Seven Questions: Space Weapons
The U.S. military is studying weapons designed for outer space, including metal tubes, or “rods from God,” which can be fired at Earthly targets from the heavens above. President Bush may in the next few weeks move such plans closer to reality. FP turned to Michael Krepon, an expert on weaponizing space, for insights on taking the fight to the outer orbits.
FOREIGN POLICY: First of all, what exactly are space weapons?
FOREIGN POLICY: First of all, what exactly are space weapons?
Michael Krepon: Space weapons are weapons specifically designed to attack objects in space or objects on the ground. The Air Force and Pentagon are most interested in weapons that interfere with satellites without blowing them up. That could mean jamming a communications satellite, or dazzling a picture-taking satellite by blinding it. But the new Air Force doctrine is also very proactive. It talks about denying other countries the capabilities to operate from space. The idea is space superiority or space dominance, or to use the Air Forces euphemism, offensive counter space operations.
FP: President Bush is expected to issue a new presidential directive on weapons in space shortly. What can we expect from it?
MK: I think the new presidential directive will be similar to the last directive, issued by President Clinton in 1996. That directive covered all the bases. It left the door open to an offensive posture in space as well as a very prudent engagement with the rest of the world to avoid space weapons.
We can expect the Bush administration to say that it isnt doing anything new or special. This would be disingenuous because the Air Force doctrine has moved toward preemption and weapons. Most of these programs are secret and fall under black budgets.
FP: Are these steps necessary to protect the country? Is space the next frontier of defense?
MK: Weaponizing space would be very unwise. No satellite has been the subject of a direct physical attack in the history of warfare. Whatever we do sets a precedent that others will follow. We depend so heavily on satellites to protect lives and wage war with a minimum of collateral damage. Attacks on satellites would mean that wars become a whole lot more difficult for our forces in the field and a lot more harmful to noncombatants.
FP: How is the international community reacting?
MK: Russia and China have joined forces in opposition to a proactive American space presence. They have taken some diplomatic initiatives to stop it, but they know they wont stop it through an international convention. They have expressed some openness to establishing rules for responsible space-faring nations. But one presumes that they are taking hedges behind closed doors.
Space weapons are really not very useful against undeveloped states that dont have space capabilities. The North Korean space program is virtually nonexistent. It once tried to launch a satellite and it failed. The Iranians arent launching satellites. Space warfare capabilities really make sense against major powers that have significant private and military space programs.
FP: What is a smarter alternative?
MK: Rules matter, and we are the worlds most important rule maker or rule breaker. One rule that has stood the test of time so far is that you dont attack satellites directly. Thats a very important rule to keep if we want to protect our forces in the field. We could develop a code of conduct for responsible space-faring nations.
What would that look like? One, you reduce space debris. We cant eliminate all of itsome debris is released with space launchesbut we cant afford extreme amounts of debris that pose a hazard to everyone. Second, for those who do perform dangerous maneuvers in space, providing advance notification is a good idea. A lot of these ideas are spelled out in a Stimson Center report.
FP: Administration officials say important communications satellites need to be protected. If a group wanted to disrupt or destroy a communications satellite, would the proposed programs protect it?
MK: It is really difficult, if not impossible, to protect a satellite that someone wishes to destroy. Objects traveling in low Earth orbiteven those as small as marble or grains of sandare traveling at a speed equivalent to a 1-ton safe being dropped from a five-story building. That can easily destroy a satellite. Because it is so easy, countries that value satellites have explicitly decided not to strike at them. Proposing space weapons throws that deterrence into question.
FP: Could debris from targeted and destroyed satellites in space pose further dangers, particularly to private-sector communications satellites?
MK: Once you blow something up in space, the debris lingers. It isnt like a sea battle where the remains of two warships sink to the bottom. The last anti-satellite weapons test was carried out in 1985 by the United States. We took aim at an old, dying Air Force satellitejust as a testand it created 200 pieces of debris that were large enough to track. The last piece of debris finally left low Earth orbit 17 years later, and one of the pieces came within 1 mile of the International Space Station and could have done significant damage. Debris is the single greatest threat to the space shuttle.
This is why the Air Force prefers to jam or dazzle satellites rather than blowing them up. But once we go down this road, there are no guarantees that other countries will play by our rules. It is a lose-lose situation if space warfare happens. The United States will still win wars, but we will win with more casualties and more destruction.
Michael Krepon is president emeritus and cofounder of the Henry L. Stimson Center. He is currently directing the centers Space Security Project.
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