Colonel Daniel Smith, USA (Ret.), Chief of Research
The Defense Monitor (Center for Defense Information)
ON JANUARY 20th GEORGE W. BUSH became the 43rd President of
the United States. In an unusual special Saturday session that
same afternoon, the Senate confirmed (among others in the Cabinet)
Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense.
Many know that Mr. Rumsfeld was for 14 months in 1975-77 the
Secretary of Defense under President Gerald Ford. Although 14
months may seem brief, it is sufficiently long both to provide
a clear record of Mr. Rumsfeld's priorities then and to use as
a basis for predicting what his priorities may be in the Bush
Missiles and Missile Defense
According to his official DoD biography maintained by the
Pentagon, as Secretary of Defense Mr. Rumsfeld "sought to
reverse the gradual [post -Vietnam] decline in the Defense budget
and to build up U.S. strategic and conventional forces."
He was particularly concerned with the "aging" submarine
and B-52 bomber forces and the "survivability of the Minuteman
force." He pushed ahead with the B-1 bomber, Trident ballistic
missile submarine, and MX (Peacekeeper) intercontinental ballistic
(ICBM) missile programs. A skeptic on arms control, he opposed
the 1979 SALT II treaty.
But the official biography is not the only public source of
information. In 1997-98 Mr. Rumsfeld chaired the congressionally
mandated Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to
the United States. The Commission concluded that rogue states
(now called "states of concern") such as North Korea
and Iran might be able to develop ICBMs in five years, which was
sooner than the U.S. intelligence community thought at the time.
Contrary to partisan spin, the Commission neither examined the
question of nor concluded that the U.S. needed to have a national
missile defense (NMD) system in place by 2003 to counter any such
Since the Commission issued its report in July 1998, Mr. Rumsfeld
has been a leading advocate of NMD, and there is little evidence
that he will alter his position. Indeed, in his confirmation hearing
before the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 11th, he
said little to dampen this expectation.
Yet in the interim, North Korea, which launched a multi-stage
missile over Japan on August 31, 1998, has agreed to a moratorium
on further missile testing. Iran's September 22, 2000 test of
its medium-range Shahab-3D missile failed (as did North Korea's
While the current proposed U.S. land-based anti-ballistic
missile (ABM) system (with sites in Alaska and North Dakota) may
be continued, it now seems clear that Mr. Rumsfeld will opt to
give more funds to the Navy's sea-based alternative (prohibited
by the 1972 ABM Treaty). Moreover, the new Secretary appears intent
on faster development of both the Air Force's Airborne Laser and,
more ominously, space-based lasers (the latter also banned by
the 1972 ABM treaty). The 2001 Defense Appropriations bill allocated
$233.6 million and $147.7 million, respectively, for these programs.
Coincidentally with his confirmation hearing, another congressionally
mandated panel - chaired by Mr. Rumsfeld until his late-December
nomination - dealing with threats to U.S. satellites issued its
report. Given the heavy dependence on satellites of U.S. civilian
commercial and military communications and data gathering operations,
this "Space Panel" recommended a reorganization of the
Executive and legislative policy and oversight structures dealing
with space issues and the development of "reasonable safeguards"
to protect space assets. What is not openly called for, yet is
implied in the report, is that the U.S. needs to develop on an
accelerated basis not just passive but active - that is, anti-satellite
weapons (ASATs), including ones in space - "protective"
measures. (See accompanying summation of the recommendations made
by the Space Panel.)
Of course, as with the expected push on NMD deployment, fielding
an ASAT weapon will only spur others to develop and deploy their
own countermeasures - and in this race the U.S. has the most to
lose since it is the most heavily dependent on satellites for
the day-to-day running of the nation.
Since ASATs, unlike NMD, have not been very prominent in news
reports, a little history is in order.
In the 1960s both the Soviets and the U.S. fielded primitive
ASAT systems. The U.S. abandoned its early effort - a nuclear-armed
rocket - in 1975 while the Soviets pursued and tested a high-explosive/shrapnel
ASAT launched by an SS-9 booster to heights of approximately 1,400
miles. (Even in the 1980s most U.S. military satellites were in
higher orbits.) Although only nine of the Soviets' 20 tests were
successful, in 1971 the Pentagon classified the Soviet system
The USAF then developed and tested the Miniature Homing Vehicle
(MHV). Carried on an F-15 fighter plane, the two-stage MHV relied
on kinetic energy to destroy its target. But in 1988 the $1.6
billion program was canceled and funds started to flow into alternatives
such as the Army's Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL)
and an ASAT based on the Exoatmospheric Reentry-vehicle Interceptor
In October 1997, the Army fired the MIRACL laser against an
aged USAF satellite in orbit ostensibly to determine the vulnerability
of U.S. satellites to lasers. The test returned little data because
the laser was damaged during the test by "errant laser energy
induced by a shockwave in the laser cavity gas flows." The
Army then secretly tested a Low Power Chemical Laser (LPCL) of
30 watts three times against the Air Force satellite. A memo to
then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen said that "saturation
levels" - what is required to blind optical sensors - had
been reached. (Interestingly, in his Annual Report to the President
for 2001, Secretary Cohen obliquely referred to this achievement
when he wrote that there are a "number of prevention and
negation efforts underway to include a space control technology
development program...[to develop] capabilities that will have
temporary and reversible effects on systems used for purposes
hostile to U.S. national security interests.")
The year after the Air Force MHV program was canceled, the
Army also started developing a rocket-launched kinetic energy
ASAT (KE-ASAT) satellite. Funding peaked at $91 million in 1991,
declining sharply under the Clinton Administration when it was
sustained only by congressional action. Even this almost failed
when Mr. Clinton, using the line item veto, deleted $37.5 million
for KE-ASAT from the FY1998 budget. The money was restored when
the U.S. Supreme Court declared the line item veto unconstitutional.
Another set-back occurred in early 2000 when the Defense Science
Board recommended that the program receive lower priority in the
overall U.S. space control effort. Only $7.5 million was allocated
in FY2000 and $3 million in FY2001 in order to build three "kill"
vehicles. Then, in December 2000, the General Accounting Office
(GAO) found the whole program "in disarray" and facing
an "uncertain future" because it had no clear objectives
(there are no plans to test the three kill vehicles), no commitment
for continued funding, and no "effective oversight and management."
A subsequent GAO study entitled "Major Management Challenges
and Program Risks: Department of Defense" also faulted the
Pentagon and the services for ignoring possible cost-effective
terrestrial alternatives to space-based systems. Specifically,
GAO noted that while Air Force plans for space require billions
more above the annual $6 billion currently being spent on space-related
projects, the source of and the will to sustain these added billions
21st Century Space Wars
The Air Force, however, is not about to let the Army be the
only player in the ASAT arena. It assigned its Satellite Assessment
Center at Kirkland Air Force Base the task of assessing the vulnerability
of satellites to lasers, a "threat" that many see on
It is not unlikely that Kirkland's role is the result in part
of evolving work on lasers being carried out by both the Army
(High Energy Laser) and the Air Force (Airborne Laser) and renewed
impetus in the space-based laser program jointly funded by the
Air Force and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. In an
early December ground test, contractors successfully tested the
critical optics control system required to keep a space-based
laser on-target. Later that same month the Pentagon announced
it would conduct up to six ground tests of a prototype space laser
weapon that uses hydrogen fluoride to generate energy. If these
prove the system's basic feasibility, a planned technology demonstration
program would orbit a small scale laser satellite in 2012-2013
to attempt to destroy a ballistic missile. If successful, it would
be a critical step toward deploying as many as 40 laser satellites.
Any doubts that the Pentagon views war in (as well as from)
space as a future reality were erased in January when the Air
Force Space Command activated the 76th Space Control Squadron.
Its mission is to "explore future space control technologies
by testing models and prototypes of counter-space systems for
rapid achievement of space superiority." The unit officially
began operation on the same day (January 22) that the Air Force
Space Command started a five day space wargame titled "Schriever
2001." This was the first ever wargame that focused exclusively
on space as a medium for potential conflict, including non-lethal
options such as "temporarily" interfering with an opponent's
satellites (e.g., "dazzle" optics or disrupt communications).
Some preliminary findings the Air Force shared with reporters
(another "first" for a highly classified exercise) were
that a "robust" space force - one possessing a missile
defense shield, back-up satellites in orbit or ready to launch,
and non-lethal options - would give the U.S. more leverage and
more flexibility in dealing with a "near peer" rival
that might be tempted to initiate conventional aggression against
a neighboring nation or try to disable U.S. space assets. Of particular
interest was what one participant termed a "counter-intuitive"
lesson: don't destroy an adversary's complete array of reconnaissance,
intelligence and communications satellites. An enemy that is totally
blind and deaf is more likely to strike massively (with all his
nuclear weapons) because he can't evaluate the actual situation.
This exercise, which cost an estimated $1.5 million and which
the Air Force hopes to repeat every 18 months, belies the claim
that the Kirkland Assessment Center is to simply determine what
needs to be done to protect U.S. satellites.
Whatever else, the expectations are that Air Force funds for
space will increase from their current $6.3 billion (unclassified
totals) as more money is poured into augmenting and modernizing
assets such as the Milstar communications constellation (the "Wideband
Gapfiller" system of three to six satellites) and developing
new programs such as the Future Imagery Architecture for imaging
Just how vulnerable is the U.S. to other nations' ASATs? Mainstream
press reports suggest upwards of 750 active satellites are orbiting
Earth. The U.S. owns some 300 of these, with the various military
and civilian government agencies accounting for about 120 of these
300. The total number of satellites is expected to double over
the next decade. (See Tables 1 and 2 for similar statistics from
a civilian and two DoD sources.)
While space-based laser satellites will not be deployed before
2015, the U.S. military is set to increase its satellite arrays
over the next few years. One major addition will be the 30 satellite
array known as the Space Based Infrared Satellite-High and -Low
(SBIRS) system crucial to the proper functioning of the proposed
NMD system. Another possibility is the Discoverer II radar satellite
program, killed in FY2000 by Congress because of cost but favored
by Mr. Rumsfeld. Designed not only to track moving ground targets
- a function now done by E-8 JSTARS aircraft - but to aid in identifying
exactly the type of vehicle detected, Discoverer II will probably
get at least a demonstration satellite up in the next 10 years.
Europe is also bent on increasing its use of space. A November
2000 report to the European Space Agency's Director-General argued
that only if space were an integral part of European calculations
could the continent position itself as an alternative to the U.S.
on "global issues and large-scale international developments."
The report specifically made the point that the quest for an European
security identity separate from NATO could not be achieved "without
a clear space component."
In with the Old
In fairness, it must be said that Mr. Rumsfeld will not be
taking an entirely new direction. Almost two years ago, Secretary
Cohen, in a letter accompanying the Pentagon's 1999 "Space
Policy" document, stated that "purposeful interference
with U.S. Space systems will be viewed as an infringement on our
sovereign rights" and would be met with "the use of
force." Although the updated policy does not explicitly advocate
weapons in space, that possibility is not precluded: "The
ability to perform space force application in the future could
add a new dimension to U.S. military power."
Another interesting development that lends credence to predictions
that space will receive more attention in the Bush Administration
is the retention from the Clinton Pentagon of Keith Hall, Assistant
Secretary of the Air Force for Space and Director of the National
Reconnaissance Office. Continuity in this office will eliminate
the usual time lost in getting a new appointee current on existing
policies and budgets and the technical challenges of ongoing and
An Alternative to Space Warfare
Space has been militarized since the first reconnaissance
and signals collection satellites were lofted into orbit. But
the current constellation of multinational satellites swinging
around the Earth have one thing in common: they are all benign.
They perform highly important military and civilian functions,
but none can attack other objects in space or damage any potential
target on the Earth's surface.
As long as these conditions hold, there is time to develop
a verifiable and enforceable international convention prohibiting
testing and placing in orbit any object with a conventional, laser,
or kinetic capability to intentionally damage any other object
in space or any location or object on the surface of the Earth.
(Orbiting weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, biological, or
chemical - is already prohibited.
Developing an active, reliable space attack capability requires
repeated tests in and from space before an effective system can
be deployed. (Questions have been raised as to whether the U.S.
space shuttle has a space attack capability.) Current surveillance
and reconnaissance systems operated by the U.S. and other spacefaring
nations could easily detect such testing (as well as testing of
a ground-based attack system). Thus the means to verify adherence
to a ban on space weapons already exist where they are most effective:
in space itself. A ban can be enforced through sanctions imposed
by all nations that are party to the treaty - which would have
to include at least all nations with satellites in orbit.
But time to reach an accord is not unlimited. Once testing
begins, the "need" for destructive capabilities in orbit
induces a mindset opposed to rational restraint. The mindset becomes
unassailable if testing is completed, for then the system "must"
be deployed since, if we have developed the capability, others
will want to follow suit and rapidly will do so.
And then the mindset becomes circular: we need more and better
systems to counter even the possibility that others will put up
satellites that might have passive destructive capabilities, ones
that will remain dormant until hostilities begin.
Already there are references to a "Pearl Harbor"
in space. The opportunity and the instruments to preclude even
the possibility of a space Pearl Harbor are at hand. The power
to drive the issue rests with the U.S. as the leader in space.
But the people must make their voices heard in Congress and the
Administration now - before we move any further towards "Space