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Talk of Satellite Defense Raises Fears of Space War

The deputy head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Vitaliy Davydov, was the most blunt. He called the Bush space policy "the first step towards a serious escalation of the military confrontation space," according to the Russian news agency Interfax. He also said that, unlike air and sea weapons, space weapons would be "global and would hang over the entire world." He said, moreover, that Russia has the capability to "also roll out certain military elements into outer space."

Some Capitol Hill staffers on military affairs committees said they think the administration's tough talk on space defense may be setting the stage for a future budget request, especially for funds to start a controversial space-based "test bed" of missile interceptors that could be used in a future missile defense system. One staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of committee rules, said the Pentagon has been hinting that it wants to make such a request for 2008, but it is unclear whether it would be in the budget due out in early February. A Pentagon spokesman said it would be inappropriate to discuss possible budget requests because they are in a "pre-decisional position."

The recent emphasis on space defense coincides with the release of several Government Accountability Office reports criticizing the Pentagon's management of space programs designed to enhance "situational awareness" -- the essential ability to know what is happening to satellites in space and why. In its most recent report, the GAO said last month that "on a broad scale," Defense Department space programs are behind schedule and over budget.

The department "starts more weapon programs than it can afford, creating a competition for funding that encourages low cost estimating, optimistic scheduling, over-promising, suppressing of bad news," the GAO wrote.

Nonetheless, Capitol Hill staffers said there is bipartisan agreement that U.S. space assets are vulnerable and need to be better protected, although there is disagreement about how to do that.

Joseph's comments were especially well received by the group that sponsored his talk, the George C. Marshall Institute, a nonprofit group that specializes in technical aspects of defense and environmental debates. Institute President Jeff Kueter said Joseph highlighted a major and growing U.S. vulnerability that needs to be addressed.

He said China, in particular, is a potential adversary in space and one that appears to be developing its capacities quickly. The publication Defense News reported this fall that the Chinese had succeeded in focusing a ground-based laser on an American satellite in a test of anti-satellite capabilities.

Given the nation's reliance on satellites and space technology as well as the vulnerability of the equipment, Kueter said, "the administration and Congress need to think quite seriously about what we do about countering space threats and protecting space assets. Not enough thought is being given to implementing the space policy, to taking those next steps."

Kueter said his institute hopes the Pentagon will ask Congress to fund the space-based "test bed" for national security purposes, though not necessarily as part of an immediate space-based missile defense system. His views were captured in the title of a Marshall Institute policy statement he wrote in October: "The War in Space Has Already Begun."

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