When the United States recently shot apart a crippled
spy satellite over the Pacific Ocean, it also tested an offensive anti-satellite
weapon and the potential for ballistic missile defense. "The shot,"
as the Pentagon called the $100
million operation conducted on February 20, came immediately after Russia
and China put forward a detailed, but flawed, proposal for a treaty to ban space
weapons at the United Nations. In response, the United States immediately reaffirmed
its unwillingness to participate in any arms control accord covering space.
These developments are just the latest wrinkles in a rapidly unfolding saga
that underscores the fact that we're entering a new strategic era characterized
by the weaponization of space. It may sound exciting, but the potential consequences
of space weaponization are cataclysmic.
"The shot" has important implications for defense planners everywhere.
To be sure, as Victoria
Samson so eloquently explained, this was an orchestrated operation and didn't
in any way mimic the real-world conditions that would prevail if a missile defense
system were to be used to "shield" the U.S. from an enemy-fired
weapon. The satellite, after all, was very large and was moving along a predictable
trajectory. Of course, all Ballistic Missile Defense tests carried out until
now have been highly idealized and largely developmental in nature, as the Government
Accountability Office noted in a recent report
on the topic. Therefore, it would not be too far off the mark to even characterize
this highly idealized action as a developmental weapons test.
In December 2006, the United States successfully
placed a reconnaissance satellite, USA 193, into low earth orbit. However, ground
control very soon thereafter lost contact with the satellite and therefore the
satellite went out of control. U.S. officials recently notified the United Nations
and potentially affected countries that USA 193 was to de-orbit by early March
Because the failure of the satellite occurred so early in its planned mission
the fuel tank used to maneuver the satellite for intelligence missions remained
tanked up on hydrazine rocket fuel. Washington claimed that it was likely that
the fuel tank would survive re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere and could well
have, albeit the chances were remote, impact on populated areas. It was feared
that the rocket fuel could disperse and infect the respiratory system of anybody
near the impact zone, perhaps even fatally.
Given this alleged possibility, President George W. Bush ordered that the satellite
be intercepted by a kinetic energy kill vehicle from an SM-3 missile interceptor
launched from an Aegis class Naval vessel in the Pacific Ocean. The plan was
for the "kill vehicle" to impact the satellite and hopefully break
up the fuel tank leading the fuel to escape before re-entry. In actual fact
the Pentagon is 80-90% certain that the kill vehicle made impact on the fuel
tank itself. It's important to also realize that "the shot"
didn't target the actual satellite as a whole, but rather its fuel tank.
Hitherto the SM-3 interceptor has been a part of Naval-based Ballistic Missile
Defense. The SM-3 is designed to hit warheads from medium range missiles at
high altitudes. Minor changes have been made to the system's software
to enable interception against the satellite. It has also been revealed that
the telemetry for "the shot" was gathered by Missile Defense systems,
according to a Pentagon background briefing, "because this is more like
a test." Also, "the shot" used the Pentagon's space identification,
tracking and targeting systems to co-ordinate the destruction of the satellite.
It's important that we understand that the Bush
administration's stated reasons for "the shot" can't be taken seriously.
Given that the fuel tank was most likely not heat shielded it should not have
survived re-entry. Even if by remote chance it were to survive re-entry, the
pressure and heat of re-entry should have vaporized its hydrazine rocket fuel.
Instead, the administration found a convenient way to do what China did last
year: test an offensive anti-satellite weapon against its own redundant satellite.
We now know that the United States knew that China was going to shoot down one
of its own satellites beforehand, but the White House decided not to protest
diplomatically before the Chinese test. This puts all the rhetoric directed
at Beijing's way following China's anti-satellite test in perspective. The United
States is not responding to Chinese space programs. It secretly welcomes them
as public justification for its own drive to weaponize space.
The Bush administration's anti-satellite weapon test has obvious implications
for Australia. Brendan Nelson (then the Australian defense minister and now
the country's opposition leader in Parliament) last year mandated a Defense
Department study, which Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has inherited, of the possibility
of equipping the Australian Navy with SM-3 interceptors for Ballistic Missile
Defense in Northeast Asia. The Bush administration's recent test demonstrated
the offensive capabilities of missile defense in general and of the SM-3 interceptor
Barely a week after "the shot," the Rudd administration, following
the U.S.-Australia "AusMin" defense talks, announced its support for
Ballistic Missile Defense and a desire to deepen Australia's participation.
This would most likely take the very form proposed by Brendan Nelson.
Washington's anti-satellite missile test must complicate matters for strategic
planners in Canberra because an Australian SM-3 capability was sold on the basis
that it would have no strategic effect on China. But "the shot" has
blown apart this rhetoric. Moreover it is also the case that the SM-3 will have
more advanced capabilities in the future such as a larger kill vehicle and faster
boosters which means that it can reach even higher altitudes. Anybody who knows
the minutiae of strategic arms control from the Cold War knows that one of the
key characteristics of a strategic missile, as opposed to a shorter range missile,
is its boost phase velocity. Strategic missiles are faster than their lower
What is also of interest here is that the USA 193 satellite was in a very low
orbit, just near the atmosphere, when impacted and its flight profile resembled
the trajectory of a strategic nuclear re-entry vehicle launched from an inter-continental
ballistic missile like those in the hands of Russia and China. "The shot"
acts as a convenient way to test the interception capabilities of the SM-3 against
inter-continental missiles without the appearance of doing so.
The SM-3 based interceptor system for the Northeast
Asian ballistic missile defense system has been sold by the U.S. Missile Defense
Agency on the basis that it only has a theoretical capability against medium
range missiles such as that possessed by North Korea. Canberra will no doubt
follow suit but we must reject any such attempt by Rudd to justify a U-turn
in the Labor party's policy.
It's true that USA 193 was larger than any strategic re-entry vehicle, was
traveling along a predicted path and came without any accompanying decoys. In
this sense "the shot" wasn't a test of the combat capabilities of
the SM-3 per se but ballistic missile defense tests, especially initially,
are highly idealized and the shooting down of the satellite was an important
test of the identification, tracking, and targeting systems. This means that
these systems could be combined with the even more capable ground-based mid-course
interceptor system in an anti-satellite missile role. The GMD system, as it
is called, lies at the heart of the current controversy between Moscow and Washington
on Eastern European-based Ballistic Missile Defense. Those most gung-ho about
ballistic missile defense want to go further and actually place interceptors
in space itself perhaps even employing directed energy weapons such as lasers
and particle beams.
This all means that we have had more than just a simple test. It was a double
whammy that tested both an anti-satellite weapon and of the strategic missile
interception capabilities of the SM-3 and of the ability of ballistic missile
defense systems to track and monitor a satellite slated for destruction.
The noted space and missile analyst John Pike
has also surmised
(see "Nations to take notice of US satellite destruction") that the
test also demonstrates a theoretical capability to intercept Chinese submarine-launched
ballistic missiles using the SM-3. This is important because it appears that
China is placing greater emphasis on the sea-based leg of its strategic nuclear
deterrence force given continued U.S. efforts to achieve a theoretical first
strike capability known as "counterforce."
This undermines U.S. and global security in a very significant way. As pointed
out by the 2008 annual Pentagon report on Chinese military power China's shift
toward a more road-mobile and sea-based strategic nuclear deterrent leads to
a whole raft of issues about the safety and reliability of its command and control
system. In other words, the U.S. attempt to develop a first strike counterforce
capability and Chinese efforts to mitigate this increases the likelihood of
an accidental nuclear exchange.
The United States has actually been committed to the weaponization of space
well before the Chinese anti-satellite missile test last year. U.S. Space Command
documents show that the United States seeks to "control," indeed even
"own," space through "space superiority," even if that means
using weapons "in, from, and through space" in the words of the Rumsfeld
Space Commission report.
The United States has been quietly working on
implementing this vision. Space weaponization is a relatively long-term project
that is expected to culminate by 2030. But the pace seems to be quickening.
The Pentagon has produced a series of doctrinal documents that clarify what
is meant by war in space and how it is to be properly waged.
Hitherto, the program has emphasized improving situational awareness in space.
It's impossible to wage war in space without knowing precisely who has what
where. However, in the 2008 budget, Congress appropriated $7 million dollars
for "offensive counterspace" operations out of a $53 million dollar
budget for "counterspace operations" which actually amounts to an
increase in the level of funding sought by the White House. That suggests
that the United States is moving up a gear on space weaponization and that this
has both congressional and White House support, which is critical for long-term
In fact we have just learned that the Air Force is working on plans to develop
a "counter-ASAT" space weapon system by 2011. Reports suggest that
most aspects of these plans are secret but some information has emerged in the
public domain that sheds some interesting light on US space weapons planning.
The system is known as the Rapid Attack Identification Detection Reporting System
(Raidrs) Block 20. The rationale for this program is to develop information
in a timely fashion to enable the Pentagon to intercept a direct-ascent anti-satellite
weapon, which are launched from the Earth, before it strikes its target in low
earth orbit. But if the asset used to achieve this objective is space-based
then this may well enable BMD hawks to also obtain a space-based BMD interception
capability and there is no reason to suppose that a "counter-ASAT"
weapon could not also function as an offensive space weapon.
Nascent Asian Space Race
As noted, China has tested an anti-satellite weapon
and Russia has stated that it would not allow other states to control space
and threaten its own space assets. In Asia, a nascent space race seems to be
developing between China, Japan and India. In the far future the large deposits
of Helium-3 on the moon's surface could lead to a militarized race to colonize
the moon to secure Helium-3 for nuclear fusion energy technologies based on
anuetronic fusion reactions in the context of depleting hydrocarbons.
Washington argues that it has too much commercially riding on space to allow
others to have the potential capability of disrupting U.S. space assets. In
1998 the failure of one satellite, the Galaxy IV, made some 80% of pagers in
the U.S. malfunction.
Though the latest Russian and Chinese space arms control proposal is flawed,
because of the clumsy definition of what constitutes a "space weapon,"
this doesn't mean that space arms control is not possible in principle. A global
space arms control regime would protect U.S., Russian, Chinese, and even Australian
space assets. An arms race in space will eventually lead other states to catch
up with the United States and thereby place Washington's commercial satellites
Space weaponization may well have cataclysmic consequences given the link between
space weapons and nuclear weapons strategy. This is because Russia, and the
United States, to a certain extent rely on satellites for early warning of nuclear
attack. As other space nations with nuclear weapons develop their space capacity
it is expected that they will follow suit.
The deployment of space weapons means that the first shot in a nuclear war
would be fired against these early warning satellites. Currently strategic planners
in Moscow have about 10 minutes between warning of an attack and the decision
to launch nuclear weapons in response before they impact. Weapons in space would
lower this in certain scenarios down to seconds. This would also apply for weapons
placed in space that would be considered to be defensive such as say a space-based
BMD interceptor or a "counter-ASAT" weapon.
On occasion, ground warning radars falsely show that a nuclear attack has been
launched. In the 1990s a false alarm went all the way up to President Boris
Yeltsin and was terminated after approximately eight minutes. We are still here,
noted analysts believe, because warning satellites would have given Moscow real
time information showing the alarm to be false. Should such a false alarm coincide
with an accident involving an early warning satellite when space weapons are
known to exist, an accidental nuclear exchange could result. The risk would
increase if the false alarm occurred during a crisis.
Space weapons could lead to itchy fingers on nuclear triggers. They would therefore
significantly increase the importance nuclear weapon states place upon nuclear
Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy