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SM-3 launch
Last month’s intercept of USA 193 by a modified SM-3 missile (above) has racheted up the debate on the need for, and effectiveness of, a treaty banning space weapons. (credit: US Navy)

Will we burn in heaven like we do down here?

It is rather unusual when people who have significant disagreements with each other spend so much time agreeing with each other, but that is exactly what happened during a panel discussion titled “The New International Arms Race in Space—And How to Avoid It” held at The Independent Institute, a Washington, DC think tank, on March 7. The four panelists effectively represented what one might consider to be the right, center-right, center-left, and left wing positions on the issue, but all still relatively within the mainstream of American thinking on the subject. Surprisingly, although they disagreed on the need, desirability, and realism of a ban on space weapons, they found significant agreement on many issues. These included the nature of the threat to the United States, particularly from China, and the need to protect American space assets using a range of tools and methods, including diplomacy.

The speakers included: Mike Moore, former editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, research fellow at The Independent Institute, and author of the new book, Twilight War: The Folly of U.S. Space Dominance (see “Review: Twilight War”, The Space Review, February 25, 2008); Peter Hays, associate director of the Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies; Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information; Jeff Kueter, president of the George C. Marshall Institute; and Ivan Eland, a senior fellow at The Independent Institute, who served as moderator.

Space war/tactical war

Peter Hays led the discussion, issuing a disclaimer that his comments and opinions were his own and did not represent those of his employer. Hays explained how space is of increasing importance to the US military. During World War 2, a bomb dropped from a high-altitude bomber landed an average of eight kilometers from its target. Today long-range precision strike is common, thus dramatically reducing the damage to non-military targets and the deaths of civilians. Much of that is due to space assets like GPS.

Surprisingly, although the panelists disagreed on the need, desirability, and realism of a ban on space weapons, they found significant agreement on many issues.

In a period of only about a decade the United States went from using space assets primarily for communications, targeting, and bomb damage assessment, to making them a central part of modern tactical warfare. Hays noted that this was one of the primary changes in military space utilization since the Cold War. Whereas space used to be primarily a strategic asset, today it is a tactical asset, used in every aspect of combat operations. That change, as others noted, has removed one of the key deterrents to space warfare.

Given the American reliance upon space assets, Hays said that the United States should look at every option that might help secure them, including arms control. However, he also noted that the history of ASAT arms control was not good. In 1978–1979 the United States and Soviet Union conducted three rounds of ASAT arms control negotiations and never arrived at an agreement. Later in the 1980s the two countries tried again and failed. Many of the issues that led to the inability to forge a treaty then continue to exist today, he said. In fact, the situation may be worse today because of the acceleration of certain trends, like the increasing usefulness of space for tactical warfare.

Falling over the brink

Theresa Hitchens was the next speaker and she took a slightly more alarmed view of the current international situation. She sees an “incipient arms race in space” due to many of the trends that Hays had referred to. Hitchens noted that during the Cold War, even though both the United States and the Soviet Union possessed ASAT capabilities, the two sides “did not fall over the brink” and enter a full-fledged space arms race because they were both concerned with protecting their “national technical means”—i.e. spy satellites necessary for monitoring what the other side was doing.

But today space technology has become integrated with tactical military operations, raising the question of what is the target: is it the weapon on the battlefield, or the satellite high above that is dramatically enhancing the weapon’s power?

Hitchens mentioned the recent American destruction of the failed USA 193 intelligence satellite using a Navy SM-3 missile. That test demonstrated that the United States already possesses some ASAT capabilities, which was certainly the political message that the US government wanted to send, she said. She suggested that even if the Bush administration did not intend for the action to be viewed as a response to China’s ASAT test a year earlier, it was highly likely that this is how it will be viewed around the world. It may lead the Russians to think that they may have to demonstrate a revived ASAT capability, otherwise they may be perceived as not as strong as the US and China.

Hitchens noted that the American action could also embolden China. There were indications that the Chinese leadership was surprised by the strong, negative reaction to their January 2007 ASAT test. This reaction possibly undercut ASAT advocates within China, because they had done something that hurt China’s image abroad. However, with the American action the Chinese hawks are probably claiming vindication: they were right because the Americans have now done the same thing.

Similarly, the Chinese and American actions may lead to an Indian military space program. Members of the Indian military have been unsuccessfully arguing for a military space program for some time now. But there are indications that the advocates are now gaining traction, in part because of comparisons to what happened to India in regards to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, where India detonated a bomb after the treaty had been enacted, and earned the enmity of much of the world. Indian military space advocates can now argue that if there is going to be an “ASAT arms race” between the major powers, and if this eventually leads to some kind of negotiated constraints on space weapons, India should get into the game now, before any constraints are imposed, and thereby both secure its capability and a negotiating position. And of course if India does this, Pakistan will feel pressured to respond. Iran may also feel a need to develop a similar capability.

The USA 193 intercept emonstrated that the United States already possesses some ASAT capabilities, which was certainly the political message that the US government wanted to send, Hitchens said.

Hitchens also said that there is a good chance that the weapons developed by these nations will have some very bad side effects. Kinetic vehicles—like the Chinese ASAT and the American SM-3 missile—are attractive to countries entering into the military space field “because you can see what you hit,” she said. There is no ambiguity when the tiny glowing dot suddenly blossoms into a spray of shiny particles. Those kinds of kinetic kill tests could then dramatically increase the space debris problem, and the threat to American satellites. So the United States’ actions are encouraging other countries to develop weapons and that may have negative effects for our own space capabilities.

When is a weapon a weapon?

The third speaker was Jeff Kueter, who reiterated the previous speakers’ comments about the changed nature of military space. During the Cold War, space assets provided stability and both sides recognized this. But the new environment is such that attacking space capabilities—particularly American military space assets—may provide an adversary with a real advantage. The integration of space and aerial and terrestrial assets is uniquely American, and therefore makes the space assets vulnerable.

Kueter noted that the Chinese are developing a broad range of anti-space capabilities, indicating that they have a comprehensive vision. Their space program is not as transparent as the American program, but clearly indicates an integrated system. Kueter repeated the claim that the Chinese had “blinded” an American reconnaissance satellite (but failed to note that the US government never protested this event, and apparently considered it a tracking effort, rather than a provocation or even a weapons test). He also said that China was developing “a robust jamming capability.” Given American space capabilities, it was logical for the Chinese to make these investments, he said.

Kueter finished by noting several requirements for a treaty, including a clear definition of the goals, a method to monitor compliance, and an understanding of the advantages of cheating. Because so many space technologies are dual use, it will be nearly impossible to define what should be banned, how to ban it, and how to verify that the other side is not cheating.

Some old time arms control

Mike Moore was the fourth speaker for the panel and he noted that since the end of the Cold War many people, particularly within the military, had been looking to China as “the next great threat” to the United States. But he said that this was based upon a major misreading of the past international situation. We should stop using the Cold War as a model for how we look at the world, he argued. During the Cold War the Soviet Union sought to challenge the United States on many different levels, including ideologically and economically, as well as politically and militarily. They were rivals in virtually every sphere of global politics.

But the Chinese, Moore says, learned a lot from the collapse of the USSR. They no longer seek to challenge the United States ideologically, or even on a global scale. They sell a lot of goods to the United States and they buy American treasury bonds. Thus, unlike the Cold War, the two countries have close trade ties and mutual interests. “We need China… and in return they need us,” he said. Similarly, unlike the Cold War, today we are all looking at global problems like climate change and disease that will require global cooperation.

As for the subject of a space weapons treaty, Moore admitted that it will be difficult to define the weapons, and this may prevent the parties from reaching agreement, but he said that “we won’t know that until we try.” He noted that China had repeatedly called for a space weapons treaty. American critics have repeatedly responded that the Chinese and Russian proposal was not serious. “Then why not call their bluff?” he asked rhetorically.

Moore blamed much of the lack of progress on space arms control to what he calls a belief in “American exceptionalism”—the argument that the United States was created unlike any other nation on Earth, is exceptional, and therefore should not be constrained by the same strictures on action as other countries—“we can do what we want.” But Moore finished by suggesting that the United States needed to ask a simple question: “Are we the instigators of the arms race?” If so, we may be creating our own problems.

Banning actions rather than things

Moderator Ivan Eland then led the question and answer session by posing a question about the specifics of space arms control. Jeff Kueter responded by noting that the Chinese ASAT utilized a ballistic missile for its first stage. This presents a dilemma for those wishing to ban such weapons. What do you ban? The ballistic missile? That is dual use (used as a strategic weapon) and therefore unlikely to be banned outright. Do you ban the kinetic kill vehicle? If so, how do you find it because it is so small?

Hitchens responded that any effort in space arms control should focus less on banning weapons than on monitoring and banning activities. The goal should be a treaty that bars the testing and use of the weapons, even though the weapons might still exist. She noted that the treaty that the Russians and Chinese have repeatedly proposed is “lacking” in this area and unrealistic. But she also added that developing our own space weapons does nothing to protect our own assets, which remain vulnerable to attack.

Because so many space technologies are dual use, it will be nearly impossible to define what should be banned, how to ban it, and how to verify that the other side is not cheating, according to Kueter.

Hays replied that the biggest problem with any kind of treaty is that the fundamental technology components of a weapon are rather broad—“if you can maneuver and you can transmit,” that’s the basis of an ASAT capability, he said. He also noted that during the Cold War this proved to be a major sticking point. The Soviet Union wanted to classify the Space Shuttle as a space weapon because it could theoretically be used to capture and return a satellite to Earth (an argument that the Soviets might have believed, but which was really not practical when you consider that catching, securing inside the payload bay, and then flying without knowing the center of gravity of the captured satellite, would be impossible—not to mention concerns about evasion efforts or booby traps).

Hays also noted that more sophisticated space weapons, such as lasers and jamming, will be even more difficult to detect and monitor. The trends do not favor using treaties to staunch the proliferation of these weapons.

Moore later responded to an oft-made rhetorical claim that virtually anything could be a “space weapon,” including the Russian Progress spacecraft or a Chinese taikonaut equipped with a hammer or a can of spray paint. Moore said that the laws of physics are rather challenging, and in order to use a space vehicle as a weapon, you really have to design it as a weapon, giving it the unique capabilities required to attack other satellites. (A corollary to this is that you also have to test it as a weapon in order to have any confidence in its abilities.) Moore also discounted the notion of a “space Pearl Harbor” first proposed back in 2000 by a special committee headed by Donald Rumsfeld. A large-scale effective surprise attack on American satellites is impossible, because in order to have any confidence in your ability to carry out such an attack, you have to test, and testing will be detected.

Moore conceded that it would be difficult to achieve a treaty. But he rejected using the Cold War experience of failed treaty attempts as an excuse for not even trying. The United States and Soviet Union distrusted each other on everything, whereas “China and the United States are sleeping in the same bed.” They are not as adversarial as some people claim.

page 2: private spaceflight, unpredictable results >>


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