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Airborne Laser
Airborne Laser, a program originally designed for use in missile defense applications, could be turned into an ASAT weapon. (credit: US Air Force)

Blunt arrows: the limited utility of ASATs

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The current and future ASAT?

If the past is prologue, then the long American experience with ASATs has demonstrated that developing truly useful systems is difficult and expensive, and senior American military officials have rarely shown much conviction in pursuit of a capable ASAT. Those conditions are likely to continue. And one of the primary past justifications of developing an ASAT, to deter an adversary that also had substantial space assets at risk, no longer exists.

There are many problems with developing an American ASAT capability, and arms control is probably the least of them. One of the problems is a lack of attractive targets, even theoretical ones. The proliferation of foreign remote sensing satellites would appear to complicate problems for American military operations, because now more countries can monitor what the United States is doing. This, though, does not inherently translate into more targets for the US to shoot at, at least not obvious ones. Many of these satellites are friendly, or at least neutral. Just as the United States does not build F-22 Raptors to counter the annoying French government’s air force, it does not require ASATs to target France’s Helios spy satellite. Nor does the United States need to target remote sensing satellites developed by Israel, India, Brazil, or any of the many other countries that have begun acquiring low-resolution systems.

One of the primary past justifications of developing an ASAT, to deter an adversary that also had substantial space assets at risk, no longer exists.

Another problem is the range of scenarios in which an ASAT would be militarily useful. One of the oft-cited examples was the case during the 1991 Persian Gulf War where the United States Army made a surprise “left-hook” maneuver in the Iraqi desert. ASAT proponents claimed that if the Iraqis had a reconnaissance satellite, this maneuver would have been impossible. That is not necessarily true. The United States could have moved faster than the Iraqi ability to respond, and the coalition forces used substantial deception efforts, such as the threat of an amphibious attack from the Gulf, to keep the Iraqis guessing. Similarly, in order to conceal the mobilization for the left-hook, the United States would have had to destroy an Iraqi satellite long before it planned on invading. All of these conditions highlight that an ASAT weapon is unlikely to represent a silver bullet that is vital to success.

There are currently a few countries, notably China and Iran, which could become future adversaries that have or are acquiring space capability. It has now been reported that China may have a reconnaissance satellite masquerading as a weather satellite. Iran is developing a launch vehicle and Israeli media sources have claimed that the Iranians are developing a reconnaissance satellite to put on it. But the cost of denying China and Iran their space assets may be more than it is worth. During the Cold War the United States Navy preferred to avoid Soviet ocean surveillance satellites rather than destroy them. Navy admirals believed—perhaps naively—that they could do this successfully. The limited theoretical capabilities of potential future adversaries will not match the actual capabilities the United States faced during the Cold War, meaning that there is less justification for them now than there was nearly three decades ago.

There are also numerous downsides to traditional kinetic ASAT weapons. They generate debris, for starters, making orbits that the United States needs to use unhealthy for our own satellites. The United States might also find itself in a situation where it is more desirable to temporarily shut down an adversary’s satellite than to permanently do so. For these and other reasons the United States increasingly favors “softer” methods of denying an enemy’s space assets than blowing their satellites out of the sky. Jamming or incapacitating them is the ideal option. If the United States can destroy a ground station with an existing cruise missile, that would prove far more cost effective than spending billions to develop an ASAT capability. Why develop a new weapon when existing ones can already do the job?

This is not to say that an ASAT weapon does not have any utility for the United States. It does. It is arguably better to have a blunt arrow in the quiver than no arrow at all. However, if the arrow is blunt, then there is no reason to pay full price for it.

There are some existing options. The Air Force recently deployed the Counter Communications System (CCS). Although details are limited, this appears to consist of three ground-based, portable jamming packages built from commercial off-the-shelf hardware. It is a reversible (i.e. non-destructive) method of denying an adversary communications capability, meaning that it can be used in a wider range of circumstances. The CCS satellite jammer is a natural outgrowth of recent American experience. During the first Persian Gulf War the United States determined that some Iraqi weapons systems, particularly the ground radars for some surface-to-air missiles and the powerful radar on the MiG-25 interceptor aircraft, could jam American satellites. It is an open secret in the commercial comsat world that a ground station can be used to jam another comsat—something that happens by accident on a semi-regular basis.

It is arguably better to have a blunt arrow in the quiver than no arrow at all. However, if the arrow is blunt, then there is no reason to pay full price for it.

The US Air Force also recently began studying the possibility of utilizing the YAL-1A Airborne Laser for missions other than missile defense. The Airborne Laser (or ABL) is mounted in a modified 747-400F aircraft and uses a powerful laser to intercept ballistic missiles hundreds of miles away. It could theoretically be pointed up instead of sideways, and destroy a satellite, probably simply by overheating it so that its electronics fail. There are several operational advantages of this. One is that it does not create debris in orbit, just a dead satellite—although unlike the CCS, this is not reversible. Another advantage is that the weapon is paid for and operating for another mission,so any ASAT capability would be a bonus. However, ABL has run into numerous development problems of its own and has risked cancellation in recent years. If its missile defense mission is canceled, its ASAT mission would probably not justify the cost of operating the aircraft.

The advantage of both of these approaches to ASAT is that they are relatively inexpensive, either by utilizing commercial equipment or piggybacking on another mission. An additional advantage is that they are low visibility, not creating the kind of provocative threat that leads to international complaints, foreign or domestic calls for arms control, or a potential ASAT arms race.

But the United States does not need to pursue a more active, provocative, or expensive ASAT development than what it already has. The threat does not justify it, and rarely has.