The White House said Wednesday that it is not looking at weaponizing space in the face of a newspaper report stating the US Air Force was seeking presidential authority that could lead to such a program.
"Let me make that clear right off the top, because you asked about the weaponization of space, and the policy that we're talking about is not looking at weaponizing space," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.
However, McClellan said that the administration of US President George W. Bush wants to ensure that its space assets are adequately protected.
"We have a draft updated national space policy that is going through the interagency review process," he said.
McClellan spoke in the wake of a New York Times report Wednesday which said the US Air Force was seeking a national security directive from President Bush that could lead to fielding offensive and defensive space weapons.
An unidentified senior administration official, cited by the Times, said a new presidential directive to replace a 1996 policy that emphasized a more pacific use of space is expected within weeks.
McClellan said that Bush had directed in June 2002 "that there be a review of our national space policies."
The White House spokesman said it had been "about seven or eight years" since US space policy had been updated.
"And certainly during the last eight or nine years there have been a number of domestic and international developments that have changed the threats and challenges facing our space capabilities," McClellan said.
"And so the space policy needed to be updated to take into account those changes. And at this point it's still going through that review process.
"We believe in the peaceful exploration of space," he stressed.
Officials told the Times that the aim of the directive was not to place weapons permanently in orbit - which is banned under the 30-year-old Antiballistic Missile Treaty the US withdrew from in 2002 - but to use space as a platform for weapons systems currently being developed.
The daily mentioned Air Force programs such as Global Strike, calling for a military space plane carrying precision-guided weapons that could strike from halfway around the world in 45 minutes.
The 'Rods From God' program aims to launch cylinders of tungsten, titanium or uranium from space to strike targets on the ground at speeds of about 11,500 kilometers per hour (7,200 miles per hour) with the force of a small nuclear weapon.
Other programs call for bouncing lethal laser beams off orbiting mirrors or high-altitude blimps, or turning radio waves into heat weapons. In April the Air Force launched an experimental XSS-11 microsatellite able to disrupt reconnaissance and communications satellites.
The national security directive under consideration, the Times added, reflects three years of work prompted by a 2001 report from a commission headed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recommending that the military "ensure that the president will have the option to deploy weapons in space."
The Air Force's determination to field space weapons has also been accelerated by its failure to build an earth-based missile defense system after 22 years and nearly 100 billion dollars, Pentagon officials said.
However, in addition to the technical difficulties of developing reliable space weapons and the strong opposition they will elicit among US allies, experts said, the major hurdle to getting the new initiative off the ground will be getting Congress to approve its enormous price tag, which is tentatively estimated at between 220 billion and one trillion dollars.
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