Foreign affairs minister bill Graham may be about to paint himself into a corner if he thinks he can support Canada's involvement in the U.S. missile defence system - as PM-in-waiting Paul Martin wants to - and still promote Canada's traditional role as an advocate for peace and disarmament.Behind the scenes, Graham has been increasingly promoting keeping space a weapons-free zone. He even once described space-based weapons as illegal. He's been open to suggestions by a number of groups pushing for an international treaty against weapons in space.
But if Canada joins the Bush administration's National Missile Defense (NMD) system, it may never be possible for Graham to fill the shoes of his land-mine-banning predecessor, Lloyd Axworthy, by pressing for his own international treaty banning weapons in space.
Unlike Reagan's Star Wars, Bush's NMD system has not officially included space-based weapons. Instead, ground-based missiles would be ready to strike incoming enemy missiles.
But now there's talk of including space-based lasers and "kinetic-kill" satellites. Successive U.S. administrations have directed the U.S. military to continue developing space-based weapons.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld himself supports putting weapons into orbit. Rumsfeld warned of America's vulnerability to "a Pearl Harbor in space" when he chaired the high-level Commission to Assess United States Security Space Management and Organization prior to his appointment as secretary of defense.
The commission's final report, released in January 2001, concluded that the U.S. should ensure that the president have the option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats to, and if necessary defend against, attacks on U.S. interests.
Rumsfeld's position has been endorsed by General Ralph Eberhart, the U.S. Air Force commander in charge of NORAD, who also happens to be in charge of U.S. Space Command.
Eberhart told Congress in no uncertain terms that "we must ensure our continued access to space (and) to deny space to others when directed."
The general's embrace of space-based weapons should be of concern to Canada. Canada is a partner with the U.S. in NORAD, and General Eberhart wants the National Missile Defense system to be added to NORAD's mission. We could be using space-based weapons whether we like it or not.
The U.S. Air Force has already established a new Space Operation Directorate and space warfare school to develop U.S. space planning and tactics. The Space Operations School's Web site says, "The men and women of the SOPSC (Space Operations School) are dedicated to ensuring that America enters its first space war with educated space warriors and a viable doctrine to take control of the ultimate high-ground - space."
The most direct military space program devoted to waging space warfare is called the Space-Based Laser (SBL). The SBL is being developed under the direction of the Missile Defense Agency and is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman.
The space-based laser is being designed to shoot down ballistic missiles in the early and middle portion of their flight. The Boeing Web site boasts that "the Space-Based Laser will provide the first wave of defense against missiles launched from anywhere in the world."
The system would require 20 to 30 lasers in low orbit working with a constellation of satellites to provide global coverage. With approval, the first launch of an operational system might take place in 2020, followed by years of launches to orbit a full constellation around the Earth.
Presently, the SBL program is in the early experimental stages, but already the military is considering the use of the SBL and other systems not just against missiles but against the satellites and even ground targets of other countries.
This risks igniting a new arms race in space as other countries try to develop their own space weapons to defend their satellites and themselves.
While the debate about National Missile Defence continues, space-based weapons remain in the script, waiting just offstage to be brought in at the right political moment. That's why peace groups are promoting an international treaty to ban space weapons, a great initiative for Canada to lead and for Graham to make his mark with. Unless, of course, Martin gets his way.
Steven Staples is a defence analyst with the Polaris Institute, a public interest research group based in Ottawa.