The Ultimate High Ground

The U.S. is weaponizing space. Canada is firmly opposed ... but not necessarily

It’s halfway up a Colorado mountain, past two security stations, through a long tunnel and two sets of nuclear-blast-proof doors. Even with all the secrecy, though, the North American Aerospace Defense bunker here inside Cheyenne Mountain is world-famous – mythologized for saving Western civilization from nuclear incineration during the Cold War, and famously lampooned in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove or; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The Cold War may be over, but life for the eight hundred Americans and Canadians based inside Cheyenne hasn’t changed for decades. Change is coming, though: as U.S. war planners prepare for their very own space age, the norad bunker is being readied for a high-powered rebirth.

Ever since it was built in the early sixties to provide early warning of a Soviet attack, the massive, bomb-proof Rubik’s cube of hardened steel harbouring various war stations inside Cheyenne Mountain has been an adventurous – if somewhat surreal – destination for countless Canadian officers assigned to norad. These days, Lieutenant General Rick Findley, a low-key Ottawa native with an uncannily fixed gaze, is second in command in the missile warning centre, a high-tech clearing house for global satellite-surveillance data channelled onto billboard-sized video displays. Findley is here at a crucial time for norad: Washington is set to put weapons in space as part of its drive for a working missile-defence system. Proof of this – compressed into twelve words of Pentagon-speak – was finally made public in February, when next year’s $10-billion missile-defence budget requested $14 million to “initiate technology development and testing of advanced, lightweight space-based interceptor components.” (All figures are in U.S. dollars.) Behind that jargon is a drive to puncture the last peaceful place humans will ever again encounter.

With missile defence on the way, and space weapons right around the corner, Cheyenne Mountain’s place in the Pentagon’s heart seems assured for decades to come. Even now, major renovations are under way to move Cheyenne’s steel-plated suite of missile-tracking screens down the hall into a new lair equipped not just for early warning, but for a central role in the $50-billion missile-defence system the Pentagon promised to deliver before the PA Presidential elections next fall.

One of Paul Martin’s first decisions as prime minister was to negotiate a role for Canada within U.S. missile-defence plans. norad’s Canadian and U.S. generals are already working on the new mission, General Findley confirms. “We’re moving ahead with confidence,” he says, pointing across the low-lit room at a video silhouette of North America.

“That’s going to be the missile-defence screen right there.” Nor does Findley show any doubts about the momentum to put weapons in space: “It has to be inevitable,” he says; it’s “old-think” to suggest otherwise. Space might be kept weapons-free “if the U.N. owned it all,” he says with a slightly cocked eyebrow, “but you can’t be idyllic.”

As candid as General Findley is here in the steel-swathed bowels of Cheyenne Mountain, it seems that word of the new, weapons-intensive space age has yet to reach Prime Minister Paul Martin, who in February swore to Parliament that Canada would not participate in U.S. missile defence if Canadian negotiators decide that “in fact what is happening is the weaponization of space.” Martin was responding to NDP critics who said the Pentagon’s “space-based interceptor” line item is a direct threat to decades of Canadian-led efforts to keep space weapons-free.

Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham also responded to that charge: space weapons are “a figment of the imagination.” he said. Canada’s lead negotiator with the U.S. on missile defence, Jim Wright, offered further information: Canada makes “a clear distinction be-tween the military in space and the weaponization of space,” he told a Sen-ate committee in February. Canadian policy, Wright says, is to keep space a “pristine,” weapons-free environment. “This policy will not change,” Wright promised, before heading back to Washington to land Canada the best missile-defence deal he can.

It’s a situation rooted in sixty years of tradition: once again, Canadian generals with big-league positions along-side aggressively expansionist Pentagon top brass push for greater integration with the U.S. military, while Canadian doves – prime ministers such as Trudeau, foreign ministers such as Lester Pearson and Lloyd Axworthy, diplomats such as Canada’s current Ambassador for Disarmament at the United Nations in Geneva, Paul Meyer, and public activists such as the physicist John Polanyi – travel about promoting international disarmament agreements consistently thwarted by the Pentagon. In February, as Canadian missile-defence opponents continued to demand that Canada pull out of negotiations to join George W. Bush’s New Missile Defence, Paul Martin’s Liberals agreed to a parliamentary debate on the matter.

It’s no secret the U.S. is responsible for two-thirds of world commercial space expenditure and owns 95 percent of military space assets – a domination of space that largely results from a long history of missile research and development. That twelve-word item in the Pentagon budget last February may have been the first official disclosure that the U.S. is building space weapons as part of its latest missile-defence program, but to many observers, U.S. weaponization of space has been inevitable for decades.

The idea first gained momentum in the late 1960s when the physicist Edward Teller, a key player in U.S. nuclear-weapons development from the 1940s through the 1980s, was designing war-heads for a space-guided missile-defence system located in a huge facility in Grand Forks, North Dakota. After the U.S.’s Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with the Soviets in 1972 led to its closing in 1976, Teller focused on space-based laser weapons, chasing the idea that a laser beam fired at the speed of light in space could disintegrate targets – including missiles – thousands of miles away. During the 1970s, the Pentagon spent at least $1 billion annually on this kind of space-based “hit-to-kill,” or kinetic-energy, technology, and $200 million annually on high-energy lasers as potential weapons. In 1980, a team of scientists that included Teller successfully tested a compact laser weapon in Nevada. In 1983, President Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a multi-billion-dollar missile-defence scheme that put laser-weapon development at its core.

By 1989, SDI had evolved toward a plan called “Brilliant Pebbles” – a system based not on laser weapons, but on another of Teller’s ideas: hundreds of space-based kinetic kill vehicles ringing the earth would attack enemy missiles as they travelled through space toward America. The idea of such an aggressive militarization of space – and its ever-ballooning price tag – finally elicited a huge public outcry against “Star Wars,” as SDI was dubbed. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Republicans were beaten in the 1992 elections, the Clinton Administration appeared to terminate SDI. In 1993, however, Les Aspin, Clinton’s first defence secretary, immediately set up a new missile-defence program, renamed it the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, and gave it Star Wars’ entire $3.8-billion annual budget. The return of Congressional Republicans to legislative power in the mid-nineties triggered a massive new bonanza for defense contractors. And in 2002, President Bush abrogated the 1972 ABM treaty, which had prohibited developing, testing, or deploying space-based missile-defence systems. He also changed the name of Clinton’s National Missile Defense to New Missile Defense. The bill for the whole “layered” stack of land, sea, air, and space weapons is now estimated at anywhere from $53 billion to $1 trillion.

As anybody who ever stared upwards on a starry night will easily comprehend, outer space has plenty to offer as a military playground. Since the 1950s, the U.S., China, Russia, and even the nominally pacifist European Union have all lofted sizeable military surveillance, communications, and weapons-targeting systems into orbit. More recently, U.S. officials have begun describing space as a frontier war zone. In 1996, General Joseph Ashy, then Commander-in-Chief of both U.S. Space Command and norad, declared, “We’re going to fight a war in space. We’re going to fight from space and we’re going to fight into space.”

In a 1997 vision statement, U.S. Space Command argued that by “integrating space forces into war-fighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict,” as U.S. forces did in the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars, U.S. space forces have become “lucrative military targets” warranting “a critical need to control the space medium to ensure U.S. dominance on future battlefields.”

In 1999, Pennsylvania Republican Curt Weldon, a Bush adviser who assumed Congressional leadership for missile-defence efforts, told reporters, “We’re probably going to have to use space-based assets. We might as well be honest about that. In the end, the most capable response will come from outer space.”

In October, 2002, four months after President Bush scrapped the 1972 ABM treaty, his assistant secretary of defence, Paul Wolfowitz, announced: “Space offers attractive options not only for missile defence but for a broad range of interrelated civil and military missions. It truly is the ultimate high ground. We are exploring concepts and technologies for space-based intercepts.”

That matches the view of Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, Director of the Missile Defence Agency, who would like to see some three hundred or more space-based interceptors as early as 2012. “Space solves your geography problem,” Kadish told a Congressional committee last year. “You can use those weapons more effectively from the high ground of space.” Since then, the U.S. Air Force has established a new Space Operation Directorate, started a Space Warfare Center, and established the 527th Space Aggressor Squadron and the 76th Space Control Squadron to develop and test space planning and systems.

So far, the work is going well. George W. Bush has pledged to deploy a rudimentary ground-based missile-defence system by next September. According to the Missile Defence Agency, the first elements of a tested system will be in place by that date, with missile silos on ten warships as well as in Alaska, and radars in Alaska, California, and the U.K., controlled from Cheyenne Mountain. Once this ground-based layer is operating, work on air-and space-based layers will begin, with a system of up to thirty satellites in low orbit capable of tracking enemy missiles for the ground-based interceptors. Work is also under way on an air-based layer involving modified jumbo jets carrying massive lasers on the edge of the atmosphere, almost in outer space. And work continues on a space layer involving a mix of surveillance and attack systems, including space-based lasers. The head of the space-laser effort, Colonel William N. McCasland, says the hope is to build a system that will “deny access to space,” “deny information to/from satellites,” and engage in “defensive/offensive counter-air operations.” TheMissile Defence Agency has also iss-ued contracts to develop what it calls “small, high-power, laser radar systems” to support a “future Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle.”

“Many people in the U.S., as well as Canada, don’t realize how long-standing the U.S. military effort to put weapons in space within missile-defence programs is,” says Phillip Coyle, who ran the Pentagon’s missile-defence testing program and is now senior adviser for the Center for Defense Information in Washington. According to Coyle, tests on space weapons are now discreetly under way at U.S. Air Force facilities in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “It’s very hard to know what’s going on,” he says, “but every once in a while we learn about one of these efforts.” By way of example, Coyle points to the recently revealed effort to design weapons to protect sbirs, a space-based infrared detection system. “The aim is to develop and test space-based weapons designed to protect the NMD assets,” Coyle says. “But once they get the weapons up there, they will automatically take on offensive capabilities.”

For nearly sixty years, Canada has been caught between two conflicting roles: as a world leader in disarmament efforts, and as a player in the drive for continental military integration. Canada and the U.S. formed a Military Cooperation Committee in 1945; this was followed by the establishment of norad (to “Deter, Detect, Defend”) in 1958. Today, according to the Department of National Defence, there are over eighty treaty-level defence agreements, more than two hundred and fifty memoranda of understanding between the two defence departments, and approximately 145 bilateral forums in which defence matters are discussed.

But the most significant entrenchment of Canada-U.S. military co-operation in recent years has been the government’s 1994 Defence White Paper. Revealingly, it ranked space first among concerns for future Canada-U.S. military coperation. “With the advent of missile warfare, the role of space in protecting the modern state has taken on added significance,” the government said.

University of Manitoba professor James Fergusson, a government adviser and Canada’s foremost space-weapons researcher, says the picture is perfectly clear: DND has long seen space weaponization as the inevitable outcome of missile defence. “Although the government may not have been aware of what it was signing off on” when the 1994 White Paper was released, Fergusson says, “it opened the door.”

In 1998, DND adopted a Space Policy calling for “comprehensive space capability” for “effective force projection” and emphasizing a “strong bi-national space relationship,” requiring DND to focus on “opportunities for space co-operation with the United States” including “potential roles” in missile defence. In a presentation on missile defence to the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans’ Affairs in 2000, Lieutenant General George MacDonald, then Canada’s top officer with norad, emphasized Canadian forces’ dependence “on a day-to-day basis on the capabilities that exist in space.”

Meanwhile, technical programs aimed at integrating Canadian military space objectives with U.S. ones have been under way ever since 1995, when a Joint Space Project was launched, Fergusson says. He points to Canada’s involvement with the U.S. in the milsatcom project, in which DND funds Canadian researchers to try to refine radar technology to track military targets from space. How closely this is linked to a space-weapons-development program is hard to tell, says Fergusson: “It’s a very fine line to draw.” He does say, however, that the Canadian government is being “disingenuous” if it doesn’t admit NMD will lead to space weapons while there already exists a budget for testing space weapons within NMD. Canada’s DND, Fergusson says, is fully aware that NMD will put weapons in space; so is the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (dfait).

DND has taken every opportunity to promote and pursue missile defence and space militarization, Fergusson says, even while Department of Foreign Affairs diplomats were fanning out across the globe promoting a ban on space weapons. “By and large it was assumed in Foreign Affairs [that] it wasn’t going to happen,” Fergusson says about missile defence and space weapons. “They were deluding themselves.”

That’s not a charge he levels at DND, where missile defence has long been seen as a project that needs political as well as technological support. In 2001, DND told the media that its most recent annual poll, conducted by pollara, showed that 76 percent of Canadians supported missile defence. In February (just before Parliament was set to debate the matter), the National Post ran a headline above a story about a pollara poll stating that “Canadians want missile defence: poll,” even though the pollara poll was based on questions about attitudes toward North American military integration, which made no mention of missile defence whatsoever. The Post’s interpretation was promptly repeated, unchallenged, in an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail. Although pollara chairman Michael Marzolini says spinning the poll about integrating Canada-U.S. security efforts into a vote for missile defence was a “mistake,” he nonetheless says, “Canadians see missile defence as something the Americans are inevitably going to do, so they want to be part of it.” Zealous as it is in getting its missile-defence messages into mass circulation, DND’s Directorate of Space Development knows where to draw the line: it refused to answer even written questions for this article about such basic matters as budgets and research programs. According to Collin Pierce, an official in DND’s Directorate of Strategic Communications, the Directorate of Space Development is “not an organization that has any interface with the press.”

Canada is not the only country struggling with the implications of American space weapons. Among the U.S.’s allies, Canada, Germany, France, and Italy have steadily supported diplomatic efforts to prevent an arms race in outer space and have voted for numerous UN efforts to ban space weapons. At the same time, it’s not easy to dismiss the lucrative defence contracts on offer. As Evan Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to France, told U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the key is to convince European defence contractors there’s money to be made. “If we established an opportunity for them to participate,” Galbraith told the Washington Post about his message to Rumsfeld, “we could have them lobby their governments to have the right to participate.” Galbraith now manages U.S. efforts to win European participation in NMD. In Canada, a delegation of U.S. military officials arrived in Ottawa on March 16 to meet with Canadian defence-industry executives. According to a well-timed report from the Canadian Defense Industries Association, missile-defense contracts could create as many as ten thousand jobs and a billion dollars’ worth of business.

And then there are the countries that are not being courted. As Bill Graham, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, pointed out while serving on the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans’ Affairs in 2000, the pursuit of missile defence will almost certainly spark “a new arms race.” As if to prove Graham’s view – or at least the view he held before joining Cabinet – Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov warned in 2002 that NMD will lead Russia to rebuild its missile and space forces; Russian analyst Major-General Vladimir Slipchenko stated that the U.S. missile defence system’s aim is to establish military superiority in space; Colonel General Yuri Baluyevsky, the first deputy chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, recently described massive nuclear war games in Russia as part of an effort to develop the means to penetrate missile defences. And in February of this year, after the U.S. Air Force released plans for a space-based radio-frequency energy weapon, described as a constellation of satellites that would “disrupt/destroy/disable a wide variety of electronics and national level command and control systems,” Russian President Vladimir Putin warn-ed that “in conditions where there is a quantitative and qualitative growth in the military potential of other states, Russia needs a breakthrough in order to have weapons and military equipment of a new generation.” Speaking at a missile launch site in northern Russia, Putin described a new generation of Russian missiles specifically designed to evade missile defences. “These systems can destroy targets on other continents, moving with a hypersonic speed and great accuracy, and with high manoeuvrability in both the vertical and horizontal planes,” he said. “I should say that every word of what you have just heard is significant.” Meanwhile, in China, the military recently launched its first astronaut into space as part of its own decade-long push for a military role in space.

In the angry estimation of Bill Graham’s predecessor, Lloyd Axworthy, the pursuit of missile defence by Paul Martin’s government is shredding sixty years of international-disarmament tradition. That tradition began in the 1950s, with Lester Pearson’s Nobel Prize-winning efforts to defuse a Sinai War, followed by Prime Minister Trudeau’s efforts to open relations with China while campaigning for nuclear détente with the Soviets in the 1970s and 1980s, and Axworthy’s success in getting 121 nations to sign a treaty banning land mines in 1997. Civilian disarmament leaders include the Nobel Prize-winner John Polanyi, who went to Moscow in 1960 to back a nuclear-weapons ban just around the time he co-invented the chemical laser – and who is now watching in horror as the fruit of his labours is being transformed into a $2.1-billion airborne missile-defence weapon.

Axworthy, who continued to lead an international campaign for a space- weapons ban until leaving to pursue academic and international-mediation work in 2000, says there “was always some tension between dfait and DND” over missile defence. As that tension persists, the biggest problem with Canadian disarmament efforts today, says Axworthy, is “credibility”: while Canadian diplomats are in Washington negotiating a deal on NMD participation, the Canadian diplomats at the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva – where discussion of a ban on space weapons has been stymied by partisan bickering since the mid-nineties – are being cut off at the limb,” Axworthy says. Currently, the only legal restraint against space weapons is the Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967. But while the OST bans weapons of mass destruction in space, on the moon, or on other celestial bodies, it doesn’t ban the kind of weapons systems now being developed in the U.S. Meanwhile, following U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty, which prohibited developing, testing, or deploying space-based missile-defence systems, the U.S. has declined to support a Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space treaty, despite strong international support for it.

A four-hour parliamentary debate on missile defence did indeed take place on a frigid Ottawa evening last February. The to-and-fro was vigorous enough to unravel a few of the government’s contradictions on the topic, though Prime Minister Paul Mar-tin was not there. Foreign Minister Bill Graham led the government’s presentation with a speech describing the link between missile defence and space weapons as “an hallucination.” Reversing the statement he made in 2000, Graham said missile defence “will not lead to an arms race.” Although he didn’t mention Canada’s decades-long effort to ban space weapons, he argued that “the trend” in Washington was “moving away” from space weapons. Rather than representing a shift in Canadian disarmament policy, Graham said, Canadian support for missile defence is part of a sixty-year tradition of Canadian and U.S. military integration. Echoing the pollster Michael Marzolini’s thesis, Graham concluded by noting missile defence “is going to happen whether we participate or not.”

David Pratt, the Minister of National Defence, reiterated Graham’s assertion that NMD “does not involve in any way weapons in space.” He then acknowledged that “there is some research being done” on space weapons within NMD. “As far as we know,” he hedged, “there may [not] and likely never will be any space-based weapons.”

Questions and rebuttals were thin. A Conservative member praised the government’s efforts to get involved in NMD, asking, “What took you so long?” Under the influence of the pollara poll, the Conservative member Stock-well Day said, “Seven out of ten Canadians want Canada involved, so it is good to know that we are speaking on behalf of the majority of Canadians.” A Bloc Québécois member said he’d seen the statistics suggesting 70 percent of Canadians “seemingly agree” with missile defence, but those figures don’t reflect the views of Quebecers. Alexa McDonough of the NDP, which has sworn to fight missile defence, said the government’s polling on the issue was “bogus.” The debate ended at 11 sharp. No word was uttered regarding the Canadian military’s decade-long push to integrate with U.S. space-based war-fighting strategies and weaponry. Nor was a word heard about the decades of Canadian diplomacy in support of a ban on space weapons. Down in the bowels of Cheyenne Mountain, worries about events in Ottawa have receded to a tiny blip on the screen.

Paul Webster
Paul Webster has reported from Russia on nuclear-weapons issues.