|The dozen space weapons myths
by James Oberg, The Space Review
Monday, March 12, 2007
The successful Chinese anti-satellite missile test two months ago, the launch on Thursday of the Pentagon’s robot rendezvous craft that can service—or terminate—other satellites, and an impending US test of an orbiting rocket-tracking sensor package (the controversial NFIRE mission) have blasted “space warfare” back into the front of national attention. The timing is critical, too, with changing political winds in Congress and new agendas still taking shape.
Probably the greatest impediment to productive debate over alternative national security strategies for space is the torrent of misinformation and disinformation that seethes around the subject. Sometimes deliberately contrived, but more often innocently ignorant and enthusiastic, these myths and misconceptions can short-circuit and detour news media coverage, public debate, political maneuvering, and even international diplomacy.
Some of the most alarming accusations in recent official speeches by ambassadors, delegates, and even heads of state seem to be based not on sound research, technical intelligence agency analyses, or even direct face-to-face inquiries, but on unwarranted reliance on the most inflammatory and off-base news media reports. It’s “diplomacy by headline”, and it’s frighteningly off course. The consequences of such carelessness could be even more serious miscalculations.
As an attempt at a roadmap through this space minefield, here is my own take on the ideas that need to be avoided or discarded on the trek towards a useful plan for handling the subject and for developing a workable, reality-based response to the problem.
1. The United States already has satellite killers, why shouldn’t anyone else?
It’s not just the hard-line Russian commentators or the North Korean press that alleges that US military forces are already armed to the teeth for space warfare: the same explicit assumption often appears in the mainstream Western press as well. Sometimes the argument even goes, “Well, there’s no official acknowledgement of them—that proves they exist in secret” (as if the absence of evidence were transformed into evidence of presence).
But since the 1985 air-launch satellite intercept, a project cancelled by Congress (see “Blunt arrows: the limited utility of ASATs”, The Space Review, June 6, 2005), there is no evidence that a new satellite-killer technology has been developed. Laser tests seem focused on interfering with satellite observation equipment, as well as to determine how to develop US countermeasures against other countries using lasers to interfere with US observation satellites. Non-destructive radio spoofing seems to be the limit of the amount of force—short of setting off a nuclear weapon in space, which would be suicidal—the US is currently prepared to use against space objects.
2. The latest United States “space policy” declares that it will “deny access to space” to those players it deems hostile, which translates to pre-emptive attack on non-US space objects and their supporting ground infrastructure.
Western news dispatches from Moscow, reporting on Russian official complaints about the policy, stated that it asserted the right “to deny adversaries access to space for hostile purposes,” and that it claimed the right (some say “tacitly”) for the US to deploy weapons in space. Vitaly Davidov, deputy head of the Russian Space Agency, complained: “They [the US] want to dictate to others who is allowed to go there.”
But the actual policy document makes no such claim and displays no such intent to “deny” access. The Russian anxiety, echoed on the editorial pages and in news stories around the world, is apparently based on some over-wrought page 1 stories in US newspapers, written by people too careless to actually read the original US document and subsequent official US government clarifications, or too eager to misinterpret it in the most alarmingly stark terms.
3. The US is planning to deploy space-based weapons (including nuclear weapons) to attack other objects in space and on the ground.
Many of these stories deal with weapons that travel through space on their way to surface targets—as military missiles have done since about 1944. Stationing weapons in space for use against ground targets has long ago been recognized as far more expensive and less flexible than basing them on Earth, say, in a submarine. Even planning a space-to-space attack can take hours or days or longer for the moving attacker and target to line up in a proper position. This goes double for nuclear weapons: putting them into space on a permanent basis was last taken seriously in the Sunday comics in the late 1950’s. So these accusations seem to confuse proposed projects (usually already rejected—that’s why the proponents go public with their ideas) or even Hollywood science f