This continues my conversation with NASA Ames director Dr. S. Pete Worden, who as an Air Force general ran the controversial Office of Strategic Influence, which attempted to use information as a weapon in the "war on terror." Dr. Worden and I talked about his run-ins with military bureaucracy and his vision for space operations:
David Axe: How can space operations prevent war?
Dr. Worden: I’ll give you an example. A few years ago, we were starting to deal with the Chilean air force. Latin America now is very unstable. You’ve got leftists taking over everywhere. Castro was right – you’ve got leftists winning elections. It’s very unstable. Bluntly, there’s an old ugly-American syndrome. Someone comes down who speaks six words of Spanish and tells them how to be. We need to have strong allies [in South America] that have a strong interest in democratic visions in the region. Among those allies – but not the only one – is Chile, a western-style democracy with a vibrant economy in many respects and a society with very positive American-style values. The Chilean air force had, about 15 years ago, gotten into space. They had one of what I call “Surrey Third-World Specials” – you send $20 million to a university and your ten brightest students and show them how to build satellites and you launch one.
Well, the Chilean government was interested in the next step. Chile has a very long border. The Treaty on Land Mines made them de-mine it. The northern part is porous – a lot of drug activity there. The Chileans had decided to buy, from the Israelis, a Helix [surveillance] system. The idea is you put these on a satellite – Chile is perfect for a polar orbit. They had started talking to Argentina about linkage to make a truly useful system. By working with the U.S. and perhaps other South American countries, this thing would’ve cost around $30 million. In my mind, it was a way to build an alliance – a high tech alliance. It gets them involved in collaborative arrangements and lets us have a partner in stability and security in South America based on shared interests and systems. Something along that line is very powerful. But a couple of short-sighted officers in the Air Force thought that was stupid, a waste of money, that we should be paying for the latest over-run on [the Space-Based Infra-Red System] or something. I had quite a problem with that. There were a few shouting matches.
Another example. A few years ago, Pakistan and India were at loggerheads. They both had nuclear arms. The Pakistanis claimed the Indians were massing to attack. India said Pakistan was actively supporting the Kashmir rebels. There were a lot of people who thought they were on the cusp of major armed conflict or nuclear war. There were some folks in Australia who thought, like in the Cold War, let’s launch a national technological means [of monitoring] on a satellite that both sides have access to. Pakistan can see that India is not massing to attack. India can see that Pakistan is not supporting the rebels. It’s a way to enforce a mutual security dependency. By a third party supplying that, you guarantee it’s a fair system.
[Editor’s note: In recent years, India and Pakistan have begun sharing some remote imagery, particularly from environmental satellites, through U.N.-brokered deals.]
--David Axe, cross-posted at War Is Boring