Peace Movement Aotearoa   |   Marshall Islands

Weapons in space: impact on the Pacific

13 October 2001

When this seminar was first planned some months ago, we had no foresight of the tragedy which would occur in New York and Washington, nor of the tragedies which have followed, and those yet to come. Yet the response of the United States government to the attacks in New York and Washington has a particular resonance for the topic I am to speak on today.

The previous speakers have spoken of the types of weapons being planned for space, the US government's motivation for doing this, the impact of these plans and the potential for global destabilisation. I am going to focus primarily on the place where the related missile development has had, and will continue to have, an actual physical impact - Kwajalein, in the Marshall islands.

The wider Pacific Ocean has long been used by the colonial powers as a testing ground for missiles, a place for returning space missions to splash down, and a place for incoming space debris to be dumped. But Kwajalein has been specifically targeted for many years as the place to fire missiles at.

The Marshall Islands are located north of the equator in the western quadrant of the Pacific. As you can see from this map, which shows an overlay of the Marshall Islands superimposed across a map of the US, the Marshall Islands cover a large area, Kwajalein lagoon is the biggest lagoon in the world.

In 1947 the US government become the administrator of the Marshall Islands. They promised to protect the people, their island homes and surrounding ocean; and to assist them to move towards independence.

Instead they exploded sixty seven nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands - at ground level, at sea level, and in the atmosphere.

The people of the Marshall islands were used as guinea pigs in the US government's nuclear weapons testing programme. The people were relocated from their homes on Bikini and Enewetak atolls after being told the nuclear weapons test were “for the good of mankind and to end all world wars”. Some islands were completely obliterated in the nuclear bomb blasts; and some were so contaminated that people will never be able to live there again, nor safely gather food and other resources from the surrounding ocean.

The Marshallese have suffered appalling damage to their health from the US nuclear weapons tests, and genetic damage which will ensure serious health problems will continue through each succeeding generation. Twenty out of the twenty two populated atolls in the Marshall Islands were contaminated either directly by, or by fallout from, the nuclear bombs.

As if this wasn't bad enough, in 1958 the US developed a military base on Kwajalein and turned two thirds of Kwajalein lagoon into a missile testing range. That missile testing range has been more involved in the development of the US nuclear arsenal than any other place on earth. All of the US military's long range missiles have been tested at Kwajalein.

So that they could use Kwajalein as the point of impact for missiles fired from the US mainland and other US bases in the Pacific, the US armed forces rounded up people from the islands in the lagoon and moved them onto Ebeye (located next to the US base on Kwajalein Island).

Ebeye has an area of approximately 66 acres - it is a very small island and currently more than 14,000 people are crammed onto it. The sanitation conditions are poor, the supply of water is inadequate and there is meagre shade and shelter. As the population has grown, a causeway has been built to the north linking to other smaller islands. Enniburr is the size of a football field and has 1,000 people living on it. There is no running water, no electricity nor any shops there. Ebeye has been described as “the slum of slums” and a “biological time- bomb ready to go off”.

In contrast, the living conditions on the American-controlled islands are described as being like living in paradise. These are the islands where US military personnel, and employees of giant corporations such as Boeing and Raytheon, and their families are based and work. There is a nine- hole golf course, scuba diving, tennis courts and bowling greens for recreation. The educational opportunities are excellent, as is the medical care; consumer goods are subsidised and the latest movies are shown free of charge in an open-air cinema. Around 1,500 Marshallese work on these islands as cooks, cleaners, labourers, groundskeepers and maintenance staff. They are only permitted to be there during daylight hours, and they are not allowed to purchase goods from the subsidised shops.

I will speak more about the impact of the missile testing range on the Marshallese in a moment, but first let's look at what the US military are doing there.

The Kwajalein missile testing range, renamed the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defence test site a few months ago, is under the control of the US Army Space and Missile Defence Command - SMDC. Their logo is “Supporting the warfighter into the new millennium and beyond” set against a globe with armed soldiers, missiles being fired into space and a circling satellite. (See

There is an associated launch facility support base at Wake Island. In the blurb about that base ( it says “Wake Island is a possession of the United States” which sums up the US government's extraordinary attitude towards the Marshall Islands and other areas of the Pacific.

The Reagan Test Site is described as “a premiere asset within the Department of Defence Major Range and Test Facility Base. The unquestioned value of RTS to the MRTFB is based upon its strategic geographical location, unique instrumentation, and unsurpassed capability to support ballistic missile testing and space operations”.

From the front page of the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defence Test Site website found at you can link through to information about, and pictures of, Mission Control, Space Operations, Launch and Interceptor Facilities - it all looks very clean, high-tech, and clinical. Look at the text though and the purpose of the test site is abundantly clear - 'Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle tests' being just one type which is proudly claimed for the RTS.

There is a webpage devoted to range safety - “At RTS, safety is integral to every mission”. Unfortunately this interest in safety does not extend to the Marshallese and their living conditions.

As with the nuclear weapons testing programme, the missile testing programme has also impacted negatively on the health of the Marshallese. When missile testing is going on the people on Ebeye and Enniburr are not permitted to use the lagoon nor the islands in it to gather food. They have to survive on tinned food, rice and bread - this has created a serious problem of malnutrition. Cholera outbreaks are common.

Missiles fired into Kwajalein lagoon have not carried live nuclear warheads, but they have been weighted with depleted uranium which has caused radioactive contamination in parts of the lagoon.

The electromagnetic radiation released by the massive radar tracking installations at Kwajalein has also had harmful health consequences - people living around those radar installations have one of the highest incidences of cataracts in the world. There is a high incidence of a variety of cancers too.

In 1983 the Marshallese were coerced into signing a Compact of Free Association (the CFA) with the US government. The CFA gives the US government exclusive military rights, a veto over the conduct of foreign affairs, and exempts the US government from any responsibility for the future impacts of its nuclear activities in the Marshall Islands. When describing the CFA, Lijon Eknilang said “The Compact is an agreement, a treaty. It says the US will take care of our defence and foreign affairs but give us independence. I do not see how we can be independent if we cannot control our relations with other countries. If we can't control the US in our own land.”

The Marshallese have suffered enough already from the US government's insane pursuit of military domination. When discussing Star wars and weapons in space it is crucial that what has been done to them, to their island homes and ocean - their food and resource gathering areas - is not forgotten. A people's way of life destroyed, their health and well being irreparably harmed ... and for what?

And what will be the impact of the US government's plans to put weapons in space on the other peoples of the Pacific? At its most basic, it is more of the same - the price paid for living in a militarised world where human and physical resources are diverted into weapons for killing, instead of being used to protect and preserve life.

If we look at some of the problems facing the island nations of the Pacific, they are mainly problems arising from a colonial past and present. Alien political, legal, religious and economic systems have been imposed to the detriment of the existing systems; poverty, exacerbated by structural adjustment programmes imposed by outside agencies, is common; the presence of foreign military bases continues to distort local economies, to dislocate local communities, and to degrade women's lives; sea levels are rising due to global warming made worse by the industrial nations.

It is clear that a new approach to looking at these problems with a view to resolving them in a just and peaceful way is needed.

If only a fraction of the resources - human, physical and financial - which are used by armed forces globally, were to be diverted into resolving the problems facing Pacific peoples, then positive progress would be made in a very short time. Global military spending this year works out at around five point two billion dollars every day - just under half of that spending is by the US armed forces, over 800 billion NZ dollars in total this year. Think about the impact of that being used in a socially productive way!

Just one missile test for Star Wars costs a further 240 million NZ dollars. It is estimated that the cost of testing, developing and deploying just the missile technology for Star Wars will be an additional 144 billion NZ dollars.

It is not yet known what the laser guns and other weapons systems being planned for space will cost. Nor is it yet known where these weapons will be tested - but given the bizarre notion held by the US and other colonial governments that the Pacific is 'uninhabited', it is most likely that our region will also be used for those tests.

In addition to the human and physical cost of weaponising space, there is the matter of the distorted thinking it represents. The concepts of dominance, arrogance, colonialism, imperialism - call it what you will. The idea of common ownership of resources, be that the oceans, water, food, or space, appears to have eluded the US government and big business, but that concept is the basis of belief systems in the Pacific.

There are already far too many weapons on earth, the very last thing we need is weapons in space.

Edwina Hughes, Peace Movement Aotearoa and Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
Speaking at the 'Weapons in Space: a new threat to peace and security?' seminar in Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand, 13 October 2001. Part of the International Day of Action to Stop the Militarisation of Space.

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