Sisters Are Right On Space Weaponization


By Gordon R. Mitchell


March 29 2002

The Hartford Courant


Believe it or not, the future of outer space is on the agenda for the annual shareholders' meeting of the Hartford-based United Technologies Corp. scheduled for April 10 in New York.


UTC's weaponry division, Pratt & Whitney Space & Missile Propulsion, manufactures rocket motors for Pentagon missile defense and satellite programs. Shareholders concerned about the destabilizing nature of space weaponry have filed a proposal asking that UTC's board of directors issue a report "describing our company's involvement in space-based weaponization and an assessment of the potential financial, legal and public relations liabilities involved."


Although the shareholder organizations requesting the space weaponization report - the Sisters of Mount St. Joseph Convent Philadelphia and Trinity Health from Farmington Hills, Mich. - are so far asking only for information, UTC management wants no part of the discussion. In a Feb. 22 letter, Chairman George David emphatically "recommends that shareowners vote AGAINST this proposal" on the grounds that "public policy concerning activities in space" is a matter to be discussed in "the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government," not corporate boardrooms.


The board's response is more than a bit disingenuous, because the shareholder proposal is not primarily concerned with public policy issues. Instead, the Sisters and Trinity Health have called for a report on how UTC's involvement in the manufacture of space weaponry might cause liabilities for the corporation. Those, of course, are perfectly legitimate business concerns.


All right, you say, but aren't the missile defense components supplied by Pratt & Whitney a far cry from exotic space weapons? Not necessarily. Pratt & Whitney's Orbus 1A booster motor (selected by the Pentagon to power part of the national missile defense ground-based interceptor program) could, when coupled with other technology, make up a key component of offensive antisatellite (ASAT) weaponry. Introduction of such weapons into outer space would likely trigger an ASAT arms race that would place the entire commercial space industry at risk.


Since UTC itself is heavily involved in the space industry (its Hamilton Sunstrand unit, headquartered in Windsor Locks, is one of the largest global suppliers of aerospace products and a major supplier of international space programs), public relations difficulties may be the least of the troubles UTC could bring upon itself and its shareholders by participating in such an arms race. If Pratt & Whitney's Orbus 1A booster helps turn outer space into a war zone, imagine how difficult it will be for UTC's commercial aerospace ventures to prosper.


A Pentagon ASAT program designed to hold the world's civilian space satellites at risk and possibly destroy them in times of crisis creates strong incentives for competitors and adversaries to acquire their own ASAT weaponry. U.S. targets could even include commercially owned Boeing 702 satellites (manufactured in part by Hamilton Sunstrand).


Cold War logic suggests that the Pentagon could win this outer space arms race, outspending adversaries to dominate the heavens. The problem, as Air Force Lt. Col. Bruce DeBlois points out, is that technological superiority does not automatically translate into security in outer space. Sophisticated space networks are vulnerable to "asymmetric" attack, where adversaries use relatively cheap countermeasures to bring down entire systems.


The shareholder proposal from the Sisters of Mount St. Joseph is about not just peace, but profits. If corporate leaders balk at coming to grips with the "financial, legal and public relations liabilities" posed by space weaponry, they may find themselves forced to address such issues down the road, when the government is able to provide only limited protection for commercial space assets in the midst of an ASAT arms race.


It took a boycott in 1986 by 6,700 academic researchers nationwide to rein in the excesses of President Reagan's wasteful and deceptive Star Wars program. Before the boycott, many professors had believed, like George David, that space weapon policy should be discussed in Washington, D.C., not in their own academic environments. Yet when it became clear that Reagan's Star Wars program was a scientific fraud, thousands of faculty members changed their minds and blocked missile defense deployment.


David Wright, the MIT physicist who organized the National Pledge of Non Participation in SDI research campaign, has suggested that a similar approach would probably fail to stop space weaponry today, because the bulk research occurs in the private sector.


UTC's shareholders have an opportunity to show Wright that the business community, no less than academia, can look beyond short-term profits and see the wiser path to tomorrow's prosperity.


Gordon R. Mitchell is an associate professor of communication and director of debate at the University of Pittsburgh. He is author of "Strategic Deception: Rhetoric, Science and Politics in Missile Defense Advocacy" (Michigan State University Press, 2000).


Copyright 2002, Hartford Courant