Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Attack from Above

The picture is absorbing. The fear is real. An attack from above from what must seem to them as an attack from space would feel for us. The Mars lander searches for signs of life on the red planet while a small plane flies over the tree canopy of the Brazilian Amazon jungle. The plane had made a pass above the village near the Brazilian/Peruvian border earlier in the day and the tribesman had obviously been put on war footing, dressed in warpaint and armed with bows and arrows. Although Peruvian president Alan Garcia, in his race for oil and logging, has openly questioned the possibility of such uncontacted tribes, it is estimated that about 100 such tribes do exist. Their fear of the unknown is apparent. Like a scene out of The Gods Must be Crazy they had no idea what this mechanical bird was or anything of it's intentions. Bodies painted, weapons at the ready, as if they knew that encounters such as this with the outside world almost always proved fatal to tribes like theirs.

The modern world's equivalent to these planes looking down on hidden tribes in the amazon are the thousands of satellites circling the globe doing everything from taking pictures to providing communication to searching for hidden oil. So what would happen if these satellites suddenly became offensive weapons with the ability to shoot down others or rain down destruction on Earth? This is part of a scenario described a few years back by a commission lead by none other than Donald Rumsfeld in what he called a “space Pearl Harbor”. When Rumsfeld was nominated to defence secretary, retired general David Jeremiah took over the commission chairmanship and said "Increasingly, people like Osama bin Laden may be able to acquire capabilities on satellites" and will be able to threaten US ground stations. Take note that this was just a few months before 9/11.

The subject has regained relevancy recently due to a couple of different factors. Firstly, the current Outer Space Treaty, signed and ratified by most countries including the US, China and the former Soviet Union, came into existence in 1967 and prohibits placing weapons of mass destruction in space but is vague when it comes to other weapons such as lasers or the shooting down of satellites. Which brings us to January of 2007. China became the third nation, after the US and Russia, and the first in 20 years to successfully shoot down an orbiting satellite. It was an obvious effort the force the Americans into dialogue over the militarisation of space, to stop an arms race in space, to which the US has consistently maintained that no such race exists. Of course they don't mention the fact that the national space policy of the US strongly asserts the American right to defend itself in space against any actions it considers hostile. Therefore the predictable response by the US to the Chinese action was to shoot down a "toxic" satellite themselves.

Control of space represents the ultimate military control of the high ground so it's not hard to see why this is such a touchy subject. What is difficult to figure out is why the American government seems so adamant in their refusal to enter into serious discussions to disarm this growing crisis. How does the old expression go...people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, yeah that's it. As usual though, the Bush administration has plenty of rocks that they're not afraid to throw. There isn't any military more technologically advanced than that of the USA, yet at the same time they are completely dependent on the information provided to them by the satellite system zipping around the globe. Knock a few of them out and before you know it they're fighting blind. So one would believe that they would jump at the chance to enter into a treaty guaranteeing their primacy in orbit.

How many American know that the nation refusing to discuss a treaty aimed at preventing an arms race in outer space is their own? The Russians want nothing more than to maintain a balance of power and China is definitely on board, both have made proposals. Dennis Kucinich has attempted to introduce legislation into congress. Even the Canadians have tried to bring it up. Instead the American are opting for the arms build up, a new space race as evidenced by their RAIDR project or space based kinetic missile interceptors. This is a game that China has demonstrated it is willing to play, and I'm sure the Russians will come along for the ride as well. There could be only one reason. Could it be that there is a fortune to be made in developing the technology to fight in space?