Saving Lives With Space-Based Weapons

As you read these words, we may be "carpet bombing" Iraq and killing many thousands of innocent civilians, if the opponents of this next major battle in the war are to be believed.

Of course, that's nonsense.

Those who make such claims are not just ignorant of military history, but current military technology.

"Carpet bombing" is a specific phrase, to be applied to a specific tactic, which is to bombard an area with bombs, indiscriminately, to ensure that whatever target is ... well ... a target, is to be utterly obliterated.

It is not just a phrase, but a concept, from the past.

We did it in World War II, when we bombed Dresden and Tokyo, and created huge firestorms in those cities, which destroyed them and killed many thousands of their civilian inhabitants. Whether or not they were innocent depends, of course, on your view of the culpability of the populace for their bloodthirsty leadership. We also did it in North Vietnam.

Fortunately, and contrary to those who think that we are invading Iraq for oil, or global hegemony, and are willing to kill thousands, even hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians to do carry out our evil designs, modern space-based weaponry will allow us to accomplish our actual goals of liberation of the Iraqi people, and increased U.S. security, without having to do so.

In past wars, decades ago, our technology was limited. We had crude propeller-driven bombers, with passive bombs constrained by laws of physics going back to Galileo. Yes, yes, we had Norden bombsights that could "drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet."

But the "pickle barrel" claims were exaggerated. In fact, while the firestorms of Dresden and Tokyo were actually worse than the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in terms of destruction and loss of life, it was partly because our capability of delivering weapons was unbelievably crude by today's standards.

Today, we have precision-guided munitions, with the ability to accurately hit an individual target within a dozen yards, and our ability to do so is driven largely by space technology.

Millions of Americans today drive, hunt, fish and hike with now-ubiquitous personal Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers. They've become so much a part of daily life that many have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that the system was originally designed and built by the Pentagon to aid our military. The investment in that reliable constellation of satellites high overhead paid off hugely in the first Gulf War, allowing our troops to move across roadless and moonless deserts, taking the Iraqi army totally by surprise from an unexpected direction.

The other thing that awed the enemy in that war was our cruise missiles and guided bombs, that almost literally could be dropped into the proverbial pickle barrel, but such weaponry was actually used to only a limited extent, being new technology and very expensive at the time. In the dozen years of armistice in that conflict, such weapons have gotten much cheaper, and proved their value in the liberation of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. One of the reasons for the delay (not "rush") to renewed fighting in Iraq was to allow time to rebuild our inventories of them.

We have restocked now, and such munitions will be a major component of the war, allowing us to selectively destroy military targets while leaving totally unharmed civilians in adjacent buildings.

But as we grow ever more dependent on our large array of satellites to serve as our military's eyes and ears, and more nations develop space launch capability, we will face a new vulnerability and threat -- anti-satellite weapons. With our new doctrines and tactics, the loss of even a fraction of our orbital assets would be militarily disastrous, and right now, we have neither the means to defend them, or the ability to quickly replace them, because our launch infrastructure remains expensive and unresponsive.

It would take years and many billions of dollars to replace the dozens of satellites in the GPS constellation. And the satellites themselves are expensive largely because of the difficulty and cost of getting them to their place of business. If launch were cheap and routine, satellites could be also, because they wouldn't have such a need for high reliability, and the costly process of extreme weight minimization could be dispensed with.

I expect that the upcoming liberation of Iraq will demonstrate far beyond any remaining doubts how essential space has become to our ability to protect our nation, with minimal loss of life of both our own troops and innocent civilians. It is time to start thinking seriously about developing routine access to orbit, both to ensure our continued ability to utilize this new high ground, and to expand such utility in new ways. This won't necessarily require fleets of military launch systems, however.

Much of our equipment and troops were delivered to the Middle East on commercial aircraft, via a program called the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF). Airlines and cargo companies (such as Federal Express) are provided with subsidies by the Pentagon, in return for the use of their aircraft in times of need. This allows the Department of Defense to maintain a large airlift capacity without having to maintain its own dedicated fleet of transports.

CRAF is a program that was applied to an existing industry, but consider the possibility of something similar -- a Civil Reserve Space Fleet -- that could be used to encourage the creation of a new space transportation industry, using reusable space transports.

We have a confluence of requirements for safe, low-cost launch. NASA can no longer rely on the shuttle, there is growing interest in public space travel and tourism and the military needs reliable and affordable access to defend and replace its increasingly critical space assets.

As a battle unfolds that once again demonstrates the criticality of space in defending freedom and saving lives, surely we can come up with sensible yet innovative policy that can allow these needs to be served by incentivizing a new and vital private industry. Such a foresighted and enlightened policy would finally make us a truly space-faring nation, and allow the life-saving potential of space technology to continue to flower far beyond the impressive strides that it's made to date.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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