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POLITICS-US: Aerospace Lobby Wages Its Own Election Campaign

John Lasker

COLUMBUS, Ohio, Sep 5 2008 (IPS) - “In about the time it takes you to drive into a gas station, insert your credit card in the pump, fill the tank, take your receipt, and get back on the road, a foreign power can use a missile to disable the U.S. communications satellite that made your transaction possible.”

This dire claim didn’t come from the Pentagon. Rather, it is on the website of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), a trade and lobby group representing more than 100 of the nation’s leading aerospace and aerospace defence manufacturers.

The scenario was echoed in a recent U.S. Air Force commercial that showed a missile obliterating a satellite – a commercial the Centre for Defence Information (CDI), a Washington-based think tank that researches space weapons, says was not factually correct and constituted a “blatant exploitation of people’s concerns about space”.

The Air Force eventually admitted that a single missile shooting down one satellite would not send the United States back to the 19th century, and pulled the commercial, conceding that was “misleading”.

Most modern communication satellites that handle bank transactions, GPS and cell phone calls orbit at 12,000 miles above Earth’s surface. Satellites that beam television signals are in geostationary orbit, which is at 22,500 miles. No current anti-satellite weapon – at least those that are not classified – has been tested past low-Earth orbit, which is roughly 100 to 1,200 miles high, CDI says.

“The Aerospace Industries Association is being unnecessarily histrionic about the threat to satellites,” Victoria Samson, a senior analyst for CDI, told IPS. “The GPS constellation was (also) built so that missing one satellite wouldn’t bring down the whole system.”

What is notable about AIA’s claim is how it is being used – as part of a stepped-up campaign to convince politicians, voters and aerospace employees that “America’s future depends on maintaining space leadership”. It is a broad statement encompassing several aspects of the U.S. space industry, such as educating the aerospace workforce of the future. But some experts say it also means the U.S. needs to somehow find a way to protect its 400-plus satellites – an undertaking that could result in billions for aerospace industry defence contractors.

A powerful lobby in Washington, the aerospace industry accounted for over 650,000 jobs and 184 billion dollars in sales in 2006.

The AIA’s president and CEO, Marion Blakey, was a former head of the Federal Aviation Administration. Her predecessor, John Douglass, is a former assistant secretary of the Navy, and was named one of Washington’s top lobbyists last year by “The Hill”, an influential congressional newspaper.

Patrick McCartan, AIA’s director for legislative affairs, is a former aide to Maine Senator Olympia Snowe. He, too, was ranked a “top rainmaker” by The Hill.

With election season in full swing, the AIA is calling for “cutting-edge defence research”, along with defence spending being “no less than 4 percent of the U.S. GDP”, which was 13.8 trillion dollars for 2007, amounting to roughly 550 billion dollars. That is near the current level, if you include the spending for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is widely known that “Star Wars II” – resurrected this decade by George W. Bush administration “space hawks” – has been a cash cow for aerospace industry giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the Pentagon’s top two defence contractors. Together, they currently have 73 lobbying groups working Capital Hill, according to Opensecrets.org, which tracks campaign funding and its relation to public policy.

Also telling is the campaign money the aerospace industry has contributed during the 2008 election cycle. Historically, the industry has given more to Republicans than Democrats – millions more.

Yet as of mid-summer, OpenSecrets.org reports the aerospace industry has split its staggering total of 6.9 million dollars down the middle: half to Democrats, and half to Republicans.

“We have met with every campaign staff for months now – McCain, Obama and every other campaign,” Matt Grimison, AIA’s communications director, told IPS. “We are casting a wide net to make sure these issues are being considered by everybody.”

Experts say this is because the Democratic Party currently controls Congress, as it did back in 1994. In both the Senate and the House, two Democrats chair each branch’s Defence Appropriations committees. Meaning, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawai’i and Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania hold the keys to billions for future projects.

“The industry is realising it needs more access to Democrats,” said Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Centre of Responsive Politics, which also runs Opensecrets.org. “The Democrats control Congress, and therefore defence policy. This election is the (aerospace industry’s) most Democratic since 1994.”

Democratic candidate Barack Obama has promised to not weaponise space, unlike his challenger, Sen. John McCain. Obama has also vowed to cut unnecessary missile defence funding.

However, the strategy of focusing on Congress could pay off, considering both Sen. Inouye and Rep. Murtha are considered “space hawks” by peace activists.

Over the last 10 years, Sen. Inouye has allowed the Pentagon to flood the Hawaiian Islands with billions in funding for dozens of projects related to blowing things up in space, says Kyle Kajihiro, programme director for DMZ Hawai’i, based in Honolulu. During the same time, the Pentagon’s Missile Defence Agency (MDA), the successor to the “Star Wars” programme, has conducted high-profile tests around the islands.

The MDA’s largest trophy so far was the shootdown of a disabled satellite in February. The test utilised Pearl Harbour’s USS Lake Erie, a guided-missile cruiser equipped with the Aegis system, which allows the ship to take out targets in low-Earth-orbit. The USS Erie is arguably Earth’s first “space battleship” and its transformation came about after Sen. Inouye in 2000 loudly called for a sea-based missile-defence system to counter North Korea and China, says Kajihiro.

“Sen. Inouye says it’s about defending Hawaii,” he says. “Our stance is the increasing missile defence tests are a destabilising factor. The tests are provoking an arms race in the region between nuclear powers.”

Opensecrets.org shows that from 2001 to 2008, employees of Lockheed Martin and Boeing have consistently ranked in Sen. Inouye’s top-five corporate contributors for re-election efforts.

So does the AIA’s talking point of “maintaining space leadership” mean developing and deploying weapons in space? Besides billions of Pentagon dollars being shoveled into the aerospace industry, it could be an undertaking that many experts fear would ignite this century’s greatest arms race.

The AIA does not specifically mention building a constellation of “killer satellites” to protect U.S. space assets, and they have no official policy on how to protect these assets. But is the writing on the proverbial cyberspace wall?

“It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic wake-up call for U.S. space security efforts than China’s stunning anti-satellite demonstration in January 2007,” states AIA on its web site. “A ground-based ballistic missile scored a direct hit on a defunct Chinese weather satellite, proving China’s capability of destroying space-based equipment.”

“Some members of Congress, however, suggest that arms control treaties are the only answer to such threats,” the group added, saying that it would work through its “National Security Space Committee” to “leverage the Chinese demonstration as an opportunity to educate members of Congress not only about our ever-increasing reliance on space-based assets but also on the vulnerabilities these assets face…[and] the need for sustained U.S. investment in national security space programmes.”

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