Taming antisatellite and space weapons

By Richard L. Garwin | May 29, 2007

Before many of my readers were born, there were active negotiations between the United States and Soviet Union to limit antisatellite (ASAT) activities. These took place in Geneva in 1978-79, were recessed after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and have not been resumed. 1

Much has changed since, including the demise of the Soviet Union and the declassification of some of that era’s U.S. space activity. In particular, the Corona system of film reconnaissance satellites, which began operation in 1960 and ended in 1972, was fully declassified in 1995, as was the existence of the National Reconnaissance Office. 2

From 1960 to the present, my own concern with space weapons has been in good part to make choices that will further U.S. national security interests, including the protection of U.S. reconnaissance, and treaty verification capabilities in space, which include both imaging satellites and satellites for electronic intelligence. The latter capture telemetry from in-flight missiles, communications, radar signals, and signals from nuclear explosions. Since roughly the 1980s, other satellites have become essential to military capability, including weather, communications, and navigation satellites, especially the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Of these, only those satellites that constitute National Technical Means (NTM), a euphemism of the day referring to satellites and ground-based means for verifying compliance of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties, are specifically protected by the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the 1972 Limited Offensive Agreement, and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). Since the United States opted out of the ABM Treaty in 2002, the sole protection against interference with NTM lies in START, which will expire in 2009. NTM have been protected not only against destruction or damage, but also against temporary interference such as jamming, desensitization, and blocking of the line of sight.

It is highly desirable for U.S. and global security to preserve these capabilities, which have value far beyond their verification role. Thus, our national interest in limiting the ASAT capabilities of other states. With the evolution of technology–especially those of integrated circuits, communications, and the like–it has become much simpler for states to acquire destructive ASAT capability of the type the United States demonstrated in 1985 when a miniature homing vehicle (MHV) collided with and destroyed a U.S. satellite. More recently, on January 11, 2007, China launched a ground-based interceptor to orbital altitude to collide with and destroy an old Chinese weather satellite, with the production of millions of potentially damaging pieces of orbital debris. Also, a state need no longer build its own ASAT capability. For instance, satellites are developed cooperatively for hire by Surrey Satellite Technology Limited in Britain.

China and Russia have long argued for a ban on space weapons, which would probably include ASAT. But they have not proclaimed a moratorium on ASAT tests, nor do they seem willing to follow through with actual negotiations of an ASAT ban acceptable to other states.

A pure ASAT ban is infeasible if deployment of space weapons is unconstrained. For instance, in conjunction with the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1982, I presented a draft treaty banning space weapons and ASAT tests (PDF) to a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was clear to all that the deployment of space weapons would provoke ASAT development by any country that felt threatened by those space weapons. In fact, for a long time, China argued that any space capability that served as part of a weapon system would count as a space weapon and should be banned. This included communications and command-and-control satellites, as well as navigation satellites used by military vehicles and by satellite-guided bombs and missiles.

Following much discussion, China appears willing to accept the deployment of components of weapon systems in space; it may, however, draw the line at allowing these space components to have the capability to destroy or damage objects on the ground, in the air, or in space.

In itself, this apparent evolution in China’s position does not solve the problem. As the Chinese ASAT test demonstrates, the high-speed collision of two space objects would result in the destruction of both, and an object deployed in space ostensibly as a small communication or observation satellite could be directed to collide with another satellite. Nevertheless, unless specifically designed with the capability, satellites in general could not respond accurately to commands that would produce a high-speed collision such as the Chinese ASAT test.

The 1972 bilateral ABM Treaty strictly limited large ground-based radars–not because they are dangerous in themselves, but because they are an essential part of an ABM system, are readily observable, and represent a “longer lead time” item than the interceptors or command-and-control system. The deployment of such radar was thought to be an essential part of an effective ABM system that would help sort out real warheads from decoys and assign command-guided, nuclear-armed interceptor rockets to destroy the warheads. The concept of “buffer time” was built into the ABM Treaty as well as into other international regimes such as the safeguards regime of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The United States has done a lot of research and development toward space weapon technology, ranging from powerful, space-based lasers with large mirrors for focusing the beam at great distances against targets on Earth or in space, to thousands of space-based homing vehicles that would destroy ballistic missiles on their way through space to their targets. Many articles have been published on this topic, including an early seminal piece by Ashton B. Carter. 3

China, Russia, and a few other states also depend on space for observation and communication and have an interest in preserving these capabilities against ASAT–whether ASAT is based in space or on the ground. Like the United States, they are also interested in denying such capabilities to perceived adversaries.

The United States emphasized ASAT capability in the form of MHVs launched by a missile carried in an F-15 aircraft, arguing for it over a ground-based system because the aircraft was highly mobile and might give first-orbit intercept of satellites. But it makes little sense to demand first-orbit intercept rather than first-day intercept, and ground-based, rocket-launched interceptors are the biggest threat, especially against satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO).

On balance, it is highly desirable to have an effective ban on ASAT capability. But the example of a small satellite with a secondary (perhaps in reality, a primary) ASAT role shows the difficulty of such a ban. Furthermore, ASAT capability could be developed in the guise of ballistic missile defense (BMD), with ground- or ship-based interceptors for BMD having far more capability than is required for ASAT purposes against LEO satellites. This is because observation of the path of the reentry vehicle (RV) in space must take place over a period of a few minutes; the RV is rather small and passive (without solar cells or antennae) and is far more durable than satellites in general. So any midcourse BMD capability could readily serve as an effective hit-to-kill ASAT.

For instance, the airborne laser, intended for boost-phase intercept of ballistic missiles would make a fine ASAT capability against satellites in LEO, because they are so fragile compared with missiles even in boost phase.

Many sensible papers have appeared over the years, proposing “rules of the road” or a “code of conduct” in space, and since the Chinese ASAT test, these have renewed cogency–see, for example, Michael Krepon’s “Will the Bush Administration Endorse a Space Code of Conduct?” But it seems to me that despite the present U.S. administration’s antipathy to treaties, we would best address our national security needs by negotiating a treaty to ban space weapons and ASAT tests.

The White House authorized its current version of the National Space Policy (PDF) on August 31, 2006. It contains the following paragraphs:

Compare this with the announcement by President Ronald Reagan in May 1987, in which we find, “For several years now, the Soviets have maintained satellites in orbit, the purpose of which is to provide targeting information against our armed forces. Failure to provide a non-nuclear capability to counter Soviet targeting satellites that directly support hostile forces against our land, sea, and air forces undercuts stability and our ability to deter both conventional and nuclear conflicts.”

If the United States is to support the rule of law and not an arbitrary rule of force, it must admit that other states have the rights that the United States asserts for itself. It is one thing to proclaim unilateral superiority or primacy when other states do not have the capability to achieve some kind of parity, but in this case, primacy in the use of space carries an extreme vulnerability and dependence on space. Because it is so much easier to destroy satellites than to build and launch them, the United States has a great interest in protecting its space assets against ASAT. The United States has long argued that there is no arms race in space, and that it made no sense to negotiate any arms limitation agreement. But it is not only a symmetrical arms race that would provoke interest in a treaty; a modest ASAT capability on the other side could vanquish a massive and unique U.S. security-related space infrastructure.

As for space weapons, the deployment of such weapons is generally inferior from the point of view of cost and effectiveness when compared to the deployment of weapons on the ground, including conventional (i.e., non-nuclear) global strike. These points are argued firmly in recent papers by myself and others. 4 Under those circumstances, what are the chances of a successful deal that prevents China from using an ASAT capability and prevents the United States from deploying or developing not-very-useful weapons based in space?

First, let us agree that achieving that goal would greatly benefit the United States. The question is whether Russia, China, and other states would sign such a treaty and whether it would afford protection in wartime, short of all-out nuclear war. That question can be resolved only in the negotiation process. But the costs of negotiation are not high, and to my mind, it would be worth the attempt.

In my formulation of a ban on space weapons and ASAT tests, I recognize that one cannot practically and forcefully ban ASAT capability–only proven ASAT capability–and this is complicated by the unfortunate emphasis of the Missile Defense Agency on midcourse intercept. But if countries committed to not having a dedicated ASAT program and this ban was supplemented by relatively easy verification of the absence of dedicated ASAT tests, that would go far toward reassuring the United States of the absence of ASAT capability on the other side. In turn, U.S. assurance that it did not maintain a dedicated ASAT program or capability, which in the past would have had credibility because of the relatively open nature of U.S. society, might still play a significant role.

My formulation of a linked ban on space weapons and ASAT tests would allow temporary, reversible reduction of capability of space systems (not space weapons), in the form of jamming, concealment, interference with the line of sight, etc. Only those NTM in the bilateral U.S.-Russian (and Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan) treaty-verification roles would be protected against such interference (together with any satellites for which similar protection might be negotiated in the future).

I think it is not only ineffective but destabilizing and an invitation to a self-inflicted wound for the United States to imply that its response to an ASAT attack by another country would be primarily to respond in kind. No other state has such powerful and costly capabilities in orbit as the United States–hence such vulnerability. It should be recognized that the primary U.S. response against an ASAT attack would be the destruction of military facilities in the other state, preferably with minimal, but not necessarily zero, loss of life.

A policy and treaty that is symmetrical in form, if not necessarily in impact, would be a great advance over the present unregulated situation that is an invitation to widespread ASAT development. The United States would have had a stronger moral position to negotiate if it had not effectively ignored the possibility of a Chinese ASAT test, but it is never too late to recognize facts and to consider a formal agreement that would support national security even if it inevitably gives other states some security benefit.

1 Department of State testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss ASAT arms control, November 1985, (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1079/is_v85/ai_3999593/print).
2 In 2000, the NRO held its fortieth anniversary celebrations and began an ongoing process of naming “Pioneers of National Reconnaissance,” as well as 10 Founders of National Reconnaissance, of whom three are still alive–Sidney D. Drell, Richard L. Garwin, and William J. Perry.
3 Ashton B. Carter, “Satellites and Anti-Satellites: The Limits of the Possible,” International Security, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Spring 1986), pp. 46–98.
4 “Space Weapons: Crossing the U.S. Rubicon,” by B. M. DeBlois, R. L. Garwin, R. Scott Kemp, and J. C. Marwell, International Security, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Fall 2004), pp. 50-84.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows, nuclear threats are real, present, and dangerous

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Topics: Nuclear Weapons, Opinion



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