updated 5/19/2005 8:23:40 PM ET 2005-05-20T00:23:40

A scientists’ group on Thursday warned the United States against weaponizing space, saying the move would be prohibitively expensive and could set off a new arms race.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group that opposes weapons in space, said the United Nations should consider drafting a treaty that would prohibit interfering with unarmed satellites, taking away any justification for putting weapons in space to protect them.

“The United States has a huge lead in the space field — it can afford to try out the multilateral approach,” said Jonathan Dean, a former U.S. ambassador and an adviser on global security issues.

The Union’s demand comes as the administration of President Bush is reviewing the U.S. space policy doctrine. Some scientists worry that the review will set out a more aggressive policy that could lead to the greater militarization of space.

Policy aimed at protecting satellites
On Wednesday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that the policy review was not considering the weaponization of space. But he said new threats to U.S. satellites have emerged in the years since the U.S. space doctrine was last reviewed in 1996, and those satellites must be protected.

“There are changes that have occurred over the last eight or nine years, and there are countries that have taken an interest in space, McClellan said. “And they have looked at things that could — or technologies that could — threaten our space systems. And so you obviously need to take that into account when you’re updating the policy.”

The Bush administration has also included some money in the budget for space-based weapons programs to defend satellites, strike ground targets and defend against missile attacks, said Laura Grego, a scientist with the union.

Any complete weapons system in space would be very expensive, running into the many billions of dollars. Developing a shield to defend against a single missile attack would require deploying 1,000 space-based interceptors and cost anywhere between $20 billion and $100 billion, said David Wright, co-author of a recent report on the feasibility of space weapons.

Is the plan practical?
And such a system would require a huge expansion of U.S. launching capability. The United States currently launches between 10 and 12 large rockets a year, while with space interceptors, it would need to launch many times more that each year.

Wright argued that space-based ground attack systems were not yet practical either. One, dubbed “Rods from God” — which would fire rods of tungsten from space — would cost 50 to 100 times as much as a similar attack from the ground.

“The fact that it’s still being considered I think suggests that there’s some sort of emotional attachment to it for putting weapons in space rather than a hard-nosed analysis,” Wright said.

Any such move would also likely draw swift international condemnation. In 2002, after the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, China and Russia submitted a proposal for a new international treaty to ban weapons in outer space.

But the United States has said it sees no need for any new space arms control agreements. It is party to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits stationing weapons of mass destruction in space.

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