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Strike from Space: Seizing the Ultimate High Ground

Strike from Space: Seizing the Ultimate High Ground

8 Mins
March 18, 2011

July/August 2007 -- In 1989, a solar flare helped trigger the shutdown of a good portion of eastern Canada’s electrical grid.

In May 1998, almost 90 percent of all the pagers in use in the U.S. and parts of the Caribbean were knocked out of commission. The culprit this time was the failure of PanAmSat Corporation’s Galaxy IV communications satellite.

Such electronic and communications outages reveal the inherent vulnerabilities of our technological civilization, showing what can happen when parts of a complex, interrelated, high-tech infrastructure are disrupted.

They also expose what might happen if space weapons were used by an enemy to deliberately cripple our nation—or even the whole global economy.

In early 2001, the Rumsfeld Commission, chaired by Donald Rumsfeld before he became Secretary of Defense, warned that America was vulnerable to a “space Pearl Harbor.” But since then, even as we have come to rely more and more on satellites for navigation, communications, intelligence, and national defense, little has been done to protect these critical assets from attack and disruption.

At the same time, however, our foes—both current and potential—have come to see America’s space-based technology as not only vulnerable, but essentially defenseless.

In January of this year, for example, China tested an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT). Launched using an intermediate-range ballistic missile, the weapon flew directly to its target—an old Chinese weather satellite—and destroyed it simply by slamming into it.

This test by a communist regime of an ASAT weapon should be a wake-up call for a nation that relies on satellite technology for almost every aspect of its communications and national defense. China’s military sees America’s dependence on space assets as a weakness that they can exploit.

Donald Rumsfeld warned that America was vulnerable to a “space Pearl Harbor.”

Currently, the U.S. has between sixty and seventy major military satellites in orbit. Thirty of these make up the global positioning system (GPS), the navigation constellation that has become vital for guiding our nation’s missiles, bombs, cell phones, lost drivers, yachtsmen who never learned to use a sextant, and, more recently, robots in factories and warehouses. The Pentagon also maintains a wide variety of specialized communications satellites; in fact, it’s the world’s number-one purchaser of commercial communications satellite capability.

In addition, the military operates about a dozen remote-sensing spacecraft for missile-launch warning and weather prediction. There are also at least six major spy satellites, some equipped with radar and some with visual and multi-spectral sensors, all controlled by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Recently a couple of private commercial firms, GeoEye and Digital Globe, have begun to supply the Defense Department with imagery from their own satellites, supplementing the highly classified data that comes from the NRO. These firms plan to launch three new satellites over the next two or three years.

The U.S. employs a number of experimental satellites, too, such as the recently launched TacSat 2, part of a program designed to give field commanders better and quicker access to useful intelligence from space. Another experimental satellite is the controversial NFIRE, whose mission is to gather information on the heat signatures of various missiles and to test a new laser communications payload. If this technology works, it could be used on future anti-ballistic-missile satellites.

Together, these various systems, along with their launch vehicles and bases, constitute America’s military space power. They provide the means for pilots in Nevada to control armed Predator drones in the skies over Afghanistan and Iraq. They allow a battalion commander in Baghdad to keep track of every vehicle in his unit by glancing at a screen inside his command tank. They enable the Secretary of Defense and the President to monitor major military operations worldwide.

Comprehensive space power defines what it means to have effective military force in the twenty-first century. The challenge now is not only how best to use that power, but how to protect it.

The President’s National Space Policy, published last fall, directs the Secretary of Defense to “develop capabilities, plans and options to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, deny such freedom to adversaries.” However, there are few indications that the Defense Department is trying seriously to implement this policy. In fact, the DoD seems to be working much harder to avoid provoking either the Chinese or Democratic critics in Congress. Only a few senior leaders in the Air Force and elsewhere—such as the former commander of Air Force Space Command, General Lance Lord (Ret.)—have tried to force the government to take a more realistic approach to space defense issues.

Right now, the U.S. has extremely limited options when it comes to defending its satellites. If a space object is detected and confirmed as hostile, ground operators can try to move our spacecraft out of its way. Even if successful, though, this is a limited and ineffective way to defend a satellite, since it uses up precious onboard maneuvering fuel. Evading even a primitive enemy ASAT could cut years off the life-span of a billion-dollar asset.

Space power defines what it means to have effective military force in the twenty-first century.

We do have a few near-term anti-satellite options. There is an existing satellite jamming weapon called the Counter Communications System. This ground-based device supposedly jams a satellite’s operation but does it no permanent harm. (Little information has been released on its effectiveness.) Then there is the Airborne Laser (ABL), a 747 aircraft equipped with a chemically powered laser designed to shoot down “Scud”-type missiles as they are taking off. It has been suggested that the ABL may be able to blind or seriously damage a satellite in low orbit. However, its funding has been threatened recently by the Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Other possible anti-satellite weapons are Ground Based Missile Defense (GMD) interceptors, now being deployed in Alaska and California. GMD interceptors are the first stage of a very rudimentary national missile defense system, and they could be modified to attack low-orbiting enemy satellites as well. Recent test failures have been much publicized, but the Missile Defense Agency claims that the problems have been identified, although the agency is reluctant to announce when it plans to resume testing.

However, the biggest obstacle to a space-based system of national defense is not the lack of technological know-how, but the lack of moral and political will.

The prospect of America putting anti-ballistic missile weapons into orbit has long agitated the left, both internationally and at home. In March 1983, when Ronald Reagan called upon the scientific community to make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete” by means of a missile defense system, critics ridiculed his idea with the label “Star Wars.” In fact, while Reagan was interested in beginning the process of technological development for an anti-missile defense, he was not wedded to any one concept or system. His Strategic Defense Initiative began as an effort to answer the question: Could America be defended from a Soviet missile attack, and what would it take to do so?

In 1991, under then–Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, the DoD announced that it was planning to deploy something called Global Protection Against Limited Strikes. This was to have consisted of at least 2,000 orbiting “Brilliant Pebbles”—small satellites with heat-seeking guidance systems, designed to hit enemy missiles during their boost phases. This concept was based on the military principle that it’s easier to be “up” and shoot “down” than vice-versa—a phenomenon well understood by nine-year-old boys with water balloons. But the project was canceled by Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, with the words, “I’m taking the stars out of Star Wars.”

Since then, almost no work has been done on space-based missile defense systems. According to recent reports, the Military Defense Agency asked for $10 million in the 2008 budget to begin work on a small test program. But under current plans, the Pentagon will not even consider deploying any sort of “son of Brilliant Pebbles” until about 2015. Instead, they are working on a ground-based system called the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI). It’s a missile that would be launched only after an enemy missile has already left its launch pad, and it would then chase the attacking missile until hitting and destroying it. At least, that’s the idea.

But there are inherent problems with the concept, the first being that this weapon would be “down” and shooting “up.” Also, KEIs would have to be based in nations near sites from which enemy missiles might be launched. That would give those nations a de facto veto over whether the U.S. could defend itself. Moreover, the KEI program has been slowed due to funding limitations, and congressional Democrats have targeted its warhead system for deep cuts.

Interesting additions to the array of possible space weapons are the so-called “Space Strike Weapons,” or “Space to Earth” weapons. The most advanced concept is based on tungsten rods that would leave orbit and hit targets on earth with incredible kinetic energy. So far, this initiative has been confined to a few “blue sky” studies, including the 2002 Rand Corporation publication “Space Weapons—Earth Wars.” That report concluded that such weapons would not be effective against “runways, deeply buried bunkers, bridges and long low buildings.” It would take a very large weapon or several smaller ones to destroy the types of deeply buried targets in Iran and North Korea that might need to be targeted.

Yet even these paltry and sporadic efforts to defend America from a strike from space have provoked the left wing, including the Center for Defense Information (CDI), which has been crusading against space weapons for many years. Such opponents believe that space, like a virgin, would lose its purity once orbital weapons were deployed. And since the DoD is moving with glacial slowness towards a possible decision on these matters, there is plenty of time for such political foes to make themselves heard.

Inside the national security bureaucracy, mostly hidden from public view, there’s an ongoing debate about space weapons. The intelligence community apparently does not want the U.S. to develop anything that could be described as a space weapon because it believes that this will lead other nations to develop their own, thus endangering our expensive and defenseless spy satellites. This fear is abetted, of course, by complaints and threats from our foes and pseudo-friends. Even in the wake of this year’s Chinese ASAT test, officials in China, Russia, and France speak as if their national security depends on the continued defenselessness of America’s military space infrastructure.

So, despite the urgent need to equip the next generation of major American military satellites with effective self-defense systems, that need is being ignored. Such systems could include low-power, solid-state lasers that could blind or even fry enemy anti-satellite weapons—or small, kinetic, last-ditch defense systems, analogous to the Navy’s Phalanx rapid-fire guns. There’s even the possibility that high-powered microwave weapons could be used to defend large spacecraft.

If built and deployed, such weapons would indeed constitute unilateral “space weaponization.” But the idea that some treaty or a so-called “Rules of the Road” agreement would prevent other nations from developing and testing space weapons is utterly naïve. While America would be expected to comply with every dot and comma of such an agreement, other nations would violate it with impunity, as we saw with the now-abolished ABM treaty. Recently, we learned that in 1987 the Soviets had launched a very large space battle station armed with kinetic kill weapons. Fortunately, the system’s only test failed and the USSR collapsed before it could be repeated. But even after the Soviet foreign minister publicly admitted that Russia was in violation of the ABM treaty, the U.S. continued to comply with it until the Bush administration pulled out in 2002.

Future battles will be fought outside of Earth’s atmosphere.

It’s also been argued that if space becomes a theater of war, civilian space commercialization will be rendered impossible. However, occasional battles on the high seas never stopped people from profitably shipping cargo and passengers around the world, nor has the advent of air warfare made a dent in the expansion of air travel. Space warfare may disrupt the civilian use of certain satellites, but it will never totally shut them  down. As long as there is money to be made by transmitting electrons from one place to another, commercial telecommunications will find ways to keep operating.

Of course, if some nation were to detonate a nuclear weapon in orbit, all bets would be off. The electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from the blast would knock out almost all satellites except for those shielded by the Earth itself, or those few spacecraft specifically designed to survive a nuclear war. EMP weapons have to potential to knock out most of our digital civilization. Electric power and information networks would be destroyed, and anything that ran on microchips, from cell phones to children’s toys, would be wrecked. It would take years to recover and to reconstitute our civilization.

That is why entrepreneurs should be encouraged to build a new generation of electronic equipment with low-cost shielding, providing individuals and companies with survivable systems to help negate this threat. The proliferation of protected electronic devices will help make an EMP attack less likely, or will at least mitigate its effects.

The nature of space technology, and of space itself as the ultimate “high ground,” means that, inevitably, there will be weapons and future battles fought outside of Earth’s atmosphere. Since no argument and no foreign threat will ever change the minds of those ideologically opposed to space weaponization, decisions about building space warfare systems must be made strictly on the basis of military and strategic utility—and not with the goal of appeasing the critics of America’s national defense.

If we do not seek military superiority in the “high frontier,” we can be certain that our enemies will. The question for us, then, is not whether to weaponize space, but how to use our technological advantages in the space environment to protect America in the future.

This is not an option: our civilization’s survival hangs in the balance.

Taylor Dinerman
About the author:
Taylor Dinerman
Science and Technology