Kill the KE-Asat

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Debris kills indiscriminately in outer space. Old rocket fragments, discarded bolts and even paint chips orbit the Earth at such tremendous speed that they can harm a satellite in an instant. NASA has concluded that over 50 percent of the catastrophic accidents that could occur to the space shuttle would be the result of a strike from space debris.

Space debris is everyone’s adversary. At a time when countries and space agencies are beginning to come together and cooperate on methods to defeat this shared “enemy,” the last thing we want to do is create more space debris. But that is exactly what the Army and it’s supporters in Congress are advocating.

The kinetic energy anti-satellite (or KE-ASat, as it’s commonly known) is a space weapon, designed and built by the Army, with one destructive purpose: It slams into a satellite with the same energy as nearly one ton of exploding TNT.

This weapon is a remnant of the Cold War. It should be long forgotten, like the Soviet Union’s last ASat test, 20 years ago. Instead, the U.S. KE-ASat program has risen like a phoenix. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is the KE-ASat’s latest champion. He has moved over $20 million since 2003 through the Missile Defense Agency to resurrect the program. In recent contract materials, the Army has even called for a flight test of the reborn KE-ASat.

Sen. Sessions should be steering far more useful projects to his constituents in Huntsville. The United States relies on satellites more than any other nation for military reconnaissance, navigation and communication, and civilian news broadcasts, financial transactions, and telephone and internet transmission.

Space debris already is a problem for these satellites. More than 10,000 pieces of junk orbit the Earth, and this number is increasing every day. Weapons that increase the amount of debris will do much harm and little good. Even the U.S. Air Force, the leading proponent of space warfare technology, has clarified its strong preference to hold the line against space debris. The Air Force and the Army need to talk to one another.

Satellites save countless lives. Space debris that places satellites at risk, places lives at risk. By 2006 more than 30,000 emergency response vehicles, fire trucks and police cruisers are expected to utilize satellites for navigation or communication. Search and rescue satellites, operated jointly by the United States and Russia, have saved more than 18,000 lives since 1982.

The U.S. space industry has revenues in excess of $40 billion and employs over 140,000 workers. Testing or deploying debris-generating weapons, like the KE-ASAT, will jeopardize lives and our economy.

Thankfully, space warfare is not inevitable. If it were, it would have happened during the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union competed fiercely in military programs. We avoided space warfare then, and we can avoid it now — with wise decision-making. Debris-generating weapons, like the KE-Asat, are dumb weapons that do far more harm than good.

Michael Krepon, President Emeritus |Director, Space Security Project

Michael Katz-Hyman, Research Assistant, Henry L. Stimson Center Washington