body top image
Issue 6: Space-Based Weaponry

Space-Based Offensive Weapons: Have Policymakers Discussed This Enough?

Kathleen M. Sweet, J.D., Lt. Col. (Ret.) USAF
Associate Professor, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
August 2003


Full spectrum dominance depends on the inherent strengths of modern space power-speed, global range, stealth, flexibility, precision, lethality, global theater situational awareness and strategic perspective.
-Air Force White Paper, Global Engagement: A Vision for the 21st Century Air Force[1]

Arguably, one of the most significant global security policy debates of the 21st century is whether the United States and more specifically the Bush Administration should develop and deploy space-based weaponry. The age of space is upon us. But how convinced is the rest of America, the West and potential adversaries of the legitimate need to do so? For almost half a century, the world's space powers have abstained from deploying such weapons as basic unwritten policy. To date, the military has been limited to surveillance, navigation and communications satellites. In June 2001, Former Air Force Chief of Staff, General Michael Ryan was quoted as saying, "Eventually we're going to have to have the capability to take things out in orbit."[2]

issue picture

His argument is based on the premise that historically, wherever commerce has gone so does US national interest and, subsequently, the requirement to protect that interest. This rationale for the deployment of offensive space weaponry should elicit much debate, especially as our military is reduced in size. Policymakers and institutions of higher learning need to address this issue before the "Final Frontier" becomes a battlefield. To neglect the topic and let the militarization of space happen out of apathy will be to relinquish any input over a decision, which could potentially destroy the planet.

The technological revolution of the late twentieth century has provided the US military an incredible conventional offensive force and altered forever the way war can and will be waged. In March 2002, Paul Teets, Undersecretary of the Air Force and Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, as well as the Pentagon's lead procurement officer for space programs, stated, "I believe that weapons will go into space. It's a question of time. And we need to be at the forefront of that."[3] Teets has a significant baseline to work from to effectuate this concept. The advent of precision- guided munitions has provided war fighters, for example, with ordnance accuracies measured as Circular Errors of Probability (CEPs) on the order of a few feet.

issue picture

Newer weapons including laser guided bombs, Global Positioning System (GPS) guided munitions, and Tomahawk missiles have given military forces an immense capability that will assist in the defeat of any known enemy and, if used correctly, with minimum collateral damage and civilian casualties. Yet, this certainly is just the beginning of the revolution. The trend will be toward even more precise and lethal weapons systems, often unmanned or minimally manned, and able to respond within seconds to attack targets anywhere on earth. On this basis, space seems to offer significant advantages in future warfare, and, currently, the US government is actively pursuing research on spaced based laser and kinetic weapons.

This paper will seek to provide some perspective on the necessity of such pursuits and the possible consequences of rushing in without thinking. The discussion will describe the types of offensive space-based weapons most likely to be developed and deployed in the early 21st Century as well as the potential impact on US military force structure, roles and missions, and doctrine. Clearly, the military has accepted that conflict in space is now inevitable and is preparing for it. The stabilizing or destabilizing impact on the world security environment, from an academic perspective, will also be addressed.

Historical Developments

Arguably, the militarization of space commenced with the launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite in 1957. In the early stages of the Cold War, both sides began competing in space to conquer and use space for the benefit of military forces. President Dwight Eisenhower's response to Sputnik was rather muted especially in relation to the public outcry over the event.

issue picture

He personally believed that the public's concern was unwarranted; failing thus to act quickly to equal the Soviet Union's effort, he ensured America's second place position in space for the near term.[4] More recently, the Clinton Administration's philosophy of a restrained approach has been replaced with the Bush Administration's unquestioning acceptance of exploitation of space for military purposes.

The separation of military and civilian space programs became codified in July 1958 with the passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which formally created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The US effort was focused toward peaceful scientific and commercial applications. Later, when President John F. Kennedy decided to engage in the race to place a man on the moon, the effort assumed a priority position and the military quickly recognized they were losing potential funding.

Military efforts in space did exist and were supported and characterized as "peaceful" missions. The advent of reconnaissance satellites brought one of those peaceful missions to the forefront following the downing of a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in May 1960. Officially, US space policy evolved from the advocacy of the non-military use of space to one of non-aggressive use of space.[5]

In order to legally continue the programs, the US began to seek confirming international agreements. The idea was not new and incorporated Eisenhower's "Open Skies" initiative. The former Soviet Union rejected the entire concept to allow free over flights of each other's country to verify the location and numbers of nuclear weapons.[6]

Even though the major powers were not in agreement, they continued to experiment but not deploy. Gradually both the Soviet Union and the US expanded military space programs but still restrained themselves from actively using technology capable of shooting down satellites from the ground, sea or air. Nonetheless, trepidation about Soviet threats to place nuclear weapons in orbit led Eisenhower to propose a ban on nuclear weapons in space as early as September 1960. The Soviets agreed, which led to a bilateral agreement to ban nuclear weapons testing from outer space. Specifically, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the placing of weapons of mass destruction in outer space or on celestial bodies; including the moon.

Additionally, the 1972 Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems banned either side form interfering with the other's spy satellites. Both of these important documents continue to have considerable influence on the current debate because both the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the ABM Treaty served to reinforce the self-restraint on the deployment of military space weaponry that Eisenhower advanced. The end of the first Cold War precipitated a reevaluation of current policy.

In the 1990's, National Security Council (NSC) Directive 5520, dated 26 May 1995, recommended separating the US space effort from ongoing military programs to develop Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). This directive worked to disengage the military from satellite development programs and diverted monies to ICBM programs. Six years later in April 2001, prior to 9/11, the Transformation Study Report, drafted for the Office of the Secretary of Defense reasoned that, " Space capabilities are inherently global, unaffected by territorial boundaries or jurisdictional limitations; they provide direct access to all regions, and with our advanced technologies, give us a highly asymmetrical advantage over any potential adversary.[7]

The 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) made clear that a key objective for the military in the 21st Century is not only to exploit space for military purposes but to make sure that the US maintains full spectrum dominance in space. Right after 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald A. Rumsfeld created a Policy coordinating committee for Space within the National Security Council, recognizing that the US is extremely dependent on space and arguably the dependency on communication and navigation networks needed to be protected. The Administration continues to formulate and implement its offensive spaced base-based weapons initiatives without much scrutiny.

Treaties and the Law of Space

Emotions run high throughout diplomatic and political circles when the space treaties mentioned-above are debated. As is frequently the case, the difficulties arise in how world governments interpret the terminology contained in them. The exact wording of Article IV (1) of the 1967 Outer Space (hereinafter referred to as the 1967 Treaty), is:

States party to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kind of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any manner.[8]

The article goes on to state that; "the moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes." Unfortunately, the inadequacy of the wording has caused heated debate in military, political, and scientific communities. "Peaceful purposes" apparently only applies to the "moon and other celestial bodies," not to earth orbit or "outer space" as used in the treaty. The placing of weapons of mass destruction in orbit is clearly prohibited; yet, the definition of a weapon of mass destruction is not as specifically defined. It is assumed any nuclear, chemical or biological would meet the criteria.

The 1972 ABM Treaty is also susceptible to varying interpretations depending on perspective. The debate began in 1983 after President Reagan's decision to start Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) research and development. Article V (1) in the ABM Treaty states:

Each Party undertakes not to develop, test, or deploy ABM systems or components, which are sea-based, air-based, or mobile land-based.[9]

Although deployment of a space-based missile defense system is in clear violation of Article V, Reagan hoped that by offering to share technology with the former Soviet Union, he could obtain an agreement to mutually nullify the treaty. Additionally, the ABM Treaty does not prevent research and development efforts as long as components are not tested. [10] How to exactly define "testing" is open to elucidation. On top of that, subcomponents can legally be tested compounding the definitional disputes as well as making definitions of what constitutes a component and what constitutes a sub-component a key area of disagreement.[11] Nevertheless, since the end of the Cold War, the US has renewed development and testing of anti-ballistic missile systems. These efforts include improvements in space-borne systems among three services: the Navy's upper tier as well as airborne and surface-based systems; the Air Force's Laser and Theater Anti-Air Defense System (THAAD); the Navy's lower tier and the Army's Patriot.

Additional interpretations of the 1967 Treaty apply to the area of anti-satellite weapons applications as evidenced by the fact that the former Soviet Union developed an anti-satellite weapons system as early as 1968. This satellite interceptor program caused little unrest in the US primarily because testing had ceased in 1971, ostensibly as a result of easing tensions between the two countries. [12] Technically, anti-satellite weapons can be ground-based; thus, not space weapons, avoiding treaty disagreements. However, the technologies being developed today for anti-satellite weaponry can be applied to satellites in an offensive space control mode. Therefore, anti-satellite weapons may hasten the space-based deployment of offensive earth-attack weapons through dual usage of common technologies.

Geopolitical, Military and Diplomatic Factors

Today's military is increasingly dependent on reliable, and secure sets of space systems. The information revolution has reached into space. Ways to deny, disrupt, or alter information provided to the enemy is particularly sought after by the competent battlefield commander. Military policymakers, however, have so far been reluctant to risk interruption of commercially generated information flow. The increasing reliance by modern forces on precision-guided weapons relying on commercial GPS systems has created unusual dependence of a military on a business.

Considering the current global situation, it is fair game to debate whether US space based assets are really at risk. Some have foretold of a "Space Pearl Harbor" but this seems a bit disingenuous. The Soviet Union had a working anti-satellite weapons system in the early 1970's and given adequate funding, modern Russia would be capable of building another more up-to date system. Our European allies could likely build and deploy an ASAT system but have also resisted spending the money to build one. Other countries with space potential include Brazil, China, India, and Iran. [13] To date, the perceived threat has not matched the enthusiasm to commit to the effort.

The US has no active ASAT program but since 9/11 is more actively pursing the matter. The system would likely be ground-based initially and deployed sometime in the early decades of the 21st century. This system could be a precursor to an offensive weapon that would possess the capability to attack and destroy ground targets. This continuing activity begs the additional question of whether space should be weaponized and whether Congress is poised to fund the programs. Wary of the changes in the former Soviet states and the threat of global terrorism, it seems that they are willing. Congress realizes that the US military cannot be caught unprepared again in defense of the Homeland. Consequently, funding for research and development of technologies easily adapted to space warfare continues, despite reservations about weapons in space.

The US does not have a monopoly on the use of space but does dominant it. The number of nations able to realistically challenge the US in space is limited. The Russian space program is still operates at an advanced level even though somewhat stagnant due to economic difficulties. China certainly has the potential to be a major space power in the 21st century. Other countries have launch facilities and technological prowess to pursue interests in space. How these space capable countries would react or be capable of significantly reacting to further US space superiority remains to be seen. Regardless, US strategists need to consider the possibilities. Should such a threat materialize, the US monopoly in space warfare would be eliminated, much as the atomic bomb monopoly was lost when the Soviet Union developed an atomic bomb. At least some analysts believe that strategy would cover aspects of space control, missile defense and force application from space.

The financial costs could be prohibitive. Nonetheless, the Air Force alone is expected to invest $185 million in the areas of surveillance ad prevention during fiscal year 2003. More specifically, one official was quoted as saying, "Air Force Space Command is developing a concept of operations for space control and has launched a "red force" namely the 527th Space Aggressor Squadron to pinpoint vulnerabilities in US systems.[14] The military is progressing with plans to militarize and weaponize space on a steady, quiet basis even if not full steam ahead. Therefore, US policymakers must seriously consider the effect of US unilateral violation of current international space treaties. The US is the most powerful nation on earth and clearly capable of space superiority. The real question is whether or not it is worth it politically, diplomatically and economically to take such steps.

page 2 | top  

filler image
Issue No. 6:
Satellite Security

Winter 2004

General Editor Introduction

From the Guest Editor


Security Issues
p. 1
, p. 2

Threats to Satellite Communication
p. 1
, p. 2

Signal Security
p. 1
, p. 2

Current Development

Space-Based Weaponry
p. 1
, p. 2

Preservation of Space
p. 1
, p. 2

Critical Perspectives

Security and Performance

filler image
body bottom image