A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away no, scratch that. No country today is known to have weapons deployed in space, and many countries oppose their development. Yet from orbiting lasers that strike from the heavens to China's recent anti-satellite test, the potential to wage war from space raises startling possibilities.
The revelation in January that China had slammed a medium-range ballistic missile into one of its aging satellites, the first anti-satellite (ASAT) test since the United States conducted one in 1985, was a provocative test that the U.S. military had long anticipated. For advocates of aggressive American posture in space, it confirms long-held suspicions about China's military ambition in space and, according to Wired News
soon after the January test, "justifies the need for increased spending on space-based weapons programs that recall the star-wars aspirations of the Reagan presidency."
The Chinese government's failure to explain why it destroyed one of its own weather satellites, creating a large debris field that continues to expand in low-Earth orbit, has led to concerns that Beijing is attempting to perfect a wide array of ASAT weapons, "including jammers for navigation and communications satellites, and possibly the deployment of small 'space mines' that could disable U.S. military satellites in the event of a conflict," according to Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, this week
No country today is known to have weapons deployed in space, and many countries oppose their development. As the Union of Concerned Scientists
have put it:
Although space has been "militarized" military satellites have been deployed for purposes ranging from the verification of arms control treaties to providing targeting information to military forces on Earth it has not yet been "weaponized." Despite Cold War tensions and the technical capability to do so, no nation has deployed destructive weapons in space or destroyed the satellites of another nation.
A space weapon is commonly defined as a system designed to project destructive force between Earth and outer space or within space itself. Anti-satellite weapons, space-based lasers, space-based platforms that fire projectiles, and ground-based lasers that rely on orbiting mirrors to reflect beams to space or back down to Earth all fit the definition. For the most part, according to an IEEE Spectrum report
in 2005, space weapons can be classified into four categories: directed-energy weapons, kinetic-energy weapons, conventional warheads delivered to or from space, and micro-satellites.
The idea of putting weapons in space is far from new. Beginning in the 1960s, at a time when satellites remained rather rare, the former Soviet Union and the U.S. both tested anti-satellite weapons. Despite several decades of development, however, neither country managed to deploy any such weapons. Then, during the Reagan administration, supporters of the Strategic Defense Initiative advanced proposals ranging from space-based lasers to "Brilliant Pebbles," numerous small orbiting projectiles to be fired at ballistic missiles in hopes of destroying them.
Of course, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, signed by more than 90 countries including the U.S., outlaws the use of weapons in orbit. A number of other relevant treaties and international agreements exist, but the legal framework addressing space weaponization is far from comprehensive. And the potential to wage war from space raises startling possibilities and serious problems.
Yet after decades of debate, at least some U.S. Pentagon officials have been arguing that the U.S. must develop and deploy offensive space weapons. In January 2001, incoming-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld unveiled a Congressionally mandated space commission report
that predicted a "space Pearl Harbor" if the U.S. didn't develop "the means both to deter and to defend against hostile acts in and from space." Although the report stressed defensive space operations, it also endorsed the notion of "space control" and specifically called for anti-satellite technology.
The Rumsfeld commission laid out three objectives in which space weapons might play a role: to defend existing military capabilities in space; to deny adversaries the military benefit of space; and to attack adversaries from or within space.
The last objective is perhaps the most alluring: the prompt and deadly projection of force anywhere on the globe. Yet as the IEEE Spectrum
authors point out, "the psychological impact of such a blow might rival that of such devastating attacks as Hiroshima."
Simply put, just as the unleashing of nuclear weapons had unforeseen consequences, so, too, would the weaponization of space.
It is worth noting that, in addition to the U.S., other space-faring nations Russia, Japan and India were also rattled by China's missile test.
In space, China may be "a distant competitor" to the U.S., which owns more than half the satellites in the sky, but that hasn't dampened concern that the recent missile test could encourage a space arms race involving multiple countries. Nor has it mitigated concern that the test will be used by "star warriors" to push an agenda that could heighten the risks of nuclear engagement.
Also in January 2007, the government-appointed U.S-China Economic and Security Review Commission issued its own report
, which among its many dire-sounding warnings, described how the Chinese military might use plasma weapons, laser beams and commando units to attack Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites and ground stations in order to disrupt the U.S. economy.
As of March 2005, the U.S. government had already spent "billions of dollars over the past 10 years researching and testing such weapons," according to IEEE Spectrum
. Today, President George W. Bush's administration appears to have a serious interest in ASAT weapons, and the Pentagon has announced its intention to pursue a testbed for space-based missile defenses by 2008. The testbed deployment would entail putting one or more missile-targeting interceptor satellites into orbit.
Should the United States, or any nation for that matter, weaponize space?
Earlier: Achieving Space Not Just Air Superiority
Fanning Fears of a Space War
by Luke O'Brien
Wired, Jan. 25, 2007
Air Force reviewing vulnerability in space
by Peter Spiegel
The Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2007
Global Security: space weapons
Union of Concerned Scientists, last revised: Aug. 10, 2005
by Bruce M. DeBlois, Richard M. Garwin, R. Scott Kemp, and Jeremy C. Marwell
IEEE Spectrum, March 2005
Rumsfeld Commission Warns Against "Space Pearl Harbor"
by Jean-Michel Stoullig
The Associated Press, Jan. 11, 2001
An Assessment of China's Anti-Satellite and Space Warfare Programs, Policies and Doctrines
Prepared by Michael P. Pillsbury, Ph.D.
U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Jan. 10, 2007