Does Space Control Equal Space Weapons?

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What do U.S. Air Force plans to establish space control really mean? Will the implementation of space control through counterspace operations include the use of weapons to attack satellites, or weapons based in orbit? The answers to those questions seem to be ever hazier as the debate about space weapons has emerged more fully into the public and political domains.

One vision of space control seems to be clearly established by the body of official military documentation defining that mission, and detailing how it is to be undertaken by the U.S. Air Force.

For example, the August 2004 “U.S. Air Force Counterspace Operations Doctrine” states: “Air Force counterspace operations are the ways and means by which the Air Force achieves and maintains space superiority. Space superiority provides freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack .”

It further explains that counterspace includes “offensive counterspace” operations that “target an adversary’s space capability (space systems, terrestrial systems, links, or third-party space capability), using a variety of permanent and/or reversible means. The ‘Five D’s’ — deception, disruption, denial, degradation and destruction — describe the range of designed effects when targeting an adversary’s space systems.”

In addition, the October 2003 “Air Force Strategic Master Plan FY ’06 and Beyond” lays out detailed plans for so-called offensive counterspace systems: “[Air Force Space Command] will continue to pursue lethal or non-lethal effects that in the future would include “full spectrum, space-based … systems that bring the capability of negating adversarial space capabilities .”

It would seem to be obvious that using permanent means to attack and destroy an adversary’s space systems, specifically satellites, would both require weapons and represent the weaponization of space. And it would be difficult to interpret the master plan’s statement about space-based negation as meaning anything other than that weapons based on orbit are being developed.

Recent statements by senior Air Force leaders, however, seem to tell a different space control story.

For example, Gen. Lance Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, was quoted in a Sept. 22 article by TheWashington Times: “We’re not talking about weaponizing space.”

Similarly, his vice commander, Lt. Gen. Daniel Leaf, said in an August interview with Foreign Policy, a political magazine, that “[ offensive counterspace operations] deny adversaries access to space capabilities. That doesn’t necessarily mean combat in space or direct attack on satellites.”

Both Lord and Leaf also have asserted in their recent public forays that the service’s current emphasis is on the use of temporary and reversible means of implementing space control, rather than destructive weapons that would create dangerous space debris.

Yet, the master plan mentions “lethal” means, and the Counterspace Operations Doctrine lists hit-to-kill anti-satellite (ASATs) weapons as potential “resources and systems” for attacking satellites. And there is not a single public Pentagon document that rules out destructive or debris-creating weapons.

Further, Lord, in his Washington Times interview, stressed that current offensive counterspace weapons are limited to so-called counter-communications systems designed to interrupt satellite signals; in other words, jammers.

At the same time, the Air Force’s budget request for fiscal year 2006 includes a number of technology research efforts applicable to both kinetic energy and laser space weapons capabilities. These include some R&D programs that specifically mention ASAT applications, such as the Starfire Optical Range laser work at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M. The budget documents show those technology-development programs costing only some $300 million in 2006 , but doubling by 2009.

As the space weapons debate is engaged by the U.S. Congress later this year, it will behoove lawmakers to ask hard questions in order to resolve the apparent disconnects between documents that, at least in theory, represent official thinking, and the public statements of Air Force leaders. Furthermore, Congress must be sure to clarify not only what space control involves today, but also how the Air Force intends to implement its space strategy in future years.

Either the United States intends to fight in, from and through space, or it does not. Either the United States intends to deploy anti-satellite weapons and/or on-orbit weapons to implement that strategy, or it does not. Either destructive weapons that will add to the already serious problem of space debris are being pursued, or they are not.

Concrete answers to these critical questions are required. The choices to be made about how best to ensure the future security in space are difficult enough even when those choices are clear.

Theresa Hitchens is director of the World Security Institute’s Center for Defense Information, and the author of “Future Security in Space: Charting a Cooperative Course.”