First appeared in The Topeka Capital-Journal July 15, 2005
For decades, U.S. policy has been to avoid putting weapons in space. But under the current administration, we see a reversal of that attitude. Now it is becoming more acceptable to speak of "space control." It appears that the military is quietly trying to establish programs so that the United States will have de facto space weapons. This is being done under the radar, with the hopes that by the time these systems are ready to deploy, public opinion might be more conducive.
Current space policy dates back to 1996, under the Clinton administration. It stresses peaceful uses and downplays military applications, but leaves the door open for some anti-satellite weapons programs for national security reasons. In general, though, it is widely interpreted as stressing a deterrent approach, with the aim of achieving space control without space-based weapons.
Contrast this with the 2001 Rumsfeld space commission, which predicts fighting war "in, from, and through space," and worries about a "Space Pearl Harbor." Over the past few years, the Air Force has released several planning documents and made public comments about the "vulnerability" of U.S. space assets and need for "space control."
Washington is now in process of reformulating its national space policy. A new version is supposed to be coming out this summer. It will most likely not explicitly instruct the U.S. military to develop and deploy space weapons. However, there will probably be a fundamental shift in policy in that it will be friendlier to the idea of weaponry.
The United States has most to lose with its reliance on its space capabilities. These weapons are extremely destabilizing: because of their expense and the need to maintain "eyes in the sky," they become use or lose assets. In wargames of the U.S. military, the use of space weapons has led very quickly to simulated nuclear exchanges.
Space weapons are also unnecessary, as the United States is already the overwhelming military power in the world. The United States is responsible for about 99 percent of the world's military space spending. And the Pentagon's budget for this fiscal year is almost as much as the rest of the world combined. It is eight times larger than the nearest national military budget (China) and 29 times larger than the military budgets of what used to be called the "rogue states."
Additionally, from a logistical viewpoint, it is unclear how space weapons would be effectively used. The United States is not really able to determine the reason why a satellite stops functioning while it is on-orbit. It could theoretically be traced to an attack, but it also could very well be because of production quality control issues, faulty technology, solar flares, and a host of other innocent reasons. Plus, given how multinational all satellite systems are, a retributive hit is apt to target a system that has allies involved, carries U.S. military satellite communications, and/or affects America's civilian population.
Space warfare truly illustrates the law of unintended consequences. For example, commercial satellites carry 80 percent of the military's communications in Iraq. There is no clear distinction between civilian and military interests in space, thus the deleterious effects of space warfare would be felt globally.
Debris in space resulting from explosions or attacks on-orbit would also be devastating to U.S. and other space assets. Objects are traveling at high speeds so it would not take a very large object to create a ruinous impact. The Air Force tracks around 13,000 objects circling our planet, of which only six percent are working satellites. The rest is space debris. Furthermore, an estimated 100,000 more objects are smaller than a softball. We already have a lot to monitor in space; it would be foolish to add to this challenge.
Yes, we need an explicit discussion of pros and cons of weaponizing space. That way if we do decide that their benefits outweigh their costs, we will have a program whose risks have been examined and deemed acceptable. This is opposed to wandering haphazardly along, and only finding out the detractions to space weapons when it is too late.
Author(s): Victoria Samson