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NSRC 2023

Brilliant Pebbles illustration
The Brilliant Pebbles concept is more feasible today from a technology standpoint than when it was introduced in the 1980s; whether it is more feasible from a policy standpoint is debatable. (credit: Ball Aerospace)

The Bush Administration and space weapons

One of the great mysteries of the Bush Administration’s military space policy was recently cleared up—sort of. Since January 2001, activists on both side of the missile defense debate have been waiting for the Pentagon to announce that it is going to restart the Brilliant Pebbles space-based interceptor program that Bill Clinton’s first Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, canceled in 1993 with the words, “I’m taking the stars out of Star Wars.”

In 1992, the previous Bush Administration came up with a concept called G-PALS, for Global Protection Against Limited Strikes. Most of America’s allies, and even Yeltsin’s Russia, agreed to go along with this. The centerpiece was to be 2000 orbiting Brilliant Pebbles. The technology had been developed and was being tested. Europe was even talking about an E-PALS to complement the US system. Saddam’s Scud launches against Saudi Arabia and Israel during the first Gulf War were still fresh in people’s memories. No one wanted to repeat the experience.

In the four years since taking office, this administration has withdrawn from the ABM treaty, begun the installation of an national missile defense system, and continued work on both a sea-based interceptor (SM-3) and on an airborne laser installed in a 747 (YAL-1). None of these projects have been cheap or easy, and the process of integrating them into an effective system of systems has been slowed up not only by the inevitable software problems but by political debates, both inside the Pentagon and internationally.

It seems that foes of “space weaponization” inside the administration have been able to divert policy in ways that make effective military use of space less and less likely.

Curiously, Bush has had to take all the political pain involved in withdrawing from the ABM Treaty and building an operational missile defense system without being willing to go all the way and make that system fully effective, or at least as effective as possible given the limits of today’s technology. On this issue it is striking how much more conservative and bold his father’s administration was.

It seems that foes of “space weaponization” inside the administration have been able to divert policy in ways that make effective military use of space less and less likely. They are sincere people who believe that it is in America’s interest to keep weapons out of space, or at least for some other nation to be the first to deploy and use these weapons. Unfortunately in such a scenario the first target would be America’s military space assets.

The missile defense problem is generally split into three parts—four, if you count the sensors and command and control separately. Boost phase begins when the enemy missile takes off and ends when it reaches near orbital speed (in the case of an ICBM) or maximum altitude (in the case of shorter range weapons). This is followed by what is termed the mid-course phase, when the warheads are traveling through space towards the target, accompanied in almost every case by decoys. Terminal phase happens when the warheads begin their decent towards the target. At this time, the decoys will have burnt up. The more advanced ones are able to maneuver within certain limits in order to confuse the defenses.

It has long be recognized that hitting the missiles in the boost phase, before decoys have been deployed and while the rocket engines are spewing out large amounts of easily detected heat, is ideal. Brilliant Pebbles was the logical evolution of the “Smart Rocks” which was one of the original ideas on which Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “Star Wars” initiative was based.

Since Brilliant Pebbles (BP) was canceled in 1993, the Department of Defense has made some limited progress on technology that is directly applicable to space-based boost phase systems. More important has been the ongoing improvements in computer processing power and in the ability of uncooked thermal imagers to detect targets. A 2005 model of a Brilliant Pebble would be smaller and have a better electronic brain than the 1993 one. Not only that, but there are now cheaper and more reliable in-space propulsion systems, such as pulsed plasma thrusters, which would keep the BPs in orbit and operation for far longer than the older version.

The 1993, BP had some limited ability to carry out a mid-course intercept and to discriminate between warheads and decoys. In 2005, such capability would be more reliable and the BP spacecraft could actually be networked together to provide far more situational awareness of the space battlefield than is possible using conventional surveillance techniques. The ability to detect and track what is going on in orbit is now the key to space dominance. In the future, it will be necessary to keep an eye on everything inside the Moon’s orbit but, for the moment, militarily useful space goes out to just beyond geosynchronous orbit.

The ability to detect and track what is going on in orbit is now the key to space dominance.

Today, the Bush Administration is pushing forward a missile defense project, variously known as National Missile Defense or Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD). This relies principally on a number of mid-course interceptors, based in Alaska and California, which will use a mixed set of ground, sea, and space-based sensors. It is commanded, at least for now, from NORAD in Colorado, but because Canada has decided to reject cooperation, NORAD, as it is currently structured, is obviously not going to be involved. The GMD system was originally proposed by the Clinton Administration—under pressure from the Republican Congress—to fulfill the hardest part of the mission while, at least nominally, keeping within the limits of the now-defunct ABM Treaty.

If the Administration had been holding off on BP-type weapons in the hope that Canada would join the missile defense system, that hope was obviously in vain. The US is now completely free to deploy anything it wants in space, without fear that such acts would offend a close ally. By rejecting cooperation with the US, they have rejected any possible influence on US space operations.

Missile defense is just one aspect of a wider issue—that of “space control”, also referred to as “space dominance” or “space supremacy.” This can roughly be defined as “the unhampered ability to use one’s orbiting assets, such as communications, navigation and spy satellites of different types and to prevent the enemy from using his spacecraft, or any ones, he may gain access to, either covertly or commercially.” In practice, this means that the US wants to have the capability of protecting its own satellites and their associated ground systems from attack, and to be able to deny the enemy any advantages he might gain from the use of space.

An example of this problem is the story, a few years back, that a “red team” was able to plan a terrorist attack on a US installation using commercial satellite images they had bought over the Internet using a credit card. Another unconfirmed, but likely, story is that Osama bin Laden stopped using his satellite phone when someone in Washington let it leak out that the US was listening in on it. The first story is an example of offensive use of space by a non traditional enemy, the second an example of defensive counterspace.

Rumsfeld’s DoD is determined not to allow America’s enemies a sanctuary in space. The open development of traditional anti-satellite weapons in not a major priority, but remains a very real option. Meanwhile, a new type of weapon, referred to as a “countercommunications capability” with “reversible effects” has been developed, and is available, if needed. This is a powerful ground-based jammer which can temporarily disable a satellite. It was apparently designed for use against comsats, but would work equally well against other kinds of spacecraft.

Politically, this weapon is acceptable because, being based on Earth, it cannot be described as a space weapon, though it clearly is aimed at objects in orbit. Also, its impact is theoretically temporary. After it has done its thing it will, again theoretically, be possible for the target satellite to return to its original innocent and—hopefully—profitable activities. The system is an ingenious compromise between the military’s need to neutralize spacecraft that are being used against America and its allies, and the desire of the diplomats and politicians not to permanently destroy expensive commercial space assets belonging to unfriendly neutral or even, supposedly, allied nations.

However, General Lance Lord, chief of Air Force Space Command and one of the most intellectually courageous senior officers in the whole US military establishment, has made the it clear: “…make no mistake about it, if something happens and troops are getting killed because somebody’s trying to use space against us, we will do more than [apply] reversible effects.” This is a clear indication that the US is not going to be held back by any other nation’s ideas about space as a uniquely peaceful place.

Neither the Canadians through NORAD nor the Europeans through NATO should be allowed a serious say in US space weapons policy.

In January 2001, the Rumsfeld Commission concluded that, “An attack on elements of US space systems during a crisis or conflict should not be considered an improbable act.” Since then, in Afghanistan and Iraq, the powerful military advantage which comprehensive space power gives to the American military has been clearly demonstrated. Potential foes have taken notes and are looking at ways to hit vulnerable targets in order to create maximum damage for the minimum investment. Asymmetric space warfare will be the method of choice against America, at least for the foreseeable future.

Many foes of “space weaponization” act as if they believed that the active measures to defend American satellites are a destabilizing form of space weaponization. To some extent they are right. A weapon designed to kill a kinetic energy a-sat could also be used against an enemy comsat or other spacecraft. To allow the opponents to cut up the debate into little bits and have to argue about each piece would be to repeat the mistakes of the 1970s and 1980s, when those who argued against America’s military build up forced the Reganite hawks to argue the case for each new weapon on an individual and isolated basis.

Instead, the Dubya-era hawks should boldly tell their foes that the US will deploy a variety of weapons in space, and will do so on an American schedule based on a unilateral American estimate of what is needed. Neither the Canadians through NORAD nor the Europeans through NATO should be allowed a serious say in US space weapons policy. Their demands for what Walter Russell Mead called an “unreciprocated veto” over US military activity may be shrill, but since their own refusal to take US security interests into account over things like the Galileo satellite navigation system or arms sales to China there is no reason to listen to their advice on what we put into space on our own rockets.

If Americans do not believe that US military supremacy is a good thing in and of itself then they will not believe that space supremacy is important either. However, if they do think that US national security has something to do with military strength, space supremacy becomes automatically a primary goal. In the end, the ability to use the ultimate high ground and to deny it to our enemies is the key to winning future conflicts. Nothing the liberals say, nor any objections from the French, should be allowed to get in the way.