US begins weaponization of space


Richard Moore

From: "Global Network" <•••@••.•••>
To: "Global Network Against Weapons" <•••@••.•••>
Subject: Space Weapon Test Set for Launch
Date: Sun, 22 Apr 2007 18:58:31 -0400

Long-debated military satellite set for launch

NFIRE has sparked years of controversy over missile-watching technology


By James Oberg
NBC News space analyst
April 22, 2007

The U.S. military is about to launch a small missile-watching satellite after 
years of quiet preparation ‹ and years of alarming reports from critics about 
its purpose. The NFIRE satellite is due to be sent into space early Monday from 
a Virginia launch pad.

To the Defense Department, which owns and will operate the satellite, NFIRE 
stands for "Near Field Infrared Experiment." That encapsulates the mission's 
goal of observing the rocket plumes of military missiles to be launched past it 
later this year. NFIRE will map and characterize the brightness of the rocket 
plumes to help the Pentagon design future guidance systems for anti-missile 
weapons now under consideration.

But to its critics, NFIRE could well be spelled ³Fire!² ‹ as in, ³launch the 
weapon!² The project has been labeled an irrevocable step toward the 
weaponization of outer space. The spacecraft's launch atop a commercial Minotaur
booster, scheduled for 3:11 a.m. ET from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on 
Virginia's Wallops Island, could light a new fire under the debate.

Just last month, Gen. Henry Obering, head of the Missile Defense Agency, gave 
the official view of the NFIRE mission: ³We plan to develop space-based sensors 
to provide a persistent identification and global tracking capability,² he 
testified to a congressional committee. These are tests of passive tracking 
satellites, precursors of operational vehicles that could watch for attacks on 
the United States and its allies. Obering and other program officials insist 
that nothing on this project relates to interception of such missiles or any 
other objects.

Two demonstration satellites are to be launched late this year to perform 
acquisition, tracking and handover tests with live missiles. Prior to those 
flights, Obering said the NFIRE satellite would ³collect high-resolution 
infrared phenomenology data from boosting targets.²

The explanation is a plausible one, because rocket plumes exist in their true 
form only in the vacuum of space, and sensors to track them often use 
wavelengths that are normally blocked by Earth¹s atmosphere. To field-test 
tracking sensors, you have to do it in space ‹ and both Russian and American 
satellites (and manned spacecraft, such as Russia's Mir space station and the 
space shuttle) have been experimenting with better and better technology for 

Opposing orbits

Critics of U.S. military space activities have an entirely different view. In 
her latest book, "War in the Heavens," peace activist Helen Caldicott writes: 
"NFIRE would track and kill missiles … [but] initial NFIRE tests will not 
include the kill vehicle." Furthermore, she adds, "Obviously if NFIRE and other 
such systems are deployed, they will provoke countermeasures by powers such as 
China and Russia" since "it is only a short step from hitting a missile in outer
space to hitting an orbiting satellite."

The fuss over the "kill vehicle" peaked 
<>three years ago when an earlier version of
the spacecraft was in final launch preparation. That object was indeed a 
component of a ground-launched anti-missile warhead, modified to carry more 
cameras and fewer maneuvering thrusters.

Caldicott¹s book cited a Moscow newspaper for a quotation attributed to an 
anonymous Pentagon official upset with the NFIRE program. ³We¹re crossing the 
Rubicon into space weaponization,² the official was said to have remarked.

Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, insisted to 
that the current NFIRE spacecraft is focused entirely on passive plume sensor 

"It¹s just an experimental use of sensors to get data on rocket plumes," he said
by telephone. ³We can use that data to design the guidance system of the kinetic
energy interceptor,² a high-acceleration anti-missile system that could be based
on land or on ships near the border of a potential missile-launching state.

Lehner said the $10 million appropriation requested by Obering was for analysis 
and design. "There's no plan for prototypes or for construction," he said. 
Instead, the money would fund comparisons of the mathematical models and 
previous sensor tests with the actual results from the NFIRE observations.

³We will get data so that in the future we can make decisions from an informed 
position,² he said. No decisions about future deployments have been made, he 
insisted, nor would they be made for years to come. For now, this NFIRE mission 
is the only one planned, he said.

But that¹s not the way that NFIRE and similar U.S. programs are being described 
around the world.

The Russian press has been highly vocal about sounding the alarm, with a classic
example published on the newspaper Izvestia's front page on March 29.

"The United States is going to put an anti-missile shield in space – this was 
announced yesterday by General Henry Obering, head of the Missile Defense 
Agency," correspondent Dmitri Litovkin declared. The reason? ³In his opinion, 
that is the only way of protecting America².

Obering¹s March 27 testimony before the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the 
House Armed Services Committee is readily available 
(<>PDF file) and his actual words 
can be checked. They do not reflect what Litovkin claims they said.

After describing the orbiting sensor tests planned for this year, Obering 
elaborated on why an operational network of space-based sensors might be 
valuable. He urged lawmakers to consider deploying such a passive observation 
network ‹ a network that would have been forbidden by the Anti-Ballistic Missile
treaty that the current Bush administration withdrew from five years ago. The 
ABM treaty forbade any space-based components of an anti-missile system, whether
or not they were actually related to weapons.

Confusing debate with decision

Obering did talk about actual interceptors in orbit, a concept that has been 
argued over for decades. In terms of pure practicality, a seemingly 
insurmountable operational obstacle has been the need for hundreds of 
fast-moving platforms to cover any possible location anywhere on Earth from 
which a missile might suddenly rise.

"I believe the performance of the [Ballistic Missile Defense] system could be 
greatly enhanced by an integrated space-based layer," Obering nevertheless 
continued, touching on the weapons-in-space issue. ³Deployment of such a system 
must be preceded by significant, national-level debate.² To that end, Obering 
requested a budget of $10 million for 2008 ³to begin concept analysis and 
preparation for small-scale experiments².

That is hardly the description of an already-approved imminent deployment of a 
fleet of battle stations. Nor was it accurately reflected by the reporter for 
the Novosti news agency, who filed a story on the hearings with the headline, 
³U.S. missile defense chief argues for missile shield in space.² Novosti claimed
that Obering said some elements of the missile defense system should be deployed
in space, but what he really said was that the United States needed to debate 
that issue before making a decision years in the future.

Recognizing the realities

Russian press coverage is not universally garbled. A well-informed retired 
military officer named Vladimir Dvorkin uses original sources and direct 
interviews to correctly describe the 
<>over-wrought hyping of ³U.S. space 
threats² by Kremlin officials. Dvorkin is one of the rare commentators in Russia
recognizing the realities of the situation.

Fortunately, spaceflight is a technological exercise where physics is the 
ultimate judge of reality. The main fear about NFIRE seems centered on its 
potential to lead to orbiting satellite-killers, not merely missile-killers. 
None of these critics seems to have worked through the fundamental engineering 
of the NFIRE-type sensor system, which depends on tracking an extremely hot 
rocket plume trailing a powerful intercontinental missile.

Orbiting satellites, on the other hand, are in orbit, following a fixed course 
through space. Because they don¹t emit enormous rocket plumes, they could not 
possibly be observed ‹ much less attacked ‹ by any weapons systems based on 
NFIRE-type sensors. They have no ³fire,² hence nothing to fear from NFIRE.

Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space
PO Box 652
Brunswick, ME 04011
(207) 443-9502

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