want to be warriors, not just suppliers of data, such as navigation, weather, communications services and sensor data.”
“Who knows at some time in the future we may need something to repel aliens or chunks of space rocks that threaten the earth, but I doubt it."