During his first few days in office, U.S. President BarackObama made a number of gestures signaling his intent to take the country in new directions in such diverse policy areas as terrorism, the environment and, in an apparent nod to arms control advocates, space weapons.
According to a defense agenda item that recently appeared on the White House Web site, under the heading “Ensure Freedom of Space,” the president intends to reclaim
leadership in space issues in part by pressing for a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites. This would represent an abrupt departure from the unilateralism of former President George W. Bush, whose national security team generally regarded arms control measures with disdain and all but invited accusations that it was more interested in developing space weapons than banning them.
But in seeking to distance themselves from the previous administration on space weapons, Mr. Obama’s national security advisers have opened themselves to a different sort of accusation – that they don’t fully understand the subject. Simply put, a ban on weapons that can interfere with military and commercial satellites would be virtually impossible to verify, much less enforce.
It doesn’t take much to interfere with the signals of a commercial communications satellite, for example; all that’s needed is a broadcast transmitter strong enough to overwhelm satellite transmissions in a given area. Readily available commercial radio equipment can easily be adapted for this purpose.
Conventional military missiles also can be used to take out satellites, as
demonstrated in 2007 and 2008, respectively. In the latter instance, the
military used its Aegis sea-based Ballistic Missile Defense system to shoot down a wayward spy satellite; all that was required was a software modification. The Pentagon has experimented in recent years with satellites that can rendezvous with other spacecraft to perform in-orbit inspections. Such satellites are only a few software algorithms and mouse clicks away from being destructive anti-satellite weapons.
The sweeping prohibition the White House says it will seek also has direct tactical military implications. Imagine, for example, the
military being barred by treaty from jamming satellite navigation signals being used to guide hostile fire, or satellite telephone calls made by adversaries to coordinate attacks. Radio frequency jamming is part and parcel of modern warfare; there’s no reason enemy signals should be considered sacrosanct simply because they travel through space at some point.
Surely Mr. Obama’s national security team is aware of these realities. One must assume they are merely trying to send a strong signal that things are going to be different under the new administration, which in principle isn’t a bad thing: while banning all space weapons – or even defining the term – is highly problematic, there is much to be said for being open to working with the international community to make space a safer operating environment.
Words have meaning, however, and setting forth unrealistic policy goals is bound to cause misunderstanding in the short term and disappointment in the long term. There are elements of the “Ensure Freedom of Space” statement worth applauding: assessing both military and diplomatic means to counter threats to space assets, assuring access to space data through redundancy and accelerating plans to shield space systems are all worthy pursuits that show the administration is paying attention to this very important area of national and economic security.
The White House should drop the rhetoric about banning space weapons in favor of something realistically attainable, perhaps drawing from the seven-page space policy statement issued by the Obama campaign in August. That statement said an Obama administration would negotiate so-called rules of the road for behavior in space, oppose the placement of weapons in space, seek to engage other nations in discussions aimed at preventing an arms race in space, and invest in systems to make
space assets less vulnerable. By adopting these goals as official policy, Mr. Obama could blunt periodic efforts by others – notably
– to seize the moral high ground with disingenuous calls for bans on space weapons, better protect
space assets and make space operations safer and more predictable for all concerned. Progress on any of these fronts would go a long way toward fulfilling the administration’s desire to re-establish
leadership of a community of spacefaring nations.