U.S. space control policy, a continuing topic of debate, is in jeopardy of developing in a reactive way that is driven by foreign space control activity and public speculation rather than a proactive, deliberate policy designed to assure the United States and its allies access to the space environment while at the same time denying it to any adversaries.
Opposition to space control, specifically the opposition to weapons in space and destructive anti-satellite (Asat) systems, unrealistically proposes that if the United States restrains from developing such technology, it will encourage other nations to follow suit.
Unfortunately, this option is no longer possible. A race to develop Asat weapons has been underway for some time. If the United States does not formalize and publicly promulgate a national space control policy soon, the combination of service-specific space control policies, public disclosure of American Asat weapon programs, think-tank speculation and press coverage of suspicious dual-use space technology experiments will send a dangerously ambiguous message to nations already engaged in developing space control programs.
The need for a robust U.S. space control architecture and national space control policy is clear: the United States — reliant on space-based assets for civil, commercial, intelligence, military and scientific use — must safeguard its national space infrastructure and deny any adversary the advantage of the ultimate high-ground. A national space control policy need not specifically champion space-based Asat weapons over other forms of space negation, but it should make clear that the United States will not limit itself to a finite set of options.
A bold national space control policy that removes an adversary’s doubt regarding U.S. resolve to defend its space assets while denying an enemy sanctuary in space sets the stage for successful diplomatic resolution to challenges against U.S. space activity prior to escalation.
Nations already embarked on a course to attack U.S. space assets will not be emboldened by such a national space control policy. However, a national space control policy will warn them of the repercussions of such action.
Unfortunately, the current national space control policy status fails to manage foreign perceptions of U.S. space control intentions and sends mixed signals regarding the consequences of attacking U.S. space assets. In 2004 when a U.S. Farsi-language satellite broadcast into Iran was terrestrially jammed from Cuba, it took a month before the communist government, responding to U.S. protests, identified an Iranian diplomatic facility in Havana — the apparent source of the jamming — and halted the interference. No known action aside from diplomatic protest has been taken against Iran, which ceased only at the request of the Cuban government.
Washington’s delayed response, ultimately enforced by Havana, sent other nations a dangerous message: Washington’s uncertainty regarding its space control policy may be an exploitable weakness.
Withdrawing from U.S. development of Asat technology — both terrestrially and space-based Asat systems — leaves the United States with unacceptably limited options in the face of the growing threat of foreign Asat weapons development. Opponents to space control, asserting that developing Asat weapons will fuel a space arms race, ignore dangerous warning signs telegraphed by ongoing Russian and Chinese activity.
In early 2004 Russian President Valdimir Putin appointed Anatoly Perminov, the former commander of the Russian Space Forces, to head the new Russian Federal Space Agency. In his previous post, Colonel-General Perminov did not rule out the “…possibility that arms may be deployed in space in the future.” Putin, alarmed at the post-Soviet decline in Russian military space capability, is sending strong domestic and international signals focused on reinvigorating Russian space control capabilities.
As China closely watched U.S. space-enabled forces dominate in Kosovo, Afghanistan and both Gulf Wars, Beijing certainly concluded that space assets are critical not only for the United States’ ability to wage war, but for their own victory on the 21st Century battlefield.
Concerned with U.S. force multiplication through space superiority, China is developing Asat technology to include high-energy lasers and satellite jamming systems, even publicly proposing what it called “parasitic microsatellites.” A July 2003 Defense Department report to Congress assessed that China is developing and procuring laser technology capable of damaging satellites in low orbits, procuring state-of-the-art Asat jamming technology and developing direct-ascent Asat systems.
This past summer The New Atlantis, a journal with articles about technology and society, described the Chinese asymmetrical warfare concept of Assassin’s Mace, which calls for striking America’s vulnerability in space to gain strategic surprise.
All the while, Beijing has publicly opposed Asat weapons development, even joining with Russia and other nations in a UN resolution to prevent an arms race in outer space.
An arms-control/non-proliferation solution to weaponizing space will fail to prevent Asat weapon development. The difficulty associated with policing dual-use technology presents a major obstacle to regulation. Countries can rapidly transform benign-use aerospace technology to crude, but capable, Asat technology with few, if any, indicators. In worst-case scenarios, there may be no detection until a fully developed anti-satellite weapon is fielded or employed. Specific technologies readily converted to Asat applications include lasers (suited for ground-based blinding and dazzling of imagery satellites), radio and electromagnetic technology adapted to jam a variety of satellite components and sensors (communications, navigation, radar imagery, etc.), and small-satellite or micro-satellite platforms, which could be used for a variety of on-orbit Asat attacks.
The threat to all satellites from space debris fuels objective arguments against destructive Asat weapons or weapons intended to disable satellite maneuverability. Though Asat weapons capable of reversible, non-destructive effects are desirable, the United States should not limit Asat weapons development to soft-kill only. Alternatively, a National Space Control Policy should call for the removal from orbit of unwanted, or dead , satellites — including an adversary’s disabled satellites.
Concerned nations should be assured that the United States, though dedicated to reducing space debris, maintains the right to defend its national security space interests.
The Air Force’s August 2004 Counterspace Operations Doctrine document , recent Asat weapons program disclosures regarding an imagery-satellite disrupter and a satellite communications jammer , and various think-tank studies speculating on the how and the why of U.S. space control all hint at America’s space-control intentions.
However, absent a formal national space control policy , the international forum is left to draw its own conclusions — possibly causing disastrous miscalculations for both sides. Finally, a U.S. national space control policy must advocate for the full range of space control options — including space-based Asat systems — to secure and safeguard America’s ultimate high ground.
Brent Andberg was a former Space Plans & Policies staff officer in Headquarters Marine Corps at the Pentagon. He participated in a variety of space control studies and in several joint-service wargames incorporating space control effects on the modern battlespace.