Weapons in outer space

By William Marshall | July 5, 2006

TENSIONS IN the United Nations over space-based weapons ran to new heights recently when the United States delivered a hard-line statement on its right to develop such weapons.

Responding to repeated and increased international pressure in recent weeks, John Mohanco, US deputy director of the Office of Multilateral Nuclear and Security Affairs, said ``our government will continue to consider the possible role that space-related weapons may play in protecting our [space] assets."

Russia, which is pushing for a new treaty on such weapons, wanted countries to ``refrain from any practical activities aimed to place weapon systems in outer space while the international agreement on non-weaponization of outer space is being elaborated." Apparently the US reaction was only to harden its stance.

This adds to the alarming change of course last year when the United States became the first country to oppose the annual non binding resolution on Preventing an Arms Race in Outer Space. Essentially the world considers it important to develop a treaty to prevent an arms race in space by prohibiting weapons there. The need for a treaty is compounded by the US withdrawal in 2002 from the ABM Treaty, which had key restrictions on space weapons.

This discussion is far from theoretical: The US Air Force is pushing lasers with which to attack satellites, and the Missile Defense Agency is pushing for another budget hike for space-based weapons. Already the United States is spending hundreds of millions of dollars per year on such weapons.

Space issues are perhaps the most important Achilles' heel facing the US military. Their importance can be seen from Iraq: Planning and operations are helped by satellite imagery. Planes, ships, tanks, and even missiles are guided by the Global Positioning System. Generals command missions from outside the country thanks to communications satellites. Beyond this, early warning satellites would serve as the first notice of missile attacks.

The problem is that satellites are also vulnerable to elimination by enemies. A Space Commission report chaired by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld considers the threat so real it warned of a ``Space Pearl Harbor."

Naturally, Americans want to protect these assets, so why not pursue space weapons? The most compelling reason is that they would actually make the situation worse.

This is due to the technical ease of ground-based anti-satellite systems. Adversaries wouldn't need to go to the trouble of building space-based weapons systems. Simple and inexpensive, ground-based systems could shoot these satellites out of the sky. More than 25 nations already have the missile capability to reach the altitude at which the satellites orbit. More significantly, powerful lasers able to kill a satellite in low orbit through heating are available commercially in more than 50 nations. If the United States deploys ground-based anti-satellite technology, or ASATs (which it can do technically now), then others will follow suit. America has the most assets in orbit to lose in such a game.

If the United States deploys space-based weapons -- like interceptors for missile defense (which it is on course to deploy within about 6 years) -- an adversary could simply take them out from the ground. If any security advantage afforded by such a weapon is easily negated, then one is left with the prospect of other nations moving toward developing ground-based ASAT capabilities. This would severely jeopardize America's precious satellites, all of them. Also, the capabilities provided by each proposed space-based weapon can be achieved with ground-based alternatives that are generally 100 to 1,000 times cheaper.

In addition, the United States is planning to release a new National Space Policy within weeks, tweaks to the language of which could give the green light for US deployment of space-based weapons. Instead, the United States should send a sign to other nations by taking space-based weapons off the books once and for all. America can still protect its satellite systems -- in less-threatening ways.

Instead of having a space architecture that consists of a few big satellites that are complex, expensive, and difficult to replace, the United States should move to a model consisting of many inexpensive micro-satellites that offer the same capability. Other nations are already moving in that direction.

Doing nothing about the vulnerability of satellites would be a bad security decision, but weaponizing space is no solution. Doing that would be like watching brave Achilles unsheathing his knife and turning it on himself.

William Marshall is a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and jointly at the Space Policy Institute of George Washington University.