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Obama Orbits: Satellites and Space Weapons


by Austin Bay
January 27, 2009

The column I began writing at 7 a.m. on September 11, 2001, addressed the American military's reliance on satellites and issues involving "a potential arms race in space." Of course, by 9 a.m., space militarization became less pressing, as al-Qaida turned jumbo jets into ballistic missiles and murdered 3,000 innocents.

When China tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon in January 2007, I considered resurrecting the column, but America's "surge" in Iraq shoved outer space aside.

The Obama administration has revived the subject -- after a fashion. Check the White House Website on the page detailing defense-related campaign promises. The new administration opposes "weaponizing space" and will "restore American leadership on space issues ... ." Restoration means seeking "a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites" and includes "thoroughly" assessing "possible threats to U.S. space assets and the best options, military and diplomatic, for countering them ... ." Obama promises to accelerate "programs to harden U.S. satellites against attack."

Though the fervent language implicitly suggests this is a dramatic change from the Bush administration, it actually echoes Maj. Gen. James Armor's congressional testimony of May 2007 during hearings investigating the implications of China's anti-satellite test. The hearings were the unclassified component of a thorough assessment of a real threat to U.S. space assets, the Chinese ASAT, and a public example of U.S. leadership on space issues.

Armor (director of the Pentagon's National Security Space Office) noted that changes in U.S. space policy since the Eisenhower administration "have been evolutionary" (i.e., have changed, based on experience), but "the key tenets have remained remarkably consistent. One such tenet is the compelling need for a strong national security space sector and the inherent right of self-defense to protect U.S. national interests in space." Yet U.S. space policy, Armor argued, is "based on a longstanding U.S. commitment to peaceful uses of outer space ... ."

Advertising execs know touting laundry soap as "new" or "improved" increases sales though the "new" product differs little from the old. From Ike to G.W. Bush, administrations have had to balance the "peaceful use" of space against evolving technological threats to its peaceful use. The same dilemma confronts Obama and will vex his successor, as well.

Al-Qaida's 9-11 surprise provides a brutal lesson about all "civilian" technology, from a rock scraper used to clean a deer hide to jumbo jets as missiles -- and possibly "peaceful" satellites, as well. In a malevolent hand, the scraper becomes a primitive ax perfect for cleaving a human skull. Though space systems experts know the procedures are (at present) difficult, a deceptive 21st century space power -- or for that matter, a private space consortium with a criminal bent -- could conceivably maneuver a civilian satellite so that it "interferes" with an opponent's or competitor's satellite.

In other words, under the control of creative evil a "peaceful" satellite becomes a weapon, the space equivalent of a "Q-Ship," a merchantman with hidden guns plying distant sea lanes and attacking unarmed, unsuspecting and unprotected commercial shipping.

Most commercial satellites don't carry a lot fuel. Spy satellites are another matter -- they can (again, with difficulty) maneuver, which means they could possibly become a weapon. They can also be weaponized, covertly. Spy satellites, however, contribute to on-the-ground peace. At the moment, India and Pakistan can see satellite-gathered data that confirm neither side is preparing to attack the other. Be thankful, as they both have nukes.

At the moment, most space buffs argue the best way to "interfere" with a satellite is to blind it from a ground station or blast it with an ASAT missile.

But the devil of exacting definition haunts the words "weapons," "interfere" and "satellites" in Obama's space policy promise.

Armor told Congress that "what constitutes a 'space weapon' and determining effective mechanisms to verify compliance are fundamental barriers to meaningful arms-control measures in this area. Without a definition of a space weapon or viable verification measures, arms-control negotiations result in loopholes and meaningless limitations that would exclude practical and important uses of space systems and endanger our national security."

And that hasn't changed.

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