The Air Force, saying it must secure space to protect the nation from attack, is seeking President Bush’s approval of a national-security directive that could move the United States closer to fielding offensive and defensive space weapons, according to White House and Air Force officials.

The proposed change would be a substantial shift in American policy. It would almost certainly be opposed by many American allies and potential enemies, who have said it may create an arms race in space.

A senior administration official said that a new presidential directive would replace a 1996 Clinton administration policy that emphasized a more pacific use of space, including spy satellites’ support for military operations, arms control and nonproliferation pacts.

Any deployment of space weapons would face financial, technological, political and diplomatic hurdles, although no treaty or law bans Washington from putting weapons in space, barring weapons of mass destruction.

A presidential directive is expected within weeks, said the senior administration official, who is involved with space policy and insisted that he not be identified because the directive is still under final review and the White House has not disclosed its details.

Air Force officials said yesterday that the directive, which is still in draft form, did not call for militarizing space. “The focus of the process is not putting weapons in space,” said Maj. Karen Finn, an Air Force spokeswoman, who said that the White House, not the Air Force, makes national policy. “The focus is having free access in space.”

With little public debate, the Pentagon has already spent billions of dollars developing space weapons and preparing plans to deploy them.

“We haven’t reached the point of strafing and bombing from space,” Pete Teets, who stepped down last month as the acting secretary of the Air Force, told a space warfare symposium last year. “Nonetheless, we are thinking about those possibilities.”

By Tim Weiner

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