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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 67, October - November 2002

Opinion & Analysis

US Space Policy: Time to Stop and Think

By Theresa Hitchens


It has now become obvious that the administration of President George W. Bush is rapidly reconsidering US policy regarding weapons in space, which for nearly 40 years has focused on researching potential technologies while exercising restraint with regard to deployment. Not only is overarching space policy undergoing a National Security Council review, but there is also increasing focus on use of space-based platforms for national missile defence as well as stepped-up military efforts on concepts for anti-satellite (ASAT) operations.

What is missing so far, however, is a strong strategic rationale for breaking the long-standing international taboo against weaponising space. Indeed, US policymakers have yet to fully debate whether doing so is worth the long-term economic, political and military costs. Unfortunately, that debate may never be held. Instead, administration and military officials now seem to be working from the premise that space will become the new "high ground" of future battlefields.

No Decisions, Plenty of Plans

"I believe that weapons will go into space. It's a question of time. And we need to be at the forefront of that," Pete Teets, Undersecretary of the Air Force and Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, told a March 6 conference in Washington.1 While Teets, who is now the Pentagon's lead official for procurement of space programmes, was careful to say that no policy decision to put weapons in space has yet been made, his views reflect a consensus among top Air Force leaders - and indeed, among military officials across the board. The prevailing wisdom in all branches of the services is that "conflict in space is inevitable."2

This view underlies the policy statements on space so far emerging from the Bush administration. For example, the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), released on October 1, 2001, cites the need to improve space systems as one of six critical goals of military transformation - thus placing top priority on the issue within the Pentagon. The Review states: "A key objective...is not only to ensure US ability to exploit space for military purposes, but also as required to deny an adversary's ability to do so."

The Bush administration's interest in space stems in part from a deep-seated concern about the increasing dependence of the US military on space-based assets for conducting global operations, and the potential vulnerabilities of those assets. Neither of those facts can be disputed. Without high-speed satellite communications, global positioning and navigation for precision-guided munitions, and high-resolution imagery (among other capabilities), the US military's capability to respond quickly to far-flung crises would be seriously diminished.

At the same time, all space-based assets have inherent vulnerabilities stemming from their technological and operational parameters. As other countries continue to benefit from the high-tech revolution of the past several decades, those vulnerabilities could increasingly be exploited by US enemies.

According to a senior Air Force official, there are eight or 10 countries seriously involved in using space assets for military purposes. These include Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, India, Japan, Israel and Brazil. Pentagon officials also assert that a number of these countries are pursuing new types of space technology, such as microsatellites, that could be used as space-based weapons.

In addition, new commercial technology that could be put to military use, especially high-resolution commercial imagery and satellite navigation/positioning equipment, is becoming widely available in the open marketplace. This has become a key concern for the Bush administration, and - along with continuing problems with US space transportation capabilities - is one of the central issues being studied under the Space Policy Review, the first since 1996, launched earlier this year by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Army leaders, in particular, worry about the possibility that allowing hostile forces free access to space-based assets could blunt or erase the edge US forces now enjoy through exploiting satellite imagery, communications and precision targeting. Army officials repeatedly claim that the famous 'left hook' manoeuvre of Operation Desert Storm could not have succeeded if Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had possessed the commercial imagery available today.3 "The idea of being able to control what people are seeing is going to be an issue for the Army," Lt. Gen. Joseph M. Cosumano Jr., Commander of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, told reporters on July 15, 2001, at a conference sponsored by the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Huntsville, Alabama.4

US military officials insist that the current focus is on protection of space-based assets and the US military edge, rather than on the development of space-based weapons. They also happily repeat the refrain that there have been no decisions to put weapons in space. While this may be true, it is nonetheless clear that administration and Pentagon interest in what could be deemed "active defences" is growing, at the expense of passive measures (such as improving resistance to jamming, and providing redundancy at both the systems and component level). So-called "space control" - defined by the US military as the ability to "assure freedom of action in space and deny same" - has become a critical military mission, one central to the role of US Space Command.5

The central, but not only, goal of space control is to defend US space assets, including defences in orbit. Space control by definition involves:

Surveillance, including the ability to detect and track space objects;

Protection, concentrating on passive measures to enhance survivability of US space assets, such as electronic hardening;

Prevention, prohibiting enemies from "exploiting US or allied space services" through measures such as encryption or shutter control (shutting down access to imagery satellites); and,

Negation, preventing enemies from using their own space forces, including through offensive means.6

Thus, the mission of space control overtly includes offensive operations, including the use of ASATs. In fact, there are a number of concepts for such weapons discussed in military and independent literature, using both ground- and space-based systems, such as: 'bodyguard satellites' that would shadow US satellites and defend them if necessary; kinetic energy ASATs that could be launched in wartime; and so-called 'space mines', stealthy ASATs that would linger in space near enemy satellites for later activation in the event of hostilities.7 And although there has yet to be a clear public policy decision on space weaponisation, administration and military officials are increasingly open in promoting space-based platforms not only for ASAT operations, but also for missile defence and even for striking land, sea and air targets.

Even before the QDR, a report to the Office of Secretary of Defense from an independent panel called for robust efforts to assure "space dominance" as a key transformational capability. The report, called Transformation Study Report and dated April 27, 2001, states: "Space capabilities are inherently global, unaffected by territorial boundaries or jurisdictional limitations; they provide direct access to all regions and, with our advanced technologies, give us a highly asymmetrical advantage over any potential adversary."8 The study recommended, among other things, the development of microsatellites for both offensive and defensive missions.

Plenty of Plans, No Debate

Given that missile defence is a top priority for the Bush administration, it may well be that interest in space-based missile defence platforms becomes the key driver for a new US space policy rather than the other way around. The Pentagon is already exploring space-based lasers and kinetic kill (so-called 'hit-to-kill') vehicles for intercepting enemy missiles in their 'boost-phase', just after launch. While a space-based laser is no doubt decades away due to the early stages of technological development, a kinetic kill system might become available much more rapidly. Indeed, the newly named Missile Defense Agency (formerly the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization) has proposed spending $1.33 billion from 2003 to 2007 on developing "Space-Based Boost", in essence reviving the concept of Brilliant Pebbles originated under President George H.W. Bush: a constellation of orbiting, kinetic kill vehicles designed to knock out enemy ICBMs in their boost phase. "Concept assessment" is due to be completed in early 2003, according to Pentagon fiscal year (FY) 2003 budget documents, with an aim to "support a product line decision not earlier than FY 2006."9 The development programme is being designed to include at least limited experiments in space.

Despite this plan, there has been little public discussion or congressional debate about the fact that such a missile defence system would be a de facto end to the US policy of self-restraint regarding space-based weapons. In contrast, the linkage between missile defence and space weaponisation has garnered increasingly agitated international attention. During discussions at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva about launching negotiations on the prevention of an arms race in outer space, China and Russia in particular have cited US missile defence plans as the rationale for moving rapidly toward a treaty banning outer-space weapons.10

It is also clear that, despite the ongoing US policy review, little thought has yet gone into the complex national and global security affects of any US move to begin weaponising space. There has been no overarching US government study of the military, political and economic benefits versus costs of deploying space weapons for any purpose. Despite this lack of foresight, arms control options, which might be useful in ensuring that vulnerabilities in US assets do not transform into threats, seem to have been written off entirely by the Bush administration - despite the interest of nearly every other member state of the United Nations in pursuing talks on new measures to protect space for peaceful uses.

The general failure of the current administration to consider space weaponisation from a broad policy perspective, and the deliberate shunning of arms control options, are both serious mistakes. There are a multitude of reasons to believe that the advent of weapons in space might actually undermine not only US national security, but also global stability. Conversely, there is strong reason to believe that international arms control agreements could not only enhance international security but also protect the edge the United States now enjoys in space.

In the absence of arms control, the serious prospect looms of an arms race in space involving the current and emerging space powers. A strategic-level space arms race could have negative consequences for the United States in the long run far outweighing any immediate military advantages. Regardless of the exorbitant monetary cost involved in keeping ahead of opponents - a serious consideration, surely, in an era where the long battle against terrorism is going to continue to strain the national purse - the US's current military edge in space is certain to be diminished by the competition it will, in effect, have brought upon itself. Up to now, no country has seen it necessary to challenge the US lead in space, either commercially or militarily. Barring superhuman levels of political restraint, a US move to deploy space-based weapons would drastically alter that strategic assessment in some quarters - most worryingly, from a US national security perspective, in Beijing.

There are many other risks to consider, even before an arms race begins. The potential exists, for example, for space weapons testing (let alone warfare) to damage or destroy international scientific space research and commercial space assets due to debris; while the very prospect of such damage, combined with concern over the longer-term transformation of space into a battlefield, may harm confidence in the commercial space and telecommunications industry, slowing the very revolution that has made current US economic and military dominance possible.


An arms race in space would threaten international stability. Space weapons have inherent first-strike capabilities and, much like nuclear weapons, a dangerous "use or lose" nature, making them destabilising factors in any military competition. Consider, for example, the high probability that bitter, nuclear-armed enemies India and Pakistan would enter any space arms race. If constructed in the next few years, an international arms control regime would still have a real chance of preventing the outbreak of an arms race in space, by any country. In addition, by limiting other nations' pursuit of space weapons and/or counterspace weapons, the United States might be able to maintain its current military edge for a longer period of time.

The strategic paradox is evident and striking. Currently, the United States is the only nation with the technical and financial capability to seriously begin introducing weapons into space - and will be for some time. As a European industry official recently quipped, "If there is a space race, it will be the United States racing itself." Given the economic, political and strategic costs of putting weapons in space, it would be inexcusable for the Bush administration to start that race prior to a much fuller national - and international - policy debate about the wisdom of doing so.

Notes and References

1. Sharon Weinberger, Aerospace Daily, March 7, 2002.

2. Lt. Col. John E. Hyten, "A Sea of Peace or a Theater of War: Dealing with the Inevitable Conflict in Space," ACDIS Occasional Paper, April 2000.

3. The coalition land campaign involved a surprise move that, as described by Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh in The Gulf Conflict (Faber and Faber, 1994), "involved two distinct pushes: one led by the Marines across the Kuwait-Saudi border directly towards Kuwait City; the other involving the relatively light XVIII Corps well to the west and the relatively heavy VII Corps, which constituted the 'left hook'; designed to envelope Iraqi forces and destroy their most substantial elements."

4. Author's own notes.

5. Air Force Col. Robert Haeckel, J-5 vice director of plans for US Space Command, briefing to reporters July 15, 2001, at Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Huntsville, Alabama.

6. Ibid.

7. Air Force Maj. William L. Spacy II, "Does the United States Need Space-Based Weapons?," CADRE Paper, Air University Press, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, September 1999.

8. Gen. Jim McCarthy, USA.F. (ret.), chairman, Transformation Study Group, "Transformation Study Report Executive Summary: Transforming Military Operational Capabilities," April 27, 2001.

9. Missile Defense Agency RDT&E Budget Item Justification (R-2A Exhibit), P.E. No. 0603883C Boost Defense Segment, Project 4040, February 2002.

10. At the Conference on Disarmament on June 27, Russia and China introduced a working paper containing 'Possible Elements for a Future Legal Agreement on the Prevention of the Deployment of Weapons in Outer Space'. Introducing the draft text, Russian Ambassador Leonid Skotnikov stated that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, from which the US had recently withdrawn, contained a provision prohibiting the development, testing or deployment of missile defence systems or components intended to be based in space. "In these conditions", Skotnikov argued, "we propose to...give a thought to establishing international legal restrictions on the deployment of strike weapons in outer space". The paper was cursorily dismissed by US Ambassador Eric Javits, who noted (June 27): "The United States sees no need for new outer space arms control agreements and opposes the idea of a new Outer Space Treaty." See Disarmament Diplomacy No. 66 (September 2002), pp. 42-43.

Theresa Hitchens is vice president of the Center for Defense Information, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

© 2002 The Acronym Institute.

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© 2002 The Acronym Institute.