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Space rules

Wirbel explores our space-enhanced war-fighting capabilities

Star Wars: U.S. Tools of Space Supremacy
  • Star Wars: U.S. Tools of Space Supremacy

When U.S. forces invaded Iraq with relatively little difficulty a year ago, Colorado Springs military installations played a central role.

As the home of Air Force Space Command and the Space Warfare Center -- located at Peterson and Schriever air force bases, respectively -- Colorado Springs is the hub of America's military space power, which was put to extensive use during the attack. Military navigation satellites guided missiles, "smart" bombs and unmanned attack aircraft to their targets, which had been pinpointed and tracked by a network of sophisticated spy satellites.

Though subsequent efforts to occupy and rebuild Iraq have proven far more challenging, the ease with which U.S. forces destroyed Iraq's defenses during the initial invasion demonstrated how space technology has given America an overwhelming strategic advantage over its enemies in the post-Cold War world.

This dominance, and its implications, are the topics of scrutiny in Colorado Springs author Loring Wirbel's newly published book Star Wars: U.S. Tools of Space Supremacy.

A longtime local peace activist and writer, Wirbel takes the book's main title from the popular moniker for Ronald Reagan's 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative -- a never-realized proposal to create a shield against Soviet nuclear attacks by using space lasers to shoot down incoming missiles.

Reagan's vision today might seem a quaint memory from a long-gone Cold War era, but "Star Wars" neither began nor ended in 1983, according to Wirbel. Rather, the space-based surveillance and navigation networks used in the Iraq invasion, along with missile-defense plans still being developed by the Pentagon, are all part of an ongoing militarization of space that began several decades ago.

Whereas Pentagon officials speak of missile "defense," Wirbel argues that military space programs are offensive in nature, designed to help America achieve complete geopolitical dominance. As the world's sole remaining superpower, the United States has established a near monopoly on space-enhanced war-fighting capabilities. The result, Wirbel argues, is an "unchallenged empire" that can project its power worldwide from space.

Wirbel builds the case for his arguments painstakingly, by mapping out a detailed, footnoted history of the military space program that draws from government documents, news accounts and previous works by other authors.

Among the most fascinating subtopics are the historical references to how the desire to protect U.S. military surveillance installations around the world -- part of a space-linked intelligence network -- motivated the CIA to interfere with foreign governments throughout the Cold War. As Wirbel notes, this interference even affected U.S. allies, such as when the CIA and the National Security Agency in 1975 helped oust Australia's socialist Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who had raised questions about U.S. surveillance installations in his country.

Wirbel also raises civil-liberties concerns, pointing out that space-based surveillance systems originally developed for warfare may increasingly be used to snoop on people at home and abroad in the name of "homeland security" following Sept. 11, 2001.

His main point, however, is that the U.S. global dominance enabled by space superiority is inherently destabilizing and unsustainable. The 95 percent of Earth's population who aren't Americans will inevitably resent and resist being dominated. At home, meanwhile, resistance may also form against the growing costs of maintaining global domination while domestic needs go unmet.

On the whole, Star Wars appears written for space-policy wonks. Portions of the book are quite heavy on technological detail and acronyms that may challenge even the most curious reader who isn't already well versed in the topic.

Patient non-wonks, however, are rewarded for slogging through these chapters, as they will emerge with a rare level of understanding of one of the most compelling geopolitical issues of our time.

-- Terje Langeland


Star Wars: U.S. Tools of Space Supremacy by Loring Wirbel (Pluto Press: London) $19.95/ paperback

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