The US's missile defence programme should not be seen as an attempt merely to protect US citizens from an aggressive enemy or terrorist action, but as a means of transferring the theatre of war into space. Nor is it just a policy of George W Bush's Republicans. The origin of the term "star wars" is usually associated with Ronald Reagan, but the concept dates back to the cold war "space race" and has been supported and funded by all US administrations since then.
American belief in the value of space control was solidified by the wars in the Gulf in 1991 and last year, Kosovo in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001. These conflicts demonstrated that the use of space technology for reconnaissance, surveillance, communications and battle management gives an overwhelming military advantage. Who rules space, also rules the Earth.
The US Space Command's 1996 documents Vision for 2020[itals] and Long Range Plan[itals] recognised the widening division between the global economic "haves" and "have-nots", and introduced the doctrine of "full-spectrum dominance" (the military dominance of the land, sea, air, space and information) to protect the "haves".
To defend "US interests and investments" on a worldwide scale, Space Command claims it must maintain supremacy in, and deny others access to, space. These intentions were also clearly stated in Donald Rumsfeld's 2001 Space Commission report, which highlighted the need to dominate all aspects of space and to defend it against a possible "space Pearl Harbor". The tragedy of 11 September 2001 and the increasing emphasis on possible missile threats from "rogue states" and terrorists have given the US right a huge boost in its campaign to develop aggressive space-based systems as a way of exerting full control over world affairs.
There are no weapons stationed in space yet, but the US military justifies the development of a war-fighting capability in space on its increasing reliance on vulnerable satellite systems. The US already has a range of programmes to develop weapons such as space-based lasers and the military space plane (which will replace the aging space shuttle fleet, and could be used to destroy satellites). Although illegal under the international Outer Space Treaty, the stationing of nuclear weapons in space is also being actively considered.
The US move to space-based weapons could mean fewer (American) casualties, quicker response times and less need for foreign bases from which to launch attacks. Also, although "allies" are always welcome to help it legitimise its actions, the US is clearly quite prepared to act unilaterally. In fact, US Air Force secretary James Roche has signalled that the US's allies would have no veto over projects designed to give it military control of space.
Where the US leads, others will follow. Russia, China and India have already made it clear that they will not let a US war-fighting capability in space go unchallenged. Although the Bush administration has shown a willingness to ignore or withdraw from international agreements, moves must be made towards a treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space - before we enter what would almost certainly be the final battlefield.Dave Webb is Professor of Engineering at Leeds Metropolitan University