The Bush administration is reviewing U.S. policy regarding weapons in space. "The New York Times" reported recently that the U.S. Air Force has asked the White House to revise a Clinton administration policy that limited the types of systems the military could put into space. VOA Defense Correspondent Al Pessin visited Air Force Space Command in Colorado, and spoke to non-government experts about the issue.
The very idea of "space weapons" sounds futuristic, and threatening. But the United States and many other countries have been using space for military purposes for decades. So far, there are no weapons systems based in space, but there are missiles that travel through space, and many satellites are in orbit for military surveillance, communications, targeting and other purposes.
"Space capabilities are woven through every aspect of modern military operations," said Lieutenant General Daniel Leaf, vice commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command. "It's very difficult, sometimes, to point at a specific operation and say, 'that's space right here.' But it's always there."
The nearly 40,000 people in his command are responsible for monitoring all events and objects in space to find potential threats to the United States, and for deploying, maintaining and utilizing satellites that support U.S. military activity. And General Leaf says there is one more major responsibility in his command.
"We deny access to space capabilities to an adversary, which only makes sense," he said.
That part of Space Command's mission causes concern among some people, but General Leaf quickly qualifies his statement.
"To counter enemy access to space capability does not necessarily imply weaponization of space, certainly not at this time," he said. "Not at this time."
But some experts want that time to be soon.
"Space weapons are a legitimate part of any type of security architecture," said Randall Correll, a space specialist at the Washington consulting firm called Science Applications International. "When you're looking at land, sea and air, and space systems, space weapons are a legitimate part."
Mr. Correll works with the Defense Department on regular updates of its plans for space capabilities.
"What we're trying to provide with our military capability is options for political leadership," he said. "And there may be cases where the act of destroying or permanently disabling a satellite in space may be the preferred option. It may save American lives."
That capability currently does not exist, and indeed developing an anti-satellite weapon would violate current U.S. space policy. That is why, according to news reports, the Defense Department has asked the White House for a change in that policy.
That has some experts worried, including Theresa Hitchens, vice president of a research group called the Center for Defense Information. Ms. Hitchens acknowledges that space is legitimately used for information gathering and communications, and even for weapons to pass through, like ballistic missiles. But she says that should be the limit of the military use of space.
"I think where you have issues is when you start talking about things that destroy things in space, or things that are actually based on orbit," she said.
Ms. Hitchens says it would be even more serious if any nation's military developed a space-based weapon that could attack targets on earth.