Earlier this year, in a show of its space combat prowess, China obliterated one of its own satellites 500 miles above the Earth’s surface with a ground-based missile.
The low-Earth-orbit shoot-down sent shock waves through the Pentagon and beyond. And within hours calls were made on Capital Hill to amplify the U.S.’s space warfighting arsenal.
For peace activists and arms-control experts, China’s action was grim news. It was a provocative act, they said, one that will undoubtedly continue to fuel the ongoing arms race with the U.S.
But for a small number of professors at the University of New Mexico, and also those who conduct research at Kirtland Air Force Base, could China’s action be good news? Could increased funding for military research be headed there?
That question could take years to answer.
Nevertheless, this much is clear as far as UNM and space weapons are concerned: Local peace activists contend the university has for years been conducting military-funded research that will someday directly result in the creation of space weapons and other high-tech equipment used for missile defense.
Peace activists have mainly targeted the university’s engineering department, which readily acknowledges that millions of Department of Defense funding continues to flow their way.
The engineering department has passed along its findings to area military scientists who are working on space weapons, claim area peace activists. For instance, local group Stop the War Machine points to Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland Air Force Base.
The optical range states on its website that it uses high-powered telescopes to collect “stellar imagery” and track satellites. Yet in a federal budget request for 2006, Starfire stated it also wanted to begin researching their ASAT (anti-satellite) capability. According to the New York Times, Starfire has developed a laser that can cleanly pass through the turbulent and dense boundary that separates outer space from the atmosphere.
Bob Anderson, co-director of Stop the War Machine, says UNM research focusing on “adaptive optics was the key breakthrough” the Starfire laser needed to shoot straight when penetrating outer space.
For fiscal year 2007, Starfire requested nearly $6 million to fire, under the guise of advanced weapons research, a laser at a satellite. However, that request has been withdrawn, says Rich Garcia, a media relations officer at Kirtland.
“It was a mistake,” says Garcia of the request.
The test would have been the first publicly declared ASAT maneuver conducted by the U.S. since 1985 when an F-15 blew up a satellite with a missile. But this doesn’t mean Starfire hasn’t fired at a satellite, says Garcia. Periodically, he says, and after permission from owners, Starfire has fired upon satellites, but the laser was always at a low power and not deemed weapons-grade.
On the flip side of this debate, UNM electrical and computer engineering professor Edl Schamiloglu and a handful of other military-funded professors at UNM claim the Department of Defense is simply investing in the study of basic science and engineering. They say their work has civilian applications, but add that certain aspects of their findings may be applied to technology that could have offensive capabilities. In essence, they say, a significant quantity of research of any kind at any university, whether military funded or not, has the potential to be used by the military to create weapons.
Officially, UNM claims no classified or secret military research is ongoing on campus.
Anderson, who once taught at UNM, says that statement isn’t entirely true.
“The research is unclassified, but the product of the research is classified,” says Anderson, who has been banned from the campus for two years after causing an alleged disturbance at a university panel discussion in September that focused on the development of future nuclear weapons. He says he was manhandled by UNM police, but was subsequently charged with battery against an officer.
Ten years ago, he says, he filed freedom of information requests for the summaries of all research contracts UNM has with the military. Soon enough, “hundreds of contract summaries” began filling his mailbox, he says.
“Some of the contract summaries were marked ‘secret,’” he says. “The info we received was not complete.”
Meaning it’s difficult to gauge UNM’s contributions to space weapons and missile defense, says Anderson.
A handful of contracts, however, are not ambiguous in the least, he says. One contract summary dated 1989, he says, “clearly stated this is research for a nuclear power supply for a space-based weapon system.”
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency, sometimes called the son of Star Wars, has spent billions since the start of 2001. For the years 2008 through 2011, the agency has requested $675 million to build and eventually launch in 2017 an experimental constellation of “killer satellites” that might use nuclear-powered engines. Peace activists believe most missile defense technology has offensive applications as well.
Schamiloglu has often been the target of peace activist’s wrath. Schamiloglu is an expert on microwave beams and other directed energy technologies and has received millions from the Department of Defense.
Schamiloglu says his research isn’t being applied to missile defense, and there’s nothing secret about it, either. Some of the directed-energy beams he’s working on may someday detonate IEDs, or make hostile crowds flee in pain without actually causing physical harm.
“All the research I do is non-restricted and fully accessible,” he says. “Classified research is not allowed on UNM campus.”
But as Anderson reiterates, the complete picture of UNM’s military research is fuzzy. In December, Stop the War Machine asked the university to answer several questions about classified research on campus and off.
The university told them that the Board of Regents formed this past December the Security Managerial Group which would “safeguard classified information.” Members of the group include the university president and other high-profile positions. Furthermore, 45 university employees have active clearance to conduct classified research.
“A lot of faculty is cleared to do classified research off campus,” says Anderson. He believes some of it is ongoing at Science and Technology Park, an off-campus office built by the university with public money.
The university’s communication office didn’t respond to Alibi media requests.