300 N. Washington St.
Suite B-100
Alexandria, VA 22314

GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette July 28, 2003

U.S. the leader in war plans for space

Gaining the ultimate high ground

By Jack Kelly, Post-Gazette National Security Writer

When the Bush administration announced in 2001 that it would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty so it could build a national defense system designed to shoot enemy missiles out of the sky, critics warned it would start an arms race in space. Supporters, certain the United States would win, essentially said, "Let the race begin."

Two years later, the United States has bolted from the starting blocks and is so far ahead that it is hard to make out any potential competitors in the rearview mirror.

Pentagon scenarios for war in space go far beyond shooting down missiles that threaten the U.S. homeland. They call for airborne and orbiting weapons that could attack targets anywhere on Earth at virtually any moment. They call for weapons that could defend U.S. space armaments or satellites while blinding or destroying those of any potential adversary. They call, in short, for the United States to dominate warfare's ultimate high ground, potentially locking in U.S. military superiority for decades to come.

Supporters regard such plans as the natural evolution of 21st-century military technology, much as air power came to dominate warfare in the 20th century. Critics worry that "weaponizing" space will take the human race over yet another military threshold, creating a destabilizing arms race that would waste global resources and potentially put the United States most at risk because its economy is most dependent on satellite communications.

The swift U.S. military victory in Iraq hints at the potential of space power.

"If you ask what was the difference between Iraq's army and America's Army, the big difference was satellites," said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org. "It's why the United States is unbeatable on a conventional battlefield. It's why the United States is the sole remaining superpower. It's why we frighten the living daylights out of the rest of the planet."

Satellites allowed U.S. forces to locate Iraqi forces, coordinate ground and air attacks and guide warheads to their targets. "Our side knew where all of our forces were at any given moment, and the other side did not," said Steven Aftergood, a researcher for the Federation of American Scientists.

"Space dominance wins wars because it overcomes the two fundamental impediments to victory famously summarized by the 19th-century theorist Karl von Clausewitz as 'fog and friction,' " said science writer Bruce Sterling. "In a fog of low quality or nonexistent information, warriors can't see allies or enemies. Amid the friction of hostile onslaughts, they can't hit the adversaries they manage to see. These are the classic military problems. Having an overhead view makes them the other guy's problem."

For the foreseeable future, "the other guy" will have to face this formidable U.S. advantage.

"We are so dominant in space that I pity a country that would come up against us," said Maj. Gen. Franklin Blaisdell, director of space operations for the Air Force, eight days before Operation Iraqi Freedom began.

The Bush administration is laying the groundwork to eventually expand and entrench that dominance.

Seeking supremacy

Last year, President Bush made explicit the goal of maintaining U.S. military superiority over any other nation or group of potential adversaries. He has not yet committed the country to deploying weapons in space, and any major space systems would require the approval of Congress and future administrations. But the Pentagon is moving forward on many fronts in the belief that space is key to "full spectrum dominance."

Three key supporters of exploiting the U.S. lead in space warfare are Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Before joining the Bush administration, Rumsfeld headed an advisory commission that mapped out many of the space warfare plans the Pentagon is now exploring. Cheney was secretary of defense during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when satellites demonstrated their military effectiveness in targeting and communications. Myers once headed the Air Force Space Command.

U.S. space power appears to be developing much in the way air power did. Airplanes in World War I were used first for reconnaissance and communications. Machine guns were added for self-defense and to attack enemy airplanes. Later, bombs and missiles were developed so that airplanes could protect troops and attack targets on the ground.

In a similar transition, U.S. satellites have provided military reconnaissance and communications since the late 1960s. They've been directing munitions to their targets since the Gulf War. In the past year, unmanned aerial vehicles have fired missiles at terrorists in Yemen. Pushing such vehicles into orbit, or attaching weapons to satellites, would complete the transformation.

Space weapons can be divided into three categories: those that would defend against ballistic missiles; those that would attack or defend satellites, and those that would attack targets on Earth.

Boeing is already building a prototype Airborne Laser -- a modified 747 designed to shoot a laser beam from its nose and blow up ballistic missiles in their boost phase. Assuming the technology works, the next step could be putting a laser in orbit, where it could be aimed at enemy missiles, satellites, aircraft, perhaps ground targets eventually.

A variety of antisatellite weapons could destroy, blind or jam enemy satellites. They could be launched from the ground, from high-flying aircraft or from other satellites. Some might be designed to simply crash into enemy satellites. Lasers might work best, because by blinding rather than destroying satellites, they would not fill lower Earth orbits with debris that other spacecraft might run into.

Orbiting weapons capable of attacking Earth targets could include lasers, missiles or non-explosive projectiles like the so-called "Rods from God" proposal -- an orbiting platform that would send satellite-guided tungsten rods screaming toward Earth at a moment's notice. Simply by virtue of their speed and weight, the rods could destroy hardened bunkers four stories underground.

Most of these weapons are in relatively early stages of research and development, and many may never pan out for technical, political or financial reasons. But the Pentagon seems determined to offer some of these space tools to U.S. policy makers within the decade.

The master plan

Last October, in a move that emphasized the importance of space in how the Pentagon sees the future of warfare, the U.S. Space Command was merged with U.S. Strategic Command into an organization that now controls all U.S. nuclear and space forces.

"The missions of SpaceCom and StratCom have evolved to the point where merging the two into a single entity will eliminate redundancies in the command structure and streamline the decision-making process," Rumsfeld said at the time.

One of the largest components of the new StratCom -- with 40,000 airmen and civilians -- is Air Force Space Command, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The Space Command's Strategic Master Plan calls for the United States, by 2025, to be able to strike any target in the world from space within minutes, to protect U.S. systems in space from hostile forces, and to deny space access to potential enemies.

Space power enthusiasts see the development of space weapons as inevitable, as necessary to protect satellites vital to the U.S. economy and as a way to ensure U.S. military supremacy.

Lt. Col. Thomas Bell, in a 1999 paper for the Air War College, wrote, "It is inevitable mankind will weaponize space, and equally likely that weaponization will occur with maturing of specific technologies over the next 30 years." The first country to put weapons in space, he noted, may also be the last, because it will be in a position to deny the use of space to lagging competitors.

"If America doesn't weaponize space, an enemy will," according to Peter Teets, Undersecretary of the Air Force and director of the National Reconnaissance Office, which manages the spy satellites.

"What will we do five years from now when American lives are put at risk because an adversary uses space-borne imagery collectors -- commercial or homegrown -- to identify and target American forces?" Teets asked at an Air Force Association symposium in January. "What will we do 10 years from now, when American lives are put at risk because an adversary chooses to leverage the Global Positioning System or perhaps the Galileo constellation to attack American forces with precision?"

The Rumsfeld commission, in its unanimous report to Congress in January 2001, warned of a potential "Pearl Harbor" in space: "Those hostile to the U.S. possess, or can acquire on the global market, the means to deny, disrupt or destroy U.S. space systems by attacking satellites in space, communications links to and from the ground or ground stations that command the satellites and process their data."

An attack in space could be devastating because both the U.S. economy and U.S. military operations are heavily dependent on satellites.

In the most recent comprehensive analysis of the commercial space business alone, a group headed by KPMG Peat Marwick in 1997 estimated worldwide revenues at $77 billion in 1996, growing to $121 billion by 2000. But this understates the importance of satellites to U.S. commerce.

"Every day billions of dollars move around this country on what are private company networks," said Richard DalBello, president of the Satellite Industry Association. "When you go to Wal-Mart to buy a pair of sneakers, the credit card goes up to the satellite, gets validated and approved. Then the same satellite tells Wal-Mart it just sold a pair of sneakers at your neighborhood store, and Wal-Mart adjusts its inventory accordingly."

Significant hurdles

Significant technological and financial hurdles would have to be overcome before space could be weaponized. Many experts, given the size of the U.S. economy and the quality of U.S. technology, think this could be done fairly quickly. Others disagree.

"It wouldn't be very difficult at all" for the United States to put weapons in space, said John Thompson, a former Canadian army officer who is managing director of the MacKenzie Institute, a Toronto-based think tank which studies global conflicts.

Thompson recalled how in the 1960s both the United States and the Soviet Union examined ways to put nuclear weapons in space before such weapons were banned by treaty, and the United States has lifted scores of technologically advanced payloads into space. The chief barriers to weaponizing space are political, not technological, Thompson said.

Theresa Hitchens, vice president of the Center for Defense Information, demurs. "There are serious, fundamental obstacles to the development of both kinetic kill weapons and lasers both for use against targets in space and terrestrial targets -- not to mention the staggering costs associated with launch and maintaining systems in orbit," she wrote in an analysis for the think tank last year.

Costs to develop national missile defense alone have run into the tens of billions of dollars, with the Defense Missile Agency seeking an annual appropriation next year of $7.7 billion.

Maj. William Spacy, in a 1999 Air War College paper, said there is simply no need for an aggressive U.S. effort to militarize space because it's easier and cheaper to protect U.S. satellites with ground-based aircraft and other weapons, and sub-orbital systems would be as effective at attacking ground targets.

Rapid U.S. advancements in the ability of unmanned aerial vehicles to coordinate reconnaissance information and attack targets, unmatched by any potential adversary, also might slow any need to lift such systems into space.

America's closest competitor in space is China, which has an ambitious military program and a vigorous commercial launch business. China is developing military satellites and several types of antisatellite weapons, according to China analysts.

But China hasn't even put its first astronauts into orbit yet -- it hopes to do so this fall -- and its manned spacecraft is the Shenzou, a knockoff of the Russian Soyuz.

Russia has the know-how to compete militarily in space, but lacks the money. It is expected to spend on space systems this year only about one-tenth of the $3 billion China has budgeted. That compares with a U.S. budget of $23 billion for only two of its myriad space-related programs -- NASA and missile defense.

The European Union possesses the money and expertise to send weapons into space, but European nations have limited defense expenditures to the point they already have fallen far behind the United States in military technology.

Should they be banned?

Political and diplomatic hurdles pose the most significant obstacles to a full blown U.S. space warfare program.

The most serious legal barrier was removed when President Bush in 2001 exercised the U.S. option to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia, which was negotiated with the former Soviet Union.

The ABM treaty sharply limited the number of land-based anti-ballistic missile sites the two nations could build, and it forbade testing of sea-based or space-based ABM systems.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, of which the U.S. is a signatory, forbids governments from placing "nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner."

The U.S. space weapons being considered are not "weapons of mass destruction," so they would not violate the treaty, although many argue they would violate its spirit. The treaty also says, "The exploration and use of outer space ... shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries."

Russia and China have proposed extending the outer space ban to all weapons, but the United States has resisted, preferring to explore its options.

Even if there is no legal barrier to putting weapons in space, it would be better to let sleeping dogs lie, Hitchens wrote in her paper for the Center for Defense Information. "There is little hard evidence that any other country or hostile nonstate actor possesses either the technology or the intention to seriously threaten U.S. military or commercial assets in space." If the United States does put weapons in space, she added, other nations would be compelled to follow suit.

Clearly, the actual deployment of U.S. space weapons would create further tensions with allies and other nations, which already have risen over what they consider unilateral U.S. actions, especially in invading Iraq. Both the diplomatic and financial ramifications at a time of deepening deficits would give Congress pause, as well.

Arms control remains the best way to protect American security, argues Ambassador Thomas Graham of the Eisenhower Institute.

But the arms race already has started, said Frank Gaffney, head of the Center for Security Policy. As a deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, he co-wrote a report to Congress on the futility of arms control in space.

"Our enemies understand our dependency on space and are determined to interfere with our use of space, with potentially devastating effect," Gaffney warned. "We need to be able to counteract that."

Copyright 2003, PG Publishing Co