Weapons In Space: Dawn of a New Era

For more than a decade, the military utilization of space has become all the more important in warfighting. Since the Gulf War of 1991, using space assets has enabled air, land, and sea forces and operations to be far more effective.

Space power has changed the face of warfare. So much so, particularly for the United States, skirmishes of the 21st century cannot be fought and won without space capabilities. That reliance has led to a key action item for U.S. space warriors: How best to maintain and grow the nation's space superiority and deny adversaries the ability to use space assets.

That fact has prompted arguments as to the "weaponization" of space - from satellites killing satellites, exploding space mines, even using technology to make an enemy's spacecraft go deaf, dumb, or blind.

Leftover legacy

The White House is now delving into U.S. military space policy and what it sees as the need to reshape current national space policy, a leftover legacy document from the Clinton Administration.

Clinton's unclassified National Space Policy was issued in September 1996. Among its proclamations: "Consistent with treaty obligations, the United States will develop, operate and maintain space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries. These capabilities may also be enhanced by diplomatic, legal or military measures to preclude an adversary's hostile use of space systems and services."

In a June 10 press briefing, White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, explained that the national space policy has been "undergoing an interagency review" because it hasn't been updated in several years.

McClellan said that "we've seen a lot of dramatic changes, internationally and domestically, that affect our space policy. And that's why it needs to be updated."

"But we believe in the peaceful exploration of space," McClellan continued. "And there are treaties in place, and we continue to abide by those treaties. But there are issues that relate to our space program that could affect those space programs that we need to make sure are addressed."

As for the interagency review process of national space policy itself, McClellan added: "It's not looking at weaponizing space, as some reports had previously suggested. But the peaceful exploration of space also includes the ability of nations to be able to protect their space systems."

Full spectrum dominance

What the White House will spin up and out as new military space policy, nobody knows for sure. But already there's heated debate.

At a meeting sponsored by the Nuclear Policy Research Institute on May 16 and 17 and held in Washington, D.C., various policy experts argued over the merits of "Full Spectrum Dominance".

Theresa Hitchens, Vice President of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C. is skeptical about what's in the offing from White House space policy wonks. Contrasted with the Clinton space policy, she feels it's a question of emphasis.

The Bush policy will embrace a need to bolster U.S. military space, Hitchens predicted. It will provide a stronger incentive for military space operations to "ensure freedom of action in space" and for "space protection," she explained.

"The new policy will be more military-oriented, rather than the heavily civil-oriented predecessor," Hitchens suggested. What's ahead is a shift of terminology, she added, a "playing with the words." 

As example, the term "freedom of action in space" is now a code phrase for "freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack," Hitchens emphasized, drawing the distinction from recently issued U.S. Air Force Counterspace Operations Doctrine.

Tap on the shoulder to toast

Hitchens points to current U.S. Air Force documents that state the need for anti-satellite capabilities. These "knock 'em dead" ideas range from hit-to-kill devices, electromagnetic pulses to lasers. "Anything from a tap on the shoulder to toast", she said, is not ruled out, including physical destruction of a target satellite. All are part of the counterspace portion of space control.

Just how explicit will the new Bush space policy be on these matters?

None of this detail is likely to be visible within the publicly released document, Hitchens said. "What I am suggesting is that the strategy of fighting 'in, from and through' space is already codified in official military documents. Those documents could not have been published without at least the tacit approval of the Pentagon civilian leadership and the White House."

For Hitchens, what's coming is simply putting "the political chapeau on this strategy." It will support the space warfighting strategy, although probably in a rather subtle and understated way, she said.

"The reason for the coyness is also obvious. The White House knows that the idea of space weaponization is publicly controversial. Therefore, they will seek to defuse this controversy by emphasizing the 'defensive' needs and approach," Hitchens advised.

Time to weaponize space

"The time to weaponize and administer space for the good of global commerce is now, when the United States could do so without fear of an arms race there."

This is the view of Everett Dolman, Associate Professor of Comparative Military Studies in the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

No peer competitors are capable of challenging the United States, Dolman explained, as was the case in the Cold War, and so no "race" is possible. The longer the United States waits, however, the more opportunities for a peer competitor to show up on the scene.

Dolman argues that, in ten or twenty years, America might be confronting an active space power that could weaponize space. And they might do so in a manner that prevents the United States from competing in the space arena.

"The short answer is, if you want an arms race in space, do nothing now," Dolman said.

Maintain the status quo

For those that think space weaponization is impossible, Dolman said such belief falls into the same camp that "man will never fly". The fact that space weaponization is technically feasible is indisputable, he said, and nowhere challenged by a credible authority.

"Space weaponization can work," Dolman said. "It will be very expensive. But the rewards for the state that weaponizes first--and establishes itself at the top of the Earth's gravity well, garnering all the many advantages that the high ground has always provided in war--will find the benefits worth the costs."

What if America weaponizes space? One would think such an action would kick-start a procession of other nations to follow suit. Dolman said he takes issues with that notion.

"This argument comes from the mirror-image analogy that if another state were to weaponize space, well then, the U.S. would have to react. Of course it would! But this is an entirely different situation," Dolman responded.

"The U.S. is the world's most powerful state. The international system looks to it for order. If the U.S. were to weaponize space, it would be perceived as an attempt to maintain or extend its position, in effect, the status quo," Dolman suggested. It is likely that most states--recognizing the vast expense and effort needed to hone their space skills to where America is today--would opt not to bother competing, he said.

Force enhancement

There has been a clear shift in military space prowess over the last couple of decades, pointed out Nancy Gallagher, Associate Director for Research at the Center for International and Security Affairs at the University of Maryland, in College Park.

"I don't see military uses of space as a dichotomy," Gallagher said, "for example, that it's either used for purely peaceful purposes, or it has already been 'militarized' or even 'weaponized'...and thus anything goes."

Gallagher noted that both the United States and the former Soviet Union made military use of space from the outset, but primarily in support functions that were generally agreed to be stabilizing. "What has been happening over the past twenty-plus years is basically a shift from using space to help stabilize deterrence to using it for war-fighting purposes, she said.

Today, that means primarily "force enhancement", Gallagher said, like the use of space-based communications, spysat imagery, as well as guidance systems to make U.S. conventional forces on land, sea, and air more lethal.

But there are also increasing ambitions for space control and space force application capabilities, Gallagher said. Those include anti-satellite weapons, space-based missile defense, and weapons based in space that can hit targets on Earth.

Political heat

"I will be interested to see how forward-leaning the new presidential directive will be," Gallagher said, in terms of space control. Which steps have already been authorized and those than remain "options" needing future presidential decision remain to be seen, she said.

The new Bush space directive may be interesting primarily as a signal of how much political heat the White House is willing to take by being explicit about its plans in order to try to institutionalize them, Gallagher said

"I would like to see more debate on the Hill and among opinion leaders and the general public about what types of space-based military capabilities the United States really should be pursuing, given the actual nature of the threats and alternative means to address them," Gallagher concluded.

Little to be gained...much to be lost

"Space is indeed militarized, and has been since the 1960s," observed Craig Eisendrath, Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C. "Placing weapons in outer space -- weaponization -- is different, and has not yet happened. Substantial research is being conducted but deployment has not occurred," he said. 

At stake, Eisendrath said, is not only the immense expense that would be incurred by an arms race in outer space. "There is also the serious threat that should space be weaponized, and battles fought, it would become quickly inoperable for the important commercial purposes it serves, particularly in communications. For this reason, there is an urgent need for more control."

While Eisendrath is not optimistic that the Bush administration will desist from weaponization of space, he remains hopeful.

"There is little to be gained and much to be lost, particularly given the serious state of our economy with mounting deficits and increasing instability. This could be an area where the administration prudently withdraws," Eisendrath said.

 This is the first in a series of articles dealing with the militarization and weaponization of space.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.