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The hype surrounding space weapons often has little to do with what’s actually being done in the field, and by whom. (credit: Ball Aerospace)

Space weapons: hardware, paperware, beware?

On November 8, Russian president Vladimir Putin obliquely warned the United States to not start a “space arms race”. His words, addressed to “some nations” but unambiguously referring to the US, denounced those “seeking to untie their hands in order to take weapons to outer space, including nuclear weapons.” He then complained about “stagnation in the sphere of disarmament, which is far from our fault”—referring to previous Russian proposals for banning space weapons.

How did Putin (and the head of his military intelligence agency, at whose celebration Putin was speaking) come to this conclusion? Was it something the spies had discovered, or was it just something he had read? And what are the real barriers to credible and effective international agreements to prevent the use of force in outer space? Are the Russians really as innocent as Putin claims?

It is undeniably scary that a veteran Russian cosmonaut, Valentin Lebedev, can describe the following scenario on Moscow television recently, and be widely believed. “When the Americans return to the Moon, they will build a base of global control [the Russian word implies ‘monitoring’] for all launches of missiles from Earth,” he predicted, adding that they are also trying to trick Moscow into going bankrupt over a project to send cosmonauts to Mars. “And of course,” he concluded, “they will not allow on the moon anyone who wants it.”

“When the Americans return to the Moon, they will build a base of global control [the Russian word implies ‘monitoring’] for all launches of missiles from Earth,” said veteran Russian cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev.

There certainly have been enough printed accusations of US war plans for outer space. Just as one example, an ABC story dated October 18th and titled “U.S. Says ‘Keep Out of My Space’” devoted the bulk of the story to relaying the opinions of Craig Eisendrath, a former diplomat who is identified as the co-author of a book on space weapons coming out shortly (co-authored with Helen Caldicott, a well-known crusader against US military policy).

Warns Eisendrath, “We’re going to be testing weapons towards the end of the year—deployment will follow.” And the article’s subtitle, “New National Space Policy Favors Weapons in Orbit”, unambiguously endorsed this claim. And it was far from the only such press story around the world that week.

US space weapons: science fact or fiction?

What about the “space weapons” whose tests Eisendrath (and others) claim are imminent? He was referring both to a military project called NFIRE, part of US research on missile defense, and other more secret projects. As for NFIRE, this experiment has been widely reported—and widely misrepresented—for several years, with allegations that it is a prototype space-to-space anti-satellite weapon.

ABC News had earlier run exactly such a story (still online), calling the planned test the “first step towards weapons in space.” Author Marc Lallanilla quoted “one senior government official and defense expert” as criticizing NFIRE because “We’re crossing the Rubicon into space weaponization” the official continued, asked to remain unnamed.

“Weapons in space are not inevitable,” the official added. “If it were, it would have happened already,” suggesting instead, “We should instead be taking the lead to make [weapons] agreements with other countries.”

Lallanilla displays instinctive one-sidedness in his reporting, writing (for example) that “after the former Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, the U.S. military began to develop and deploy satellites for communications and reconnaissance,” but saying nothing about Soviet military (and even weapons) developments and deployments in the same timeframe. The official he quotes also seems to share this mistaken belief that no weapons have ever appeared in space before (the Soviet Union—but not the United States—did this in the 1960’s, 1970’s, and even the 1980’s at least).

The author’s oversight is not surprising, since as it turns out, Lallanilla had never covered space before (or since): he specializes in “lifestyle” subjects, as can be verified by googling his name. With that background (or lack of it), it’s hard to comprehend how he could have found and won the trust of an “inside source” like the one he claims to be quoting (see my rebuttal article at MSNBC.)

But NFIRE, as with many other experiments over the past 20 years (including one conducted aboard the space shuttle mission STS-39), isn’t quite so obviously a “space weapon” or even a “prototype weapon”. It is only aimed at characterizing the visibility of rocket plumes in space (which are very different from such plumes in the atmosphere) as detected by sensors looking across a pure vacuum. The information is critical to evaluating the practicality of hitting enemy missiles during their first minutes of flight, perhaps by ground-or air-launched interceptors stationed just across the border, or even perhaps from space-borne platforms passing overhead.

NFIRE, as with many other experiments over the past 20 years, isn’t quite so obviously a “space weapon” or even a “prototype weapon”.

Whatever the eventual course of such experiments (and space-based interceptors face a significant and probably insurmountable challenge in deploying and maintaining an adequate number to provide uninterrupted coverage of enemy missile sites), the technology is not applicable to anti-satellite weapons for orbital combat. The reason is based on physics, not politics. Orbiting satellites are coasting, and so do not display the massive rocket plume that for thrusting missiles provides the signature to aim at. Any sensor developed for the missile application would never see a satellite sharply enough to aim a weapon at it.

Such anti-missile systems are not space weapons in that sense, based on real-world technological limitations. And even if they (and thus all similar weapons systems) were, the existing Russian anti-missile installations around Moscow and at test ranges would also go to the head of the line as in-place space combat forces—but they never seem to be mentioned. NFIRE is no poster child for “peace in space” campaigners, if described accurately and honestly.

Views of a veteran “space warrior”

What else might the Pentagon have up its sleeve (or “down its silo”) along the lines of space combat hardware? In an insightful assessment by a former top DoD “space warrior”, published earlier this year, the answer seems to be, “not much – if anything”.

Former Brigadier General Simon (“Pete”) Worden, writing in the March/April 2006 issue of the pro-disarmament Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, directly addressed the theme of a “war scare of sorts” that had recently erupted when “the New York Times published a front-page article alleging the United States was on the verge of authorizing a massive, secret space weapons development program” involving orbital deployments.

“There’s just one problem,” Worden continued: “A massive U.S. space weapons program does not exist. Not only has there not been a space weapons push, but overall U.S. military use of space is in sharp decline.” He provided examples of year-by-year retreat from earlier grandiose posturing, adding that “most of what might be called true offensive space weapons, such as space lasers, were canceled long ago [and] the programs of the Missile Defense Agency for space-based missile defenses, never large in recent years, have been marginalized by Congress and Pentagon leadership.”

This trend makes sense, he explained, because post-9/11, the dominant threats have shifted dramatically, while “for the time being, a rapid rise of technological adversaries does not appear imminent.” Lastly, Worden addressed some well-deserved zingers at Pentagon mismanagement of earlier space programs that are severely over budget, opining that military space managers “are incapable of delivering any space capability, let alone a space weapon.”

“A U.S. push to develop space weapons is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future,” Worden concluded. Dispassionate analyses by other, independent institutes corroborate Worden’s thesis: whatever funding has been made available to research and demonstration projects has been small change compared to the surveillance projects that continue to dominate US military space spending.

Eisendrath, by email, insisted to me that such projects exist and are moving towards deployment. His book, due out from New Press in February, “documents a wide range of weapon development programs… some with some fairly close testing dates,” he wrote.

Paper shields in space

The most significant difference between the new Bush document and the one it superseded has to do with its attitude towards international treaties. For Clinton, international treaties to restrict undesirable actions in space—such as interfering with another country’s satellites—were desirable. For the current document, such treaties “get no respect”. They are not entirely ruled out, but they will be considered only if they do not constrain US security activities.

Worden addressed some well-deserved zingers at Pentagon mismanagement of earlier space programs that are severely over budget, opining that military space managers “are incapable of delivering any space capability, let alone a space weapon.”

This is a legitimate point for disagreement and debate. But unspoken assumptions and overlooked precedents must also be examined. Considering the 20th century’s experience with the effectiveness of arms control treaties (or modern attempts to rein in nuclear weapons programs in Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere), at least some skepticism of how thoroughly a nation can rely on them for its own security seems justified. And when one examines the history of weapons in space, the credibility of such a “paper security” strategy becomes even more strained.

Craig Eisendrath, who was ABC’s interviewee on space weapons issues in their most recent website story and who graciously entered into a candid exchange of emails with me, expressed views which may contribute to illustrating potential problems with space weapons treaties.

Eisendrath declared to ABC that, to the best of his knowledge, there is no advantage to putting nuclear bombs in orbit. “The effects of most of these weapons can be gotten through ground-based weaponry at a fraction of the cost,” he assured ABC News.

To some degree, this is a strawman, since there don’t seem to be any genuine suggestions that the US actually do it, even though Putin’s November 8th statement suggests the Russians do worry about it. But that Russian worry may reflect subconscious mirror-imaging, because in the history of the Space Race, there has indeed been one known program to place nuclear weapons in orbit—and it was a Soviet program.

So that concept, however rare, does provide further illumination of the current debate. In the very same days that Eisendrath was working on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty—the one that outlawed placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit—the USSR was flight testing a space weapon designed to do exactly that.

Eisendrath’s team, he has emailed me, was fully aware of that project. “It was, as you know, deployed in 1968,” he wrote, “but it was possible to have such weapons under the 1967 Treaty without the warheads.” He did admit that was “one of the defects of the treaty”: that “it would take little to put them in.” He attributed this defect to “some distraction because of the Viet Nam War,” thus laying the blame on the United States for the USSR’s ability to circumvent the clear intent (but not the letter, until too late to call a lawyer) of the treaty.

The Soviet tests, running from late 1966 into the late 1960’s, involved launching a military missile from Kazakhstan to place a nuclear bomb in a very low orbit around Earth. Hugging the curvature of the planet, the warhead could approach much closer to its target before being picked up on radar. It then fired a braking rocket to drop out of orbit and hit the target.

US officials called this system the “Fractional Orbit Bombardment System”, or FOBS. Moscow camouflaged the orbital launches as part of their Kosmos science satellite series for peaceful space exploration. However, they deployed several dozen such missiles at the Baykonur space center, and in a Red Square parade showed off mockups of missiles that, they claimed, could attack the enemy “along orbital trajectories”.

When is a treaty violation not a treaty violation?

Space lawyers, faced with a system obviously built to break the Outer Space Treaty, went through twisted orbits of technicalities to persuade themselves the Soviet nuclear orbital weapon was not a violation of the treaty banning nuclear orbital weapons. They pointed out that the real warheads wouldn’t actually be put into orbit until the moment the USSR chose to make its surprise attack—and treaties are null and void in such circumstances. They argued that since the attack plan did not complete a full orbit, it didn’t really count as being in orbit (but, by that standard, neither had Yuri Gagarin been in orbit, since his Vostok capsule landed west of his eastwards take-off path). They made every excuse in the space book for the USSR, which meanwhile totally ignored the fuss and kept a few dozen such launchers on combat alert into the 1980’s.

But if the anti-weapons treaty Eisendrath (and many others) are most proud of really couldn’t even stop the orbiting of a Soviet nuclear weapon whenever the Soviet Union decided to actually do it, how good was such paper for the defense of the United States today?

The true history of orbital weapons—a history that current Russian officials continue to dissemble about—should allow a cold-blooded calculation of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of space arms control treaties in the past.

Nor were the anti-space-weapons treaty advocates anywhere to be seen in the face of other Russian orbital weapons: hardware built to go into space and operate there, not just merely fly up and down on earth-launched vertical sorties. The Russians built an orbital anti-satellite system that apologists pooh-poohed as “unreliable”. The Russians put an air-to-air cannon on a manned spacecraft in order to kill astronauts who got too close—not a peep from the “weapons-free space” crowd. In 1987 the USSR launched the 80-ton Skif-DM, what was to be the first in a series of “space battle stations” to carry a 1-megawatt carbon-dioxide laser into orbit for anti-missile and anti-satellite tests, while preparing the Kaskad cruisers to be armed with space-to-space missiles tested on Progress missions—no objections ever recorded from keep-space-free-of-weapons advocates.

This is not to argue the point that the US should build similar orbital weapons because the Russians did (and the US never did). That would have been neither sensible nor excusable, although a common argument today is that the US deployment of what might be interpreted (or misinterpreted) as a space weapon is carte blanche for other countries to guiltlessly follow suit.

However, this true history of orbital weapons—a history that current Russian officials continue to dissemble about—should allow a cold-blooded calculation of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of space arms control treaties in the past and on the even-handedness of “peace-in-space” groups that dominate the Western news media, and explain why some specialists retain a strong skepticism that worthwhile treaties can be enforced in the future.

What the meaning of the word “is” is

The FOBS apparently evaded legal concerns because nobody could agree, then or now, what it actually meant to be “in orbit” (just as space lawyers, fifty years into the Space Age, have not even defined the boundary of “space” as opposed to flight in Earth’s atmosphere).

Hence it is not reassuring that in the recent Russian/Chinese working paper (CD/1779) where they propose banning space weapons, they discuss definitions of concepts like “Outer Space” or even “Space Weapons,” but they argue that a treaty might not really need specific definitions—for the reason that it is so difficult to reach agreement on them. They advocate, in other words, a treaty that the signatories do not even agree on the meaning of.

A related issue was addressed in my 1999 book, Space Power Theory, where I wrote the following:

As is familiar to any serious student of previous international treaties dealing with technological questions, treaties usually persist long after the technological assumptions or specific crises behind them have become obsolete. Thus the reinterpretation of ambiguous wording based on unanticipated technical developments can lead to the existence of a set of “shadow treaties” which diverge from the original in different directions depending on the interpretations and intentions of the different parties involved. Because of the rapidity of revolutionary change in space activities, treaties can age extremely quickly and can become ambiguous and asymmetrically restrictive within only a decade or two.

Enforcement gets even more problematical when the question of dual-use systems is raised. A dozen different projects around the planet, by governments and private consortia, are pushing forward with small, automated space rendezvous robots for repair, resupply, or inspection in orbit (look up, for example, the Russo-German TECSAS project). The flick of a joystick during close approach is all that it takes to convert a rescue mission into an attack. How could paper ward off that eventuality?

“Trust, but don’t bother to verify”

Such potential ambiguities underscore the criticality of credible inspection of all space-bound objects. Both the Russians and Chinese, who are pushing for a treaty, have acknowledged the difficulty of this issue and have proposed identical solutions to the impasse—forget about inspections at all, just sign the treaty and trust each other.

For most of the world, the negotiations seem to be over and the US is expected to go along. For a true bargainer, the serious negotiations have yet to begin—and only then can a guaranty of US and world security be expected.

At a recent annual Conference on Disarmament, China stated: “Due to the complex nature of verification of outer space activities, which bears on the security interest of all countries, as well as to technical and financial constraints of verification, currently it is extremely difficult to negotiate a verification provision. For the time being, to put on hold the verification issue until conditions are ripe, and to negotiate a treaty without verification provisions could be a practical alternative.” Russia concurred, “Elaborating the treaty without verification measures, which could be added at a later stage, might be a preferable option.”

This idea of forgetting about inspections and just signing the treaty that all parties will trust each other to obey, has profound implications. It demolishes the foundation from under the fundamental values of a treaty: verifiability and enforceability. If it all comes down to blind trust of non-binding ambiguous promises, why bother with signing anything at all, ever?

Worden’s recent article provided an additional argument for not accepting these conditions: “I am among those who believe that the threat of space weapons—particularly space-based missile defenses—played an important role in ending the Cold War,” he wrote (a thesis also championed by Paul Spudis, as quoted at length in my book Star-Crossed Orbits). “If the very threat of space weapons could yield such leverage against a peer competitor, what could someone offer the United States now that’s worth giving up that potentially powerful position for all time?”

For most of the world, the negotiations seem to be over and the US is expected to go along. For a true bargainer, the serious negotiations have yet to begin—and only then can a guaranty of US and world security be expected. Even if the American “space weapons” that much of the world seems to fear are almost certainly phantoms and mirages, they appear to be high-value extraterrestrial bargaining chips that shouldn’t be squandered uselessly.


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