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Space Treaty, Not Weapons, Needed, Expert Says

Space Treaty, Not Weapons, Needed, Expert Says
Space-based laser offers a powerful pulse of energy to destroy missiles in flight. (Image credit: U.S. Air Force.)


NEW YORK - The development and deployment of space-based weapons by the U.S. military will not only encourage other nations to do the same, but leave vital non-weapon spacecraft vulnerable to attack, according to one weapons expert.

Physicist Richard Garwin, a nuclear weapons expert who has studied the U.S. military's plans for space-based systems, said that while protecting space assets is key, devoted weapons platforms could be easily destroyed by enemies with cheaper, mine-like microsatellites.

Instead, Garwin proposed the development of a formal treaty among nations banning space weapons and anti-satellite spacecraft to draw lines across what type of weaponry - if any - is internationally acceptable in space.

"I think that we need to have these formal agreements in order that we understand what is legitimate, and that other countries understand what is not legitimate," Garwin told researchers, professors and students in a packed auditorium at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn. "They could therefore be punished not by tit-for-tat against their satellites, but against their military capabilities on the ground."

The U.S. Air Force has outlined a series of potential space weapons initiatives in its Transformation Flight Plan, a 176-report released publicly earlier this year. Included in the report are discussions over space-based lasers, hypervelocity rod bundles that can rain down on targets from space, as well as new air and spaceworthy vehicles.

"Space superiority is as much about protecting our space assets as it about preparing to counter an enemy's space or anti-space assets," said General John Jumper, chief of Staff for the U.S. Air Force, in an Aug. 2 report on Counterspace Operations. "The United States relies on space operations for its security, and this reliance may make us vulnerable in some areas."

Garwin said that in addition to space weaponry, crucial resources such as global positioning system (GPS) and communication satellites, in low Earth orbit could be targeted by small microsatellites designed to move within 10 to 100 meters of a target and explode. Such satellites, he added, would be much easier to launch because of their smaller mass, and cost effective when compared to multi-million space weapon platforms.

It would also be within the U.S. military's interest to develop redundancies for space navigation and communications systems because of their orbital vulnerability during military engagements, Garwin added.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, for example, could act as high-powered pseudo-satellites, providing GPS and imaging functions over a local combat zone. Such local systems more affordable than spacecraft and can also concentrate their power on a particular area, as opposed to satellites that cover the entire Earth, Garwin said.

"These are very exciting concepts," Garwin said of potential weapons like the space-based laser. "[But] once you undertake one of these adventures, you can't tell how they'll come out."

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Tariq Malik

SPACE.COM EDITOR IN CHIEF — Tariq joined the team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, covering human spaceflight, exploration and space science. He became's Managing Editor in 2009. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Google+, Twitter and on Facebook.