Space-based weapons likely will cost far more than their terrestrial counterparts without offering measurable improvements for the full range of missions they might perform, according to a new report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan think tank here.
The report also said that space-based missile defenses can easily be overcome by countermeasures that are far less expensive to develop and deploy.
“Arming the Heavens: A Preliminary Assessment of the Potential Cost and Cost-Effectiveness of Space-Based Weapons,” released Nov. 1, was authored by Steven Kosiak, the center’s vice president for budget studies.
Satellites have been used for military purposes since the dawn of the space age, and three countries – the former Soviet Union, the United States and China – have tested anti-satellite weapons. No one has acknowledged permanently deploying weapons in orbit, but China’s test of an
anti-satellite weapon in January has rekindled debate over whether the U.S. military should take that step.
This report analyzed the financial costs associated with the development, deployment and operation of space-based weapons over the next 20 years for each of four purposes: defending against ballistic missiles, attacking surface or airborne targets, destroying or disabling enemy satellites and protecting U.S. satellites from anti-satellite weapons. For most purposes,
terrestrial-based systems would be comparably capable and more cost-effective, the report said.
For missile defense from space, the report analyzed space-based kinetic-energy interceptors, which would destroy a missile by smashing into it at high speed, and space-based lasers, which would use electromagnetic radiation to destroy a target.
estimated a 20-year life-cycle cost of $29 billion to $290 billion for a
kinetic-energy interceptor system in space, with the low end of the estimate assuming
a technological leap in kill-vehicle miniaturization. The 20-year cost for a laser system would be $128 billion to $196 billion, but the risk associated with developing this technology
is far greater, the report said. Ground-, sea- or air-based ballistic missile defense systems, all of which the United States already is
operating or developing, cost significantly less, at $15 billion to $80 billion over their respective life cycles.
“Despite these high costs, it appears that neither of these systems would have more than, at best, a very modest capability, even in the absence of countermeasures,” the report states. Simple countermeasures could be employed to substantially reduce or even negate
the effectiveness of a system.
Kinetic-energy weapons intended to strike terrestrial targets from space would be substantially less expensive
than those meant to destroy incoming missiles. But those systems still would
cost substantially more than terrestrial- or sea-based alternatives, like
submarine-launched ballistic missiles equipped with maneuverable re-entry vehicles, the report said. Used as ground-strike weapons, space-based lasers
carry high risk and only be effective against
a “narrow class of relatively soft targets.”
As anti-satellite weapons, space-based kinetic-energy systems or lasers would
not be any better than terrestrial
capabilities the United States already operates, and thus would not be a cost-effective investment. Such
less expensive than space-based missile defenses
, still would
tens of billions of dollars. The report suggests a relatively inexpensive alternative:
The final possibility the report addresses is the use of space-based systems
to neutralize various types of attacks against satellites.
Such protective systems
“would probably have, at best, only very limited capabilities against some of the simplest, as well as potentially most dangerous, [anti-satellite] threats likely to emerge in coming years,” the report said.
Hank Cooper, chairman of the missile defense advocacy group High Frontier, disagreed with the report’s assertion that a space-based system for missile defense would be
too costly and ineffective. Space provides the best vantage point for intercepting ballistic missiles with kinetic-energy systems, he said.
“A space-based system is ubiquitous,” said Cooper, former head of the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, the predecessor to the current Missile Defense Agency. “If it’s done right, you can shoot down missiles in every
phase of flight: boost, midcourse
or endoatmospheric descent. It’s superior.”
A space-based laser
faces significant technological hurdles, he said, but a kinetic system is
within U.S. technical and budgetary means.
“A space-based system could be built,” Cooper said. “And it could be affordable. It’s just a matter of political will.”