A top U.S. space commander says the United States can’t rule out attacking the satellites and other spacecraft of enemy nations in the future.

But Lt.-Gen. Daniel Leaf, vice-commander of the American air force space command, says at this point the U.S. is focused on protecting its own space capabilities, although it has to keep an eye on the potential that weapons will be developed by other nations to target U.S. satellites and spacecraft. And even if it does decide to directly counter such moves, that doesn’t mean it will resort to putting weapons into orbit, according to the officer.

The issue of turning space into a battleground has become a hot-button topic in the U.S. and Canada. Some defence analysts have voiced concern the Pentagon is preparing to fight a war in orbit and worry that Prime Minister Paul Martin’s government is being drawn into those plans. Analysts also cite a report issued last August by the U.S. air force, which, they note, acknowledged that satellites of enemy or neutral countries could be destroyed if necessary.

“Our active plans right now are not along those lines,” Lt.-Gen. Leaf said in an interview with the Citizen. “They’re along the lines of denying access to space capabilities, protecting our own access, and having space situational awareness to know what’s going on.”

“We don’t have the luxury of dismissing the fact that it may come to that point some day,” he added.

“It is not in our interest or in our policy to make that day come sooner. But our thinking has to consider an adversary might do it.”

Lt.-Gen. Leaf said countering efforts by other nations to strike at American space systems does not automatically mean the U.S. would respond by building space weapons. He cited an example of Iraqi forces trying to jam U.S. military navigation satellites, noting the response was to use aircraft to bomb the Iraqi jamming sites.

But Washington-based defence analyst Theresa Hitchens said last year’s report lays out for air force commanders the procedures they would follow for launching attacks in space. It also signals the air force’s acceptance of space as a battle zone, said Ms. Hitchens, vice-president of the Center for Defense Information.

She noted the study outlines the option of a pre-emptive attack on the satellites of other countries, including those operated by neutral nations that may be used by the Americans’ adversaries. “That doctrine does not rule out the use of destructive measures,” said Ms. Hitchens.

She noted the Pentagon has become increasingly uneasy about the response from U.S. lawmakers concerned about a potential push to make space a battlefield. As a result, the U.S. military has increased its public relations efforts to downplay future space plans and to cast them as appearing to be defensive in nature, she added.

“The air force talks about pre-emptive action against a satellite so isn’t that by definition an offensive technique?” asked Ms. Hitchens. “I don’t see how that is defensive.”

Lt.-Gen. Leaf acknowledged the air force’s report discusses the potential to stop enemy nations from using satellites being operated by another nation, but said the answer to that is not in destroying those spacecraft.

“When you ask how do we deny an enemy access to space capabilities that might come from a third country or a satellite that is used by others, the answer is clearly not through brute force,” he explained. “It is going to have to be a precise, refined, sophisticated approach to denying those capabilities. And those are the kind of tough issues we are grappling with.”

Canada has several military space programs on the go, all designed to gather information for the Canadian Forces, but also to feed that data to the U.S. Included among those are Projects Sapphire and Polar Star as well as the ultra-secret program dubbed Polar Ice.

Lt.-Gen. Leaf noted he can’t speak for Canada on those programs but responded: “Can they contribute to what our nations do as partners? Yes.”

© The Ottawa Citizen 2005