Space Wars

Colonel Daniel Smith, USA (Ret.), Chief of Research

The Defense Monitor (Center for Defense Information) February 2001


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 Administration.

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 emerging threat.

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 1998 test).

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.

Anti-Satellite Systems

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 as operational.

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 Subsystem (ERIS).

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 is unclear.

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 the horizon.

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 reconnaissance satellites.

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.)

New Satellites

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 planned programs.

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 Wars."

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