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Space Warfare: On the Way?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - October 6, 2004 12:00 AM

The United States Air Force is interested in space warfare. Actually, there's nothing new about that. The late-1950s/early-1960s Project Orion, which I wrote about here, was supposed to produce a fleet of nuclear-powered space battlewagons that would do for the Air Force what nuclear submarines had done for the Navy. For a variety of reasons, Orion never got off the ground (except for a small test craft) and though it may come back at some point, it's of largely historical interest now.

But Orion wasn't the first military space project. As Paul Stares notes in his book, The Militarization of Space: U.S. Policy 1945-1984, interest in reconnaissance satellites goes back to the days immediately after World War II, and it has continued to the present.

But these things come in waves, and the latest Air Force initiative suggests that a new wave of interest is getting under way. As an article in Wired News reports:

"'Air Force Doctrine Document 2-2.1: Counterspace Operations' is an apparent first cut at detailing how U.S. forces might take out an enemy's space capabilities -- and protect America's eyes and ears in orbit. Signed by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper, the unclassified report sketches out who would be in command during a space fight, what American weapons would be used and which targets might be attacked.

"In that way, the report is similar to hundreds of others in the Pentagon's archives. But buried in the report's acronyms and org charts are two striking sentiments, analysts say. First, the document declares that the U.S. Air Force is duty-bound to slap down other countries' space efforts, should the need arise. Then, Counterspace Operations declares that a satellite or ground-control station doesn't have to belong to one of America's enemies in order to get hit."

(Here's a link to the paper.) This has some people unhappy. As one commentator in The Register observes:

"The document doesn't specifically say anything like 'we'll shoot down any neutral satellite we find being used by our adversaries.' But neither does it say, 'whatever we do we must ensure we don't shoot down any neutral satellite.' It does strongly imply throughout that destroying, disabling or interdicting non-combatant space assets is something that may have to be done, after giving due considerations to all of the consequences. So we have here the Air Force outlining the Bush doctrine in space, alongside the extension of Article 51 of the UN Charter to extraterrestrial matters."

Actually, there's never been much doubt that Article 51 of the UN Charter (which authorizes force in self-defense) extends to outer space. Nor, despite the occasional assertion to the contrary by uninformed commentators, does the 1967 Outer Space Treaty forbid militarization -- or military action -- in outer space. Rather, the Treaty's text merely forbids the placing of nuclear weapons "or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction" in orbit, and the establishment of military bases or fortifications on the Moon and other celestial bodies. None of this poses any barrier to the Air Force's plans.

No doubt there will be specious arguments of illegality made, on the popular assumption that anything the United States wants to do must offend international law. But I don't plan to waste more pixels on that nonissue here.

A more important question is this one: Even if it's legal, is this approach a good idea? On that question, my views are less firm, and there's probably considerable room for discussion.

The United States is the world's biggest user of satellite services, both civilian and military -- but especially military. This puts us in a unique position. We have the strongest incentive to protect this sort of thing, and to maintain our lead, but we're also the most vulnerable. Space assets serve as an enormously important force multiplier for the U.S. Knock out every satellite in orbit and the United States military will suffer a considerable degradation in effectiveness; the Chinese military, or even the French, will lose much less.

Yet matters are complicated by the growth of dual use, and even covertly military, satellite systems in the hands of other countries. We're learning some things, for example, about Europe's Galileo satellite system that suggest a significant military agenda. According to the Telegraph:

"A series of probing parliamentary questions put last week to the Secretary of State for Defence by a Tory defence spokesman, Gerald Howarth MP, is trying to make the Government come clean about the immense military implications of the EU's proposed Galileo satellite system. This could be the final straw in ending Britain's close defence alliance with the United States.

"The purpose of the multi-billion-euro Galileo project, supported by Britain, is to set up a direct EU rival to the US's GPS (global positioning satellite) system. Until now, Britain has supported the cover story that Galileo, run by the European Commission's energy and transport directorate, is intended purely for civil use.

"But in 2002, the commission admitted in an 'information note' that 'Galileo will underpin the common European defence policy' by giving 'the EU a military capability'.

"Earlier this year, with the potential military uses of Galileo as a rival to the US system in mind, China took a 20 per cent share in the project. Russia and Israel have shown a similar interest."

The thinking, I believe, is that by banding together, these nations make a U.S. effort to deny them (or others) such satellite services less likely. That's a direct blow -- sponsored by the European Union -- at the United States' superior space position, and it seems intended not only to maintain Europe's independence, but more significantly to weaken the United States vis-a-vis the rest of the world.

Is the Air Force paper a response -- and maybe even a threat? As the article in The Register quoted above notes, "as the US tried mightily to persuade Europe it didn't need to build its own GPS system, ten years from now Europe may only have itself to blame, right?"

Unable to rely on a de facto monopoly, I suppose it's inevitable that the United States will put more energy into denying satellite services to its adversaries, as well as protecting its own satellite resources as best it can. I also wonder, though, about the side effects of antisatellite warfare. Unless the targeting is very precise, and unless fratricide from satellite debris is minimal, the damage to other satellites could be significant. And given the global economy's dependence on satellite services, the consequences of that could be substantial.

On the other hand, though talk of "space warfare" calls up images of Star Wars-type space combat, the easiest part of a satellite system to target is usually the ground station. Despite all the talk, we're more likely to see groups of commandoes blowing up dish antennas, or hackers seizing control of computerized control systems, than laser beams and missiles in space. The trouble is, the United States is also more vulnerable to attacks of that sort, since it depends heavily on satellites, and since many adversaries without recourse to missiles and laser beams are entirely capable of these more-ordinary attacks.

It's no wonder the Air Force is thinking about these things. And perhaps the rest of us should be giving them some more thought, too.


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