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Media accounts and statements by officials have been full of misperceptions about the weaponization of space. (credit: DoD)

The dozen space weapons myths

The successful Chinese anti-satellite missile test two months ago, the launch on Thursday of the Pentagon’s robot rendezvous craft that can service—or terminate—other satellites, and an impending US test of an orbiting rocket-tracking sensor package (the controversial NFIRE mission) have blasted “space warfare” back into the front of national attention. The timing is critical, too, with changing political winds in Congress and new agendas still taking shape.

Probably the greatest impediment to productive debate over alternative national security strategies for space is the torrent of misinformation and disinformation that seethes around the subject. Sometimes deliberately contrived, but more often innocently ignorant and enthusiastic, these myths and misconceptions can short-circuit and detour news media coverage, public debate, political maneuvering, and even international diplomacy.

Probably the greatest impediment to productive debate over alternative national security strategies for space is the torrent of misinformation and disinformation that seethes around the subject.

Some of the most alarming accusations in recent official speeches by ambassadors, delegates, and even heads of state seem to be based not on sound research, technical intelligence agency analyses, or even direct face-to-face inquiries, but on unwarranted reliance on the most inflammatory and off-base news media reports. It’s “diplomacy by headline”, and it’s frighteningly off course. The consequences of such carelessness could be even more serious miscalculations.

As an attempt at a roadmap through this space minefield, here is my own take on the ideas that need to be avoided or discarded on the trek towards a useful plan for handling the subject and for developing a workable, reality-based response to the problem.

1. The United States already has satellite killers, why shouldn’t anyone else?

It’s not just the hard-line Russian commentators or the North Korean press that alleges that US military forces are already armed to the teeth for space warfare: the same explicit assumption often appears in the mainstream Western press as well. Sometimes the argument even goes, “Well, there’s no official acknowledgement of them—that proves they exist in secret” (as if the absence of evidence were transformed into evidence of presence).

But since the 1985 air-launch satellite intercept, a project cancelled by Congress (see “Blunt arrows: the limited utility of ASATs”, The Space Review, June 6, 2005), there is no evidence that a new satellite-killer technology has been developed. Laser tests seem focused on interfering with satellite observation equipment, as well as to determine how to develop US countermeasures against other countries using lasers to interfere with US observation satellites. Non-destructive radio spoofing seems to be the limit of the amount of force—short of setting off a nuclear weapon in space, which would be suicidal—the US is currently prepared to use against space objects.

2. The latest United States “space policy” declares that it will “deny access to space” to those players it deems hostile, which translates to pre-emptive attack on non-US space objects and their supporting ground infrastructure.

Western news dispatches from Moscow, reporting on Russian official complaints about the policy, stated that it asserted the right “to deny adversaries access to space for hostile purposes,” and that it claimed the right (some say “tacitly”) for the US to deploy weapons in space. Vitaly Davidov, deputy head of the Russian Space Agency, complained: “They [the US] want to dictate to others who is allowed to go there.”

But the actual policy document makes no such claim and displays no such intent to “deny” access. The Russian anxiety, echoed on the editorial pages and in news stories around the world, is apparently based on some over-wrought page 1 stories in US newspapers, written by people too careless to actually read the original US document and subsequent official US government clarifications, or too eager to misinterpret it in the most alarmingly stark terms.

3. The US is planning to deploy space-based weapons (including nuclear weapons) to attack other objects in space and on the ground.

Many of these stories deal with weapons that travel through space on their way to surface targets—as military missiles have done since about 1944. Stationing weapons in space for use against ground targets has long ago been recognized as far more expensive and less flexible than basing them on Earth, say, in a submarine. Even planning a space-to-space attack can take hours or days or longer for the moving attacker and target to line up in a proper position. This goes double for nuclear weapons: putting them into space on a permanent basis was last taken seriously in the Sunday comics in the late 1950’s. So these accusations seem to confuse proposed projects (usually already rejected—that’s why the proponents go public with their ideas) or even Hollywood science fiction for actual hardware.

4. The embryonic US “National Missile Defense” (NMD) system will give the US an unfairly asymmetric and destabilizing military advantage by threatening low-orbit satellites.

References to the “latent antisatellite capability” of the embryonic US anti-missile system in Alaska are somewhat disingenuous since Russia has a deployed anti-missile system with launchers around Moscow and in Kazakhstan, with much the same capability and nobody seems to complain. Most discussions leave the impression the Russian system simply doesn’t exist. Furthermore, range and tracking systems and warhead lifetimes restrict anti-missile systems to very low satellites, if any.

5. Sensor tests of a proposed space-based missile interception system are first steps on the road to using such a weapon as an anti-satellite system.

Stationing weapons in space for use against ground targets has long ago been recognized as far more expensive and less flexible than basing them on Earth, say, in a submarine.

Equating a boost-phase anti-missile weapon (based at sea, on an aircraft, or even in space) to an anti-satellite weapon overlooks a fundamental design difference, their guidance mode. To kill a missile during ascent, before it has a chance to deploy its warheads and decoys, relies on chasing down its most visible feature: its hot rocket plume. Russian and US space tests have observed such rocket plumes for decades: there were tests from the Mir space station, and from at least one Space Shuttle mission, and there are ongoing tests from new satellite projects. Their purpose isn’t just to develop a kill vehicle, but also to examine how an opponent might do so, and thus what features of one’s own missiles might be modified to make them more survivable. But these experiments shouldn’t deflect attention from one key fact: satellites don’t have hot rocket plumes, and sensors developed to chase such plume generators (i.e., attacking missiles) wouldn’t even see a passively orbiting satellite. It can’t be a target if it’s invisible to the weapon system under development.

6. The Soviet Union opted out of the “space arms race” in 1983 by declaring—and following—a moratorium on further testing of anti-satellite weapons.

“Moratorium” is the wrong word, often deliberately so, because Moscow insisted it had never done anything it now had to stop. Once it became clear that the Reagan Administration was going to respond to a decade of space-to-space combat tests of an operational Soviet “killer-satellite”, Soviet premier Andropov applied diplomatic and propaganda pressure (to encourage Western political forces) by announcing that “the USSR would never be the first to test anti-satellite weapons”—a cynically-phrased promise that belied the fact that they had already been the first many years earlier. The promise was widely described in the West as a declared cessation of acknowledged space weapons testing, but Moscow insisted it was not, since it claimed that since it had never began testing, there was nothing it was doing that it was obligated to stop. That sounds like the way space lawyers (and space propagandists) quibble.

7. The Soviet “killer satellite” of the Cold War was big, clunky, and ineffective, so no US response was needed.

While Western advocates of not developing space weapons could not, with a straight face (as Moscow did), proclaim there were no Soviet space weapons, they found a next-best-thing argument. Sure, the weapons existed, but they didn’t work, so they were nothing to worry about. But the widely-reported “low reliability” numbers were generated by often guessing about a test’s success, and then conflating results from operational, deployed models with research missions with more advanced and experimental guidance systems (which did fail a few times before working right, at which point tests of that variant were stopped). Following the Soviet collapse, Russian military space historians were able to release documentation that demonstrated the high reliability of the operational Soviet “killer satellite” and thus the wish-away delusions of many Western experts. Determining it was operational into the early 1990s was also easy: US spy satellites observed that the rail lines from the hangars to the launch pads were the first areas plowed of new-fallen snow.

8. A “killer satellite” (like the Soviet weapon) is no more of a threat than any other kind of “satellite killer”.

Some experimental ASATs in the 1980s and 1990s were ground launched (like the recent Chinese shot), and some (all Soviet) were space-to-space by an attacking craft already in orbit. The enormous advantage of an orbital system (even if launched only hours or days before making its attack) is that simply by selecting a larger booster, the weapon can be sent into nearly any orbit of potential interest, at any altitude. With proven support hardware from other space projects, a killer satellite with a lifetime in years could be quickly built for deployment in orbits close to potential targets. These days, much smaller vehicles could be launched and then maneuvered, undetected, into such ambush orbits. They could even use the Moon’s gravity to surreptitiously slip into the high-altitude orbits of key US observation, communications, and navigation satellites.

9. The Outer Space Treaty (1967) prevented the development of orbital nuclear weapons and this success is an example for new treaties to do the same for anti-satellite weapons.

This treaty is widely touted as having outlawed the placing of nuclear weapons in orbit. The USSR went and built and tested and deployed a system to do exactly that: to place warheads in low atmosphere-skimming orbits that could approach their targets “below the horizon” of defense radars (or approach them from unexpected directions), paving the way for a thermonuclear first strike. The weapons were not explicitly forbidden by the treaty, so building them was not illegal, and using them in wartime would have entirely mooted the question of “legality”. The treaty allowed Western specialists to convince themselves they had kept the genie in the bottle, but the Soviets had their fingers on the cork.

10. Without new treaties there is no legal protection for US military space assets.

An enemy really only needs to break a treaty once to gain enormous temporary military advantage, and after having done so, and exploited that advantage, who will be around to “punish” them?

Proponents of an anti-weapons treaty are essentially saying that the rest of the world is dying to formally agree to leave the United States in possession of an overwhelming military advantage based on space-based assets, and to willingly submit to any future utilization of those capabilities. If the military forces of at least half a dozen other nations are not at this time working out ways to neutralize the US space-based military advantage, they should be court-martialed for incompetence and lack of imaginative planning. And if they are making such plans, the efforts become even more potentially effective if the US can be persuaded that they are not making such preparations. Experience has shown that paper makes a very poor shield against potential attack, and parties that thought so have almost always been eventually faced with unpleasant and costly surprises.

11. Rules and treaties can be helpful, even if they “leak”, because anyone breaking them can be identified and punished by the international community.

This rationalization of the tacit confession that treaties can be disregarded, with the claim that it doesn’t really matter, ignores the one-time criticality and “single-use-sensitivity” of a reliable space weapons treaty. An enemy really only needs to break it once to gain enormous temporary military advantage, and after having done so, and exploited that advantage, who will be around to “punish” them? It’s not like a fine for littering, as some arms control advocates have analogized: it’s like hoping some all-powerful referee will declare a “do-over” after Pearl Harbor. Prime example: the Soviet Union’s orbital nuclear weapon, built and tested and deployed while the 1967 Outer Space Treaty expressly forbade its use—and once used, it would render the legal proscription obsolete. Yet this 1967 treaty is widely held up as a “model” for broader space treaties to emulate.

12. Other nations are justified in building “space weapons” because the US has done so, or is about to do so.

This argument never seems to work both ways. It always justifies any other country’s space weapons, laying the blame on something the US has done, may do, is thinking about doing, or is merely accused of doing in the mass media. But it never seems to justify any US hardware-development response to actual space weapons deployed by other countries, from the cannon mounted on a Soviet manned space station, to its operational killer satellites and orbital nuclear weapon launchers, to the recent Chinese anti-satellite missile test. The US did not respond in kind to those weapons because they made no military sense—there was no mindless reflex, but instead a rational assessment of security requirements. Those assessments usually can be made regardless of the actions of other parties, especially regarding the level of required space weapons.

Perhaps as befits a subject related to outer space, there seems no limit to the use of misinformation and disinformation in public arguments about “space weapons”. One final example is from Russian complaints in recent weeks about US plans to deploy anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. The US says they are focused at potential Iranian missiles aimed at North America. Russian spokesmen insist they are intended to destroy Russian missiles retaliating against the US in a nuclear exchange.

The Russian statements are so preposterous one has to wonder either at the intelligence of the speakers, or at their estimate of the lack of intelligence in their target audience (true, the complaints have been taken seriously in much of the Western mass media). The technological flaw is simple: missiles launched from the Czech Republic, say, cannot ever hope to intercept missiles launched from Russia against America, because—now, pay attention, Western mass media—Earth is round.

If you look at a flat map and use a ruler, a missile flight path from Russia to North America might indeed seem to fly directly westwards and cross Poland and the Czech Republic. But run the path on a globe, with a string, and you can see that the true paths run to the northwest from Russia, out over Iceland. The only destinations of long-range Russian-based rockets that cross the Czech Republic would be Brazil or Venezuela: not likely enemies.

Is it too much to expect that, fifty years after Sputnik, diplomats and journalists and policy wonks begin to get a few clues about how rockets really work, and how propagandists play to baseless fears and ignorance?

Russian military missiles are fast-burn boosters, so there is only a two- or three-minute interval when an infrared-guided anti-missile could actually see and hope to hit its target. The flight path is so far north of the proposed bases that to reach the missile in that interval would require a rocket able to achieve 20 to 40 G’s and a burnout velocity four times escape velocity from Earth’s gravity: far greater power than any rocket ever built or even just imagined. If this interval is missed, the would-be anti-missile would then be in a hopeless “tail chase” of the Russian missile, requiring the anti-missile to be much bigger and much faster than its target.

Nobody is building such an anti-missile, and probably nobody knows how to even start. So by principles of rocket science, the recent Russian complaints can be exposed as fraudulent. Is it too much to expect that, fifty years after Sputnik, diplomats and journalists and policy wonks begin to get a few clues about how rockets really work, and how propagandists play to baseless fears and ignorance?

If we can’t even get verifiable facts and limits correct, there’s no hope of developing a trustworthy set of international reality-based agreements regarding constraints on future actions in space or on Earth.


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