Sunday, December 05, 2010

SPACE: The Final Frontier

For militarization, anyway.

Early Friday morning, USA-212, the maiden voyage of the Air Force's highly secretive X-37B, concluded as the unmanned space plane touched down at Vandenburg Air Force Base. A second X-37 is on order from Boeing to be delivered this spring, and due to the lack of life support systems or rocket stages to corral, the first X-37 could be ready for flight again soon.

Of course, the question is why? Despite the fact the mission itself has been public knowledge, the objectives haven't, though the Air Force promises that all of them were met. The X-37 began life as a NASA program in 1999 as a space shuttle replacement before being taken over by the Air Force. Descriptions of the plane's capabilities have been hard to come by since 2001, when Boeing stated that it could remain in space for three weeks at a time. Obviously, over the course of the decade, its capabilities have expanded considerably, as USA-212 was a seven month mission that apparently could have gone on longer. Several Air Force officials admitted not knowing when the craft was due for its return. The Air Force maintains the missions were essentially scientific lab work, but refuses to outline what they were.

If they were indeed for the advancement of science, why the secrecy? Theories have run from testing new weapons systems to destroying or commandeering enemy satellites. Whatever the case, the path of the craft was changed several times to prevent curious amateur astronomers from tracking it. Personally, I find the premise of a "Rods from God" weapons system to be the most science fictionally appealing. But, as the craft has storage about the size of the bed of a pickup truck, this seems unlikely. Disappointingly, it is likely the Air Force is at least mostly telling the truth, and the X-37B was testing new sensors.

Nevertheless, the possible military nature of the X-37B ought to raise some concerns. This might not be the first time space has been militarized with possible space-to-space weapons, but modern militarization by the US could set a dangerous precedent. Interestingly, it might fly in the face of a proclamation from the earliest days of the Obama Administration that the US would seek a space weapons ban. Satellites and platforms like the X-37B certainly represent the kind of dual-use hardware that would make enforcing any ban tricky. In fact, the secrecy may be a means to head-off controversy under a future weapons ban regime. The X-37B controversy itself brings to mind our rebuke of China using a ground-based missile to shoot down an aging satellite, followed a year later by our own sea-based destruction of a falling satellite to protect global denizens from "toxic fuel." Obfuscation or claims of a higher purpose seem to be thinly-veiled efforts to hide the obvious military applications of these space ventures.

A space arms race is likely over the horizon, especially as China continues to rise. With the Chinese closing the UAV gap, it seems it will be only a matter of time before they seek parity with the US in unmanned spacecraft. This leaves two clear options for the US in its handling of missions like USA-212.

The first is to deal with greater transparency in the missions. If the X-37B has been merely testing new sensors, even if they are of a classified nature, just say that. American spy satellite technology remains the most classified of government information, but the nation is not threatened by the fact everyone knows they exist. So too, the X-37B will seem less menacing if its mission objectives are clear, even if foreign militaries remain suspicious. Knowledge of the mission without knowing its purpose only leads to the sort of rampant conspiracy theorizing a quick Google search will reveal.

The second option is to just maintain secrecy entirely. Although this might seem futile, given that with modern consumer technology even amateur astronomers can find the X-37B in the night sky, not giving them a target to look for would greatly curtail the conspiracy theories. We maintain plausible deniability on plenty of things, such as the shadow war in Yemen, despite the fact it's well-known to those who have an interest. There's no reason the X-37B should be any different.

The existence and hypotheses surrounding the X-37B provide a big problem for the Obama Administration. Given its strong stance on nuclear weapons and an early, though apparently quietly tabled position on the militarization of space, ongoing military missions in orbit seem decidedly hypocritical. It also poses a problem for US civil-military relations on who should dictate how the US enters into an entirely new age and arena of warfare. The question is writ even larger by the fact a program now with dual-use implications was once under the civilian control of NASA, which has simultaneously also seen budget cuts so savage that the astronaut's days may be numbered. It seems the military-industrial complex is stretching into infinity, and beyond.

The US can either choose to head off the expansion of weapons in space by leading the effort on a ban or seek to gain an early lead in what will inevitably become a heated arms race. The former is idealistic and inexpensive, the latter more pragmatic and will prove incredibly exorbitant. Either way, space will ultimately prove the final frontier for either political resolve, military operations, or both.

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