Steve Boggan: Space - the final frontier in a new and terrifying arms race

'The most chilling illustration is of a space-based laser firing a beam of energy at the earth'
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The Independent Online

During the frenzied debate over his plans for ballistic missile defence (BMD), President George Bush has come in for much criticism over his argument that the United States must defend itself against the threat posed by "rogue states". Who, it has been asked, are these rogues? Is he being overly paranoid? Do North Korea, Iran and Iraq really pose a credible threat to America? Well, perhaps his critics should back off a little; rogue states do exist.

Take this one, for example. This state consistently refuses to join up to measures to ban anti-personnel mines; it refuses to ratify the treaty setting up the International Criminal Court; it recently watered down a United Nations agreement on illegal trafficking of small arms and only last week it pulled out of talks aimed at negotiating enforcement measures for the international convention banning biological weapons.

If you haven't guessed which country this is yet, here are two more clues. In March, it refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and now it plans to tear up the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty and begin putting weapons in space.

Of course, it's the United States of America. The extent to which America could be seen as a pariah state should not be underestimated. One only has to look back to the scenes in Bonn last month, when the representatives of 180 countries desperately hammered out refinements to the Kyoto agreement. The end result was that the protocol was watered down, but that was not what mattered; what mattered was that it did not fall apart. It survived and it lumbers on, but with the world's biggest polluter watching from the sidelines. America's isolation in Bonn was palpable.

But if the US's international reputation was soured by Kyoto, it will be shattered by President Bush's determination to plough ahead with his missile defence programme, or Son of Star Wars as it has come to be known. Under the plans – which are expected to cost more than $100m (£70m) to make a reality – the US would be able to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles using interceptor missiles and lasers. Missiles would be based on land and sea while lasers would be fired from airborne aircraft and satellites in space.

In order to make the system work, forward radar stations in the US, Greenland and the UK would need to be either upgraded or fitted out with still experimental X-band radar facilities that could detect and track missiles, and guide anti-missile missiles to destroy them before they crashed down on America. Fylingdales, in Yorkshire, and Thule, in Greenland, are the only bases outside the US where permission for forward radar must be sought.

Some argue that the technology will never work; others argue it can and will. What mattered to President Bush was that the first missile test of his administration would be a success so Congress would vote the programme the money it needs. Three weeks ago, a missile fired from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was, indeed, intercepted by another fired from the Marshall Islands in Micronesia. The celebrations were long and loud.

Last week, in spite of a US Department of Defense admission that the target missile contained a beacon to attract the interceptor, a House Armed Services sub-committee voted in favour of giving $8.16bn to the Star Wars programme for research and development. In anticipation of that, Russia announced that it had developed missiles with high-speed "scram-jets" which would be almost impossible to shoot down. A new arms race was beginning.

The US argues that its missile shield will only be able to cope with a small-scale attack from one of its fabled rogue states, so the Chinese and Russians should rest easy; their weapons can still be seen as a deterrent. But Western experts estimate that China has fewer than 20 nuclear ballistic missiles. Already, China has hinted that it will have to build more if its deterrent is to be effective.

That this race will gain momentum is incontrovertible. Russia seems utterly baffled by America's stated determination to tear up the 1972 ABM treaty. But most people do not realise the extent to which America is planning to arm itself during a time of peace. A visit to the US Space Command's website reveals a document called "Vision 2020", which details America's plans to militarise space.

Until now, space has been weapon-free, but the US is planning to make it the fourth theatre of operations, after land, sea and air. The website, which uses Dan Dare-style illustrations, says America must be intent upon "full spectrum dominance".

"Space operations must be fully integrated with land, sea and air operations," it says. "US Space Command must assume a dynamic role in planning and executing joint military operations. Included in that planning should be the prospects for space defense and even space warfare." Under a section entitled "Global Engagement" the report explains: "Global Engagement is the application of precision force from, to, and through space." And it adds: "The proliferation of missiles and weapons of mass destruction requires a national missile defense (NMD). NMD will evolve into a mix of ground and space sensors and weapons."

US Space Command confirmed that Vision 2020 was its current policy but a spokesman said it was in the process of being updated. To what, one can only imagine. What is clear is that part of the money voted to President Bush's Star Wars plans will be used for research into space-based lasers.

These, we are told, will be used to shoot down the missiles fired in anger by "rogue states". But they will, inevitably, evolve into weapons that will be aimed at America's enemies from space. US Space Command doesn't even bother to hide this fact. The most chilling illustration in Vision 2020 is of such a space-based laser firing a beam of energy at the earth.

At first, the target seems unclear, below swirls of cloud. But if you get a globe and align it with your computer, it becomes clear and horribly frightening: in its dreams and at the flick of a switch, US Space Command had obliterated downtown Baghdad.