TCS Daily

Weaponizing Space and the Legacy of the Cold War

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - November 17, 2004 12:00 AM

Last month I wrote about the prospects for the militarization of Outer Space in light of recent statements and papers from the Air Force. I wasn't the only one to think about this. But unfortunately, much of the discussion seems mired in Cold War dynamics that don't apply today.

Writing in Arms Control Today, Michael Krepon argues that militarizing outer space is a terrible idea:

"If the United States leads the way in flight-testing and deploying new anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, other states will surely follow suit because they have too much to lose by allowing the Pentagon sole rights to space warfare. U.S. programs will cost more and be far more sophisticated than the ASAT weapons of potential adversaries, who will opt to kill satellites cheaply and crudely. The resulting competition would endanger U.S. troops that depend on satellites to an unprecedented degree for battlefield intelligence, communication, and targeting to win quickly and with a minimum of casualties.

"Space warfare would have far-reaching adverse effects for global commerce, especially commercial transactions and telecommunication services that use satellites. Worldwide space industry revenues now total almost $110 billion a year, $40 billion of which go to U.S. companies. These numbers do not begin to illuminate how much disruption would occur in the event of space warfare. For a glimpse of what could transpire, the failure of a Galaxy IV satellite in May 1998 is instructive. Eighty-nine percent of all U.S. pagers used by 45 million customers became inoperative, and direct broadcast transmissions, financial transactions, and gas station pumps were also affected."

Krepon's piece makes a number of good points, and having written something very similar in 1992, I suppose I'm in a poor position to argue. Here's what I wrote then:

"Military battles in space are unlikely to occur because outer space is already too valuable as a center of commercial activity. Satellite communications alone are a multibillion-dollar-per-year industry, and the value of satellite communications in tying together global industries is far greater than the dollar figure suggests. A major disruption of satellite communications -- a near-certain side effect of significant space combat, even among automated devices -- would bring global business to a near-standstill in short order, with phenomenal costs. And satellite communications is only one of the many civilian and commercial activities that already take place in outer space, although not necessarily the most valuable activity over the long term.

"In short, outer space makes no more sense as an arena for 'clean' warfare than do the floors of the world's stock exchanges, and the ultimate consequences of such warfare would be similar."

But there are some differences. The Cold War was just drawing to a close when I wrote those words, and the paradigm case for space warfare back then still involved a conflict of the Cold War variety, between adversaries who both had something to lose and knew it.

Today's environment is rather different. The biggest threat to U.S. space assets isn't Russia, or (probably) even China: It's some rogue nation or group trying to create economic disruption at low cost. An attack on satellites might produce a lot of economic damage, and -- since it wouldn't directly kill anyone -- might even do so without risking the kind of swift and sharp response that, say, the Taliban encountered. When you add to this that today's Islamist terrorist are in opposition to modernity, and to the worldwide spread of Western (and especially American) culture, that sort of attack looks more plausible. And though bringing down satellites isn't child's play, it's not so hard that it's beyond the capability of well-funded groups or even small states. North Korea, I suspect, has the resources to bring down a lot of satellites, either through crude means such as lofting gravel into intersecting orbits or through exploding nuclear weapons in outer space, damaging satellites via electromagnetic pulse.

This means that the big question isn't whether to have a military presence in space, but rather what kind we should have. Arguably, we should be worrying more about defending against rogue threats who can't be deterred by a symmetric response, meaning that government ASAT and SDI plans are just as stuck in the Cold War paradigm as the examples quoted above. But so is an "arms control" approach that assumes that treaties and international agreements -- or just the United States' force of example -- can prevent military action in space.

Just as the Air Force seems to think of space warfare issues in ways that -- shockingly -- produce more missions for the Air Force rather than in ways (such as requiring commercial-satellite hardening or backups) that don't, the arms control community tends to think of space warfare issues in ways that involve arms control. But that's probably missing the point. Just as with the Air Force, these groups probably need to devote more energy to thinking outside the box. Then there's this article in the Guardian:

"Plans for a 'thin constellation of three to six spacecraft' in orbit, which would target enemy missiles as they took off or landed, are planned... the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which outlaws the use of weapons in orbit, will be ignored."

Actually, as I've noted here before, the Outer Space Treaty only outlaws 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. It's rather troubling to see this distinction so frequently ignored by opponents of space militarization, as these omissions do not improve their credibility.

I'm an agnostic on the value of space-based missile defense. But the best arguments against it are practical -- will it protect us from the kinds of threats we face, or not? -- rather than legal. And the answers to those questions are likely to be found outside the now obsolete Cold War frameworks, too. I hope that both our military, and its critics, will take a more original approach to these questions in the future.


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