Is a New Space Weapon Race Heating Up?

Pentagon Loses Contact With Hypersonic Glider Launched on New Rocket
The DARPA Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle (HTV)-2. (Image credit: DARPA artist's concept)

A U.S. Air Force space plane and a failed hypersonic glidertested by the Pentagon represent the latest space missions to raise concernsabout weapons in space. But while their exact purpose remains murky, they join ahost of new space technology tests that could eventually bring the battlefieldinto space.

Some space technology demonstrations are more obviously space weapons,such as the anti-satellite missile capabilities tested by the U.S. and China inrecent years. India has also begun developing its own anti-satelliteprogram which would combine lasers and an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle, asannounced at the beginning of 2010.

The U.S. military and others have also long developed anddeployed more neutral space assets such as rockets and satellites for militarypurposes. In that sense, both the Air Force's X-37B robotic space plane and theHTV-2 hypersonic glider prototype of the Defense Advanced Research ProjectsAgency (DARPA) could represent similarly ambiguous technologies which may ormay not lead to weapons.

"Space has been militarized since before NASA waseven created," said Joan Johnson-Freese, a space policy analyst at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. Yet she sees weaponization as a different issue frommilitarization because "so much space technology is dual use" interms of having both civilian and military purposes, as well as offensive ordefensive use.

Such uncertainty regarding space technology can make ittricky for nations to gauge the purpose or intentions behind new prototypes,including the X-37Bspace plane or the HTV-2 hypersonic glider.

The U.S. military could even be using the cloak ofmystery to deliberately bamboozle and confuse rival militaries, according toJohn Pike, a military and security analyst who runs Hesuggested that the X-37B and HTV-2 projects could represent the tip of a spaceweapons program hidden within the Pentagon's secret "black budget,"or they might be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

The devil is in the details

Many existing space technologies play dual roles in bothmilitary and civilian life.

The Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system whichstarted out as military-only has since become common in consumer smartphonesand car navigation systems. Modern rocketry grew in part from the technologyand scientific minds behind Nazi Germany's V-2 rockets of World War II, andcontinued to evolve alongside ballistic missile technology.

Even something as basic as a satellite image can be usedfor either military weapons targeting or civilian crop rotation, Johnson-Freesesaid. Space plane technology can seem equally ambiguous ? the Air Force deputyundersecretary of space programs scoffedat the notion of X-37B paving the way for future space weapons.

"The whole issue is further complicated becausebeyond technologies like lasers, Rods from God, explosives, etc.... virtuallyany object traveling in space can be a weapon if it can be maneuvered to runinto another object," Johnson-Freese told

Uncertainty matters a great deal for how other nationsview the recent U.S. space plane and hypersonic glider tests, regardless ofwhether or not the technologies lead to future weapons.

"They are testing capabilities that could certainlybe useful to the military if it chose to use them in an offensive manner,"Johnson-Freese said. "And the military has been silent on intent."

Intrigue and deception

Pike said the current work under way by the U.S. militaryleaves plenty of room for misinterpretations or even outright deception, whichcould be a ploy to distract other nations with military space projects.

"One of them could be a deception program and theother could be the spitting image of the real thing," Pike noted. He saidthat such misdirection could force other nations' militaries to waste moneychasing down dead ends.

Both the Air Force space plane and DARPA'shypersonic glider may have a combined budget of several hundred milliondollars per year, Pike estimated. He described such spending as "chumpchange" compared to the Pentagon's black budget spending in recent yearsof $6 billion to $8 billion annually ? and he pointed to decades worth of knownspace plane programs which had amounted to little.

"I conclude that the hypersonic trans-atmosphericspace plane domain is either unusually badly managed even for governmentprograms, or there's a lot of hocus pocus here," Pike said. "I defyanyone to tell the difference between hocus pocus and mismanagement."

Of course, the U.S. military could theoretically makegood use of either the X-47B or HTV-2. An operational space plane could launchquickly as a replacement for recon satellites disabled in the opening salvoesof a conflict, and could "play hide and seek" to avoid being shotdown easily. Similarly, a hypersonic aircraft or weapon might allow the U.S. to eliminate threats early on without warning.

Walking the line on weapon bans

The double-edged nature of space technologies has alsocomplicated international efforts to ban entire classes of technologies whichmight serve as space weapons. Instead, there has been interest in "moremodest proposals that focus on behavior, rather than what you are allowed tobuild or test," said Karl Mueller, a political scientist at the RANDCorporation.

Military use of space looks likely to expand, accordingto the experts. But Mueller explained that the U.S. military's interest in spacehas less to do with the dazzling futuristic visions of space planes and more todo with "unglamorous" satellites and orbital sensor systems. Suchtechnologies give situational awareness of all the satellites, spacecraft anddebris in orbit.

One such example is the $800 million Space Based SpaceSurveillance satellite slated for launch in July. It carries an opticaltelescope to help Air Force ground-based radars track the growing orbitaltraffic of satellites and spacedebris ? a goal which everyone can appreciate.

"That's true whether you're hawkish and enthusiasticabout using force in space, or whether you're dovish and want to maintain the sanctuaryof space and maximize peaceful spacefaring," Mueller said.

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Contributing Writer

Jeremy Hsu is science writer based in New York City whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Discovery Magazine, Backchannel, and IEEE Spectrum, among others. He joined the and Live Science teams in 2010 as a Senior Writer and is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Indicate Media.  Jeremy studied history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, and earned a master's degree in journalism from the NYU Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. You can find Jeremy's latest project on Twitter