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Weapons in Space?
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Weapons in the Heavens:
A Radical and Reckless Option

Michael Krepon

Of all the risky “transformation” initiatives championed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the one receiving the least media attention is the weaponization of space. Shortly before arriving for his second tour at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld chaired a commission calling for the U.S. government to vigorously pursue “the option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats and, if necessary, defend against attacks on U.S. interests.”[1]

The Air Force is now actively implementing Rumsfeld’s wishes. As General Lance Lord, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, explained, “We must establish and maintain space superiority. Modern warfare demands it. Our nation expects it. Simply put, it’s the American way of fighting.”[2]

Rumsfeld’s transformation in U.S. military space policy is driven by worst-case assumptions that the weaponization of space is inevitable; that conflict follows commerce in space, as on the ground; and that the United States must not wait to suffer a “Space Pearl Harbor.”[3] Yet, the countries most capable of developing such weapons, such as Russia and China, have professed strong interest in avoiding the weaponization of space. The Bush administration has refused negotiations on this subject.

The Final Frontier?

“We must be prepared to deprive an adversary of the benefits of space capabilities when American interests and lives are at stake.”
General John P. Jumper, Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force

“Controlling the high ground of space is not limited simply to protection of our own capabilities. It will also require us to think about denying the high ground to our adversaries. We are paving the road of 21st century warfare now. And others will soon follow.”
Peter B. Teets, Undersecretary, U.S. Air Force

“Space superiority is our imperative - it requires the same sense of urgency that we place on gaining and maintaining air superiority over enemy air space in times of conflict.”
General Lance W. Lord, Commander, Air Force Space Command

“Space superiority provides freedom to attack as well as freedom from
Counterspace Operations, Air Force Doctrine 2-2.1

“We are not prepared to negotiate on the so-called arms race in outer space. We just don’t see that as a worthwhile enterprise.”
John R. Bolton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security

—Compiled by Michael Katz-Hyman, Stimson Center

If Rumsfeld’s plans to weaponize space are carried to fruition, America’s armed forces, economy, and diplomacy will face far greater burdens, while controls over proliferation would be weakened further. Although everybody loses if the heavens become a shooting gallery, no nation loses more than the United States, which is the primary beneficiary of satellites for military and commercial purposes.

If the United States leads the way in flight-testing and deploying new anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, other states will surely follow suit because they have too much to lose by allowing the Pentagon sole rights to space warfare. U.S. programs will cost more and be far more sophisticated than the ASAT weapons of potential adversaries, who will opt to kill satellites cheaply and crudely. The resulting competition would endanger U.S. troops that depend on satellites to an unprecedented degree for battlefield intelligence, communication, and targeting to win quickly and with a minimum of casualties.

Space warfare would have far-reaching adverse effects for global commerce, especially commercial transactions and telecommunication services that use satellites. Worldwide space industry revenues now total almost $110 billion a year, $40 billion of which go to U.S. companies.[4] These numbers do not begin to illuminate how much disruption would occur in the event of space warfare. For a glimpse of what could transpire, the failure of a Galaxy IV satellite in May 1998 is instructive. Eighty-nine percent of all U.S. pagers used by 45 million customers became inoperative, and direct broadcast transmissions, financial transactions, and gas station pumps were also affected.[5]

Weaponizing space would poison relations with China and Russia, whose help is essential to stop and reverse proliferation. ASAT weapon tests and deployments would surely reinforce Russia’s hair-trigger nuclear posture, and China would likely feel compelled to alter its relaxed nuclear posture, which would then have negative repercussions on India and Pakistan. The Bush administration’s plans would also further alienate America’s friends and allies, which, with the possible exception of Israel, strongly oppose the weaponization of space. The fabric of international controls over weapons of mass destruction, which is being severely challenged by Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, could rip apart if the Bush administration’s interest in testing space and nuclear weapons is realized.

This highly destabilizing and dangerous scenario can be avoided, as there is no pressing need to weaponize space and many compelling reasons to avoid doing so. If space becomes another realm for the flight-testing and deployment of weapons, there will be no sanctuary in space and no assurance that essential satellites will be available when needed for military missions and global commerce. Acting on worst-case assumptions often can increase this likelihood. Crafting a space assurance[6] posture, including a hedging strategy in the event that others cheat, offers more potential benefits and lower risks than turning the heavens into a shooting gallery.

Charting a Dangerous Course

During the Cold War, no weapons were deployed in space, and the last test of an ASAT weapon occurred almost two decades ago, in 1985. This record of restraint reflects international norms and widespread public sentiment to keep space free of weapons. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty calls on the exploration and use of outer space to be conducted “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries” and mandates that space may not be subject to “national appropriation” by any means. Why, then, would space warriors now seek to chart a different and far more dangerous course? If the weaponization of space were inevitable, it would have occurred decades ago when Washington and Moscow competed intensively in other domains. Indeed, the record of restraint since the Cold War ended suggests that the Outer Space Treaty’s injunctions against placing weapons of mass destruction in space could be broadened if they are championed by the United States, China, and Russia.

The prediction that warfare follows commerce and that the burgeoning of space-aided commerce will produce hostilities is also suspect.[7] To the contrary, most of the world’s strife takes place in poor regions. Space-aided commerce occurs primarily between nations with advanced commercial sectors, which generally have peaceful relations. Moreover, commercial space activities are often collaborative undertakings where risks and costs are shared. No nation that has invested heavily in space-aided commerce stands to gain if these orbital planes are endangered by space weapons debris or space mines. Any country that flight-tests, deploys, or uses space weapons threatens the activities of all other space-faring nations.

A third argument for weaponizing space rests on the unparalleled position that the United States now enjoys in terrestrial warfare. Consequently, the Rumsfeld Commission and space warriors argue that weaker nations will carry out surprise attacks in space to neutralize U.S. nuclear war-fighting advantages. The best way to secure U.S. interests, the proponents say, is to transition from superiority to dominance.

Worries about a surprise attack in space cannot be written off, but there are far easier, less traceable, and more painful ways for America’s enemies to engage in asymmetric warfare than by attacking U.S. satellites. Weapons in space and weapons on Earth specifically designed to neutralize or destroy objects in space are being pursued for another reason as well: to help U.S. armed forces win quickly and with a minimum of casualties. This rationale only makes sense if America’s adversaries will refrain from fighting back in space. If they return fire, however, U.S. troops are likely to be punished rather than helped because of their greater reliance on satellites.

Similarly, the clear preference of U.S. space warriors is to use nondestructive techniques that disorient, dazzle, or disable an adversary’s satellites without producing debris that could destroy the space shuttle, the international space station, and satellites. America’s weaker foes, however, have far less incentive to be so fastidious about debris in their approach to space warfare.[8] States possessing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles could explode a nuclear weapon in space to wreak havoc on satellites.

Programs to Watch

By Jeffrey Lewis

The United States will spend about $3 billion in 2005 on space control and space force projection programs. More than 90 percent of this money, however, will supplement U.S. command, control, and intelligence systems. The Pentagon did seek a small amount of funding—$217 million in fiscal year 2005—for a handful of potential anti-satellite (ASAT) and space-based missile defense programs that some have called “space weapons.” Congress appropriated about 60 percent of this money, or $133 million.

Experimental Satellite Series

The Experimental Satellite Series (XSS) is an Air Force research project that seeks to use small satellites to conduct “proximity operations”—maneuvers around other satellites in order to inspect, service, or attack.

The Air Force launched the first satellite in the series, the 28-kilogram XSS-10 in January 2003. The XSS-11 will be larger and will remain in orbit for one year, conducting proximity operations with multiple space objects. During some of these maneuvers, the XSS-11 will transmit real-time streaming video to ground stations. Proximity operations could also prove useful in the development of orbiting ASAT weapons. The “single strongest recommendation” of the informal Air Force 1999 Microsatellite Technology and Requirements Study, called for “the deployment, as rapidly as possible, of XSS-10-based satellites to intercept, image, and if needed, take action against, a target satellite.”[1]

Funding for the XSS program probably comes out of $18.6 million for “autonomous microsatellite technologies.”

Kinetic Energy Anti-Satellite (KEASAT) System

In 1989 the Army began to develop a direct-ascent, kinetic energy ASAT weapon (KEASAT), which could be launched by rocket booster to destroy a hostile satellite. The Department of Defense has transferred control of the KEASAT to the Air Force but has not requested funds for the program for several years. Still, Congress occasionally makes funds available. As a result of episodic funding and disinterest from the Army leadership, the then-General Accounting Office (GAO) found the program “in a state of disarray” in December 2000. Still, the Pentagon regards the program as completed, and program officers reportedly believe they could conduct a demonstration in orbit for about $60 million.

Counterspace Systems

Counterspace systems is the principle research and development budget item for systems intended to disrupt enemy satellites.

One initiative is the Counter Communications System (CCS), a ground-based, mobile system intended to disrupt satellite-based communications used by an enemy for military purposes. The first CCS system was delivered to the 76th Space Control Squadron this year.

The account also includes the now-canceled Counter Surveillance Reconnaissance System (CSRS), a ground-based system designed to impair reconnaissance satellites with “reversible, non-damaging effects.” The system was expected to be deployed by 2007. The Air Force initially sought $53 million in fiscal year 2005, but congressional appropriators eliminated funding for the program, citing an Air Force decision to cancel CSRS.

Directed Energy Programs

The Army maintains the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility (HELSTF) at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The HELSTF is home to the Mid-Infrared Chemical Advanced Laser (MIRACL), which conducted a 1997 test-firing against a U.S. imagery satellite in low-Earth orbit to gather data on the vulnerability of U.S. military satellites to ASAT weapons. The fiscal year 2005 defense budget contains $15.7 million for a number of activities, including “lethality and propagation testing” for the Army Space and Missile Defense Command. The Air Force also conducts ASAT-related directed-energy research in several other program elements scattered throughout the defense budget.

Near-Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE)

The Near-Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE) satellite is designed to gather information on missiles during the first few minutes of their flight. “That will allow it to get a close-up view of a burning ICBM at conditions that are truly real world,” according to a Missile Defense Agency (MDA) official.

MDA initially planned to launch two ballistic missiles toward the NFIRE satellite, allowing it to view and collect infrared data about the missile in flight. The first ballistic missile would pass within 20 kilometers of the satellite, the second within 4 kilometers. The NFIRE payload was to include a Generation-2 kill vehicle that the satellite would fire at the ballistic missile when it closes within 4 kilometers.

House appropriators originally eliminated funding for the $68 million program, but the Senate position, which appropriated the money under certain conditions, prevailed in conference. MDA is now considering removing the kill vehicle from the NFIRE satellite and canceling the intercept test. The NFIRE launch date, originally scheduled for June 2004, has now slipped to late 2006.

Space-Based Test Bed

The space-based interceptor test bed is a program to develop and test miniaturized missile defense interceptors based in space. MDA will decide in 2008 whether to build and launch 3-6 satellites for a series of space-based test intercepts, with the first experiments expected in 2010-2011. The defense budget contains $10.6 million to begin this effort.


1. Matt Bille, Robyn Kane, and Maj. Mel Nowlin, “Military Microsatellites: Matching Requirements and Technology,” Presentation to the AAIA Space 2000 Conference and Exhibition, Long Beach, CA, September 19-21, 2000, p. 9.

Jeffrey Lewis is a post-doctoral fellow in the Advanced Methods of Cooperative Security Program at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs.


Hair Trigger in the Heavens

To prevent adversaries from shooting back, the United States would need to know exactly where all threatening space objects are located, to neutralize them without producing debris that can damage U.S. or allied space objects, and to target and defeat all ground-based military activities that could join the fight in space. In other words, successful space warfare mandates pre-emptive strikes and a preventive war in space as well as on the ground. War plans and execution often go awry here on Earth. It takes enormous hubris to believe that space warfare would be any different. If ASAT and space-based, ground-attack weapons are flight-tested and deployed, space warriors will have succeeded in the dubious achievement of replicating the hair-trigger nuclear postures that plagued humankind during the Cold War. Armageddon nuclear postures continue to this day, with thousands of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons ready to be launched in minutes to incinerate opposing forces, command and control nodes, and other targets, some of which happen to be located within large metropolitan areas. If the heavens were weaponized, these nuclear postures would be reinforced and elevated into space.

U.S. space warriors now have a doctrine and plans for counterspace operations, but they do not have a credible plan to stop inadvertent or uncontrolled escalation once the shooting starts. Like U.S. war-fighting scenarios, there is a huge chasm between plans and consequences, in which requirements for escalation dominance make uncontrolled escalation far more likely. A pre-emptive strike in space on a nation that possesses nuclear weapons would invite the gravest possible consequences. Attacks on satellites that provide early warning and other critical military support functions would most likely be viewed either as a surrogate or as a prelude to attacks on nuclear forces.

International Consequences

Even if space weapons are not used, their flight-testing or presence overhead, capable of impairing a country’s ability to see, hear, navigate, detect impending danger, and fight, would have profound implications for international relations. The medium of space is not country-specific. The placement of space weapons in low-Earth orbit will be of concern to any country over which the space weapon passes or could pass with orbital adjustments.

Washington policymakers do not talk often or publicly about space warfare, and China and Russia continue to seek improved ties to the United States. There is, however, considerable awareness in Moscow and Beijing about the Pentagon’s plans and deep skepticism that the Pentagon’s interest in space warfare is directed solely at states such as North Korea and Iran. Instead, the Air Force’s new counterspace doctrine is widely viewed in the broader context of the Bush administration’s endorsement of pre-emptive strikes and preventive wars, open-ended national missile defense deployments, and the integration of improved broad-area surveillance and conventional deep-strike capabilities alongside U.S. nuclear forces, which remain on high states of alert.

If U.S. counterspace programs proceed, Russia and China can be expected to forge closer ties, pursuing joint diplomatic initiatives to prevent the weaponization of space, alongside military research and development programs to counter U.S. military options. Instead of engaging in a Cold War-like nuclear arms race with Washington, Moscow and Beijing will compete asymmetrically, using less elaborate and expensive techniques, such as by trailing expensive U.S. space weapons and satellites with cheap space mines.[9]

A Better Alternative: Space Assurance

Instead of weaponizing space, a “space assurance” posture would offer a greater likelihood that essential U.S. satellites will be available when needed. Adopting a space assurance posture above all requires the avoidance of dangerous military activities in space, including flight tests that simulate attacks against satellites and the deployment of ASAT and space weapons. Space assurance has many other mutually reinforcing components. One basic element is to maintain superior U.S. conventional military capabilities. Potential adversaries must understand clearly that if they damage, or destroy U.S. satellites, they will not alter the outcome of battle. Rather, they will only suffer more casualties by impairing satellites that improve targeting and reduce collateral damage.

A second key element of space assurance is increased situational awareness in space so U.S. military leaders can quickly identify developments that could cause potential harm to satellites. This includes improved monitoring capabilities for objects in space, whether small satellites operated by foreign nations or space debris. A corollary requirement to improved situational awareness is improved intelligence capabilities relating to the space programs of potential adversaries.

The more U.S. officials know or can find out about space-related activities of potential adversaries, the more they can strengthen deterrence against unwelcome surprises. Another way to strengthen deterrence would be to adopt a hedging strategy against the initiation by others of space warfare flight tests and deployments. One key aspect of a hedging strategy is already in place. In extremis, the United States could use long-range ballistic missiles and lasers designed for other missions to disable or kill satellites. These residual, or latent, space warfare capabilities, which are growing with the advent of missile defense interceptors, have long existed. Rather than leading inexorably to the flight-testing and deployment of weapons specifically designed for space warfare, they have served as an insurance policy while deterring unwelcome surprises.

Additional hedges can be taken in the form of research and development programs that stop short of flight-testing. Potential adversaries can be expected to be working on their own space warfare initiatives behind closed doors, as is now the case with the United States. Ongoing research and development programs would shorten the timelines of flight-testing new initiatives if potential adversaries do not emulate U.S. restraint. Not every research and development program is worthy of support, however, particularly kinetic-kill programs that generate space debris.

An essential element of space assurance is the strengthening of existing norms against the flight-testing and deployment of space weapons. Many norms for responsible space-faring nations already exist, including prohibiting the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space under the aforementioned Outer Space Treaty, helping astronauts in distress, registering space objects, accepting liability for damage caused by national endeavors in space, and acknowledging that the exploration and use of outer space should be carried out for the benefit of all countries and humankind.

The scope of existing norms needs to be expanded if space assurance is to be reinforced. Traditionally, the forum in which international norms are codified is the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva. This 65-nation body operates by consensus, however, and at best requires many years to reach agreement on treaty texts, which might then be stalled further in the process of ratification, as is now the case with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This reason is not sufficient to block or reject negotiations in the CD relating to the prevention of space weapons, but it does suggest the wisdom of reinforcing existing norms in quicker ways.

The development of a code of conduct establishing agreed “rules of the road” for responsible space-faring nations can expedite international efforts to prevent the weaponization of space. Many codes of conduct already exist in the form of bilateral or multilateral executive agreements. During the Cold War, the United States entered into executive agreements with the Soviet Union to prevent dangerous military practices at sea, on the ground, and in the air. The Bush administration champions codes of conduct to prevent ballistic missile proliferation and terrorism. A similar approach could reinforce space assurance.

The U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) accord, signed in 1972, has served as a model for comparable agreements signed by more than 30 other sea-faring nations. The INCSEA agreement established important rules, including pledges to avoid collisions at sea, the use of blinding light to illuminate the bridges of passing ships, and interference in the “formations” of the other party. Washington and Moscow subsequently signed the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities (PDMA) agreement in 1989. The PDMA agreement covers, among other dangerous military activities, “interfering with command and control networks in a manner that could cause harm to personnel or damage to equipment of the armed forces of the other Party.” It establishes procedures to deal with boundary incursions and permits the designation of “special caution areas.”

Space also deserves “rules of the road” to help prevent incidents and dangerous military activities. Such a code of conduct would include provisions against simulated attacks; the flight-testing and deployment of space weapons; dangerous maneuvers in space, except those for rescue, repair, and other peaceful purposes; and commercial interference, as well as requirements to mitigate space debris.[10]

The definitions of space warfare, the scope of agreed constraints, and the ability to monitor them have plagued every prior initiative in this field. They will also bedevil efforts to craft a code of conduct. Nonetheless, this effort is worth pursuing. The risks associated with pursuing a code of conduct for responsible space-faring nations are minimal compared to the risks of flight-testing and deploying space weapons.

The weaponization of space was avoided during the Cold War, even though both superpowers jockeyed for military advantage on virtually every other front. Space weaponry can also be avoided now, when the United States enjoys unparalleled agenda-setting powers. Existing norms against weaponizing space can be strengthened if Washington exercises restraint, adopts prudent hedges, and joins others in diplomatic efforts to pursue space assurance. The time is ripe to reinforce existing norms in space that have greatly benefited space-aided commerce, scientific exploration, and the U.S. armed forces.


1. “Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization,” January 11, 2000, p. xii (hereinafter Rumsfeld Commission report).

2. General Lance W. Lord, “Keynote Address to the National Space and Missile Materials Symposium,” Seattle, June 22, 2004.

3. Rumsfeld Commission report, p. 100.

4. Office of Space Commercialization, U.S. Department of Commerce, “Trends in Space Commerce,” June 2001.

5. Mike Mills, “Satellite Glitch Cuts Off Data Flow,” The Washington Post, May 21, 1998.

6. The term “space assurance” was proposed by Douglas Necessary, who participated in a study group convened by the Henry L. Stimson Center to assess U.S. military space policy. For an elaboration of this concept, see Michael Krepon with Christopher Clary, Space Assurance or Space Dominance? The Case Against Weaponizing Space (Washington, DC: Henry L. Stimson Center, 2003).

7. See, for example, Rumsfeld Commission report and United States Space Command, “Vision for 2020,” August 1997.

8. A recent Federation of American Scientists study, “Ensuring America’s Space Security: Report of the FAS Panel on Weapons in Space,” greatly underestimated the debris problem created by space warfare by focusing mainly on ballistic missile intercepts in low-Earth orbit that create the fewest problems relating to debris. For a more comprehensive and realistic view of the problem, see Theresa Hitchens, “Space Debris: Next Steps” (presentation, Geneva, March 24-25, 2004), found at http://www.cdi.org.

9. For more on the problem of space mines, see Richard L. Garwin, “Space Weapons: Not Yet” (paper presented at the Pugwash Workshop on Preserving the Non-Weaponization of Space, May 22-24, 2003), found at http://fas.org/RLG/030522-space.pdf.

10. With the help of others, the Henry L. Stimson Center’s Space Security Project has drafted a model code of conduct for responsible space-faring nations. See “A Model Code of Conduct for the Prevention of Incidents and Dangerous Military Practices in Outer Space,” found at http://www.stimson.org/wos/?SN=WS20040830709.

Michael Krepon, president emeritus of the Henry L. Stimson Center, is the author of Space Assurance or Space Dominance? The Case Against Weaponizing Space with Christopher Clary (Henry L. Stimson Center, 2004), Cooperative Threat Reduction, Missile Defense, and the Nuclear Future (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), and editor of Nuclear Risk Reduction in South Asia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).



False Alarm on Foreign Capabilities

By Jeffrey Lewis

The Commission to Assess U.S. National Security Space Management and Organization, which Donald Rumsfeld chaired until his nomination as Secretary of Defense, warned of a coming “Space Pearl Harbor.”[1] During congressional testimony in 2002, Rumsfeld repeated the warning:

Consider for a moment the chaos that would ensue if an aggressor succeeded in striking our satellite networks: cell phones would go dead; ATM cards would stop functioning; electronic commerce would sputter to a halt; air traffic control systems would go offline, grounding planes and blinding those in the air. U.S. troops would see their communications jammed; their precision strike weapons would stop working.[2]

“Today,” Rumsfeld allowed, “no nation has the capability to wreak such havoc.” He added, however, that the United States “must make sure no one can. Our goal is not to bring war into space, but rather defend against those who would.”[3]

Who would? Some countries, particularly China and Russia, might have the capability to develop counterspace capabilities that would disable U.S. command, control, and intelligence systems based in space. They have not yet made that choice, however. Their decisions will depend in large measure on whether U.S. policymakers have the wisdom to forgo similar efforts; the United States is the only country currently developing counterspace systems.

Rumsfeld claims that “adversaries are likely to develop ground-based lasers, space jamming, and ‘killer’ microsatellites to attack U.S. space assets,” but this alarmist judgment is not based on the available evidence. Indeed, a fair reading of unclassified intelligence estimates and the Pentagon’s own official statements suggest countries are not investing the time, money, and energy needed for such efforts.

Ground-Based Lasers

The Pentagon does not claim that it has evidence that any operational anti-satellite (ASAT) lasers have been deployed overseas or that a laser weapon has ever been used to destroy an orbiting satellite.[4] Department of Defense officials do assert that working prototypes have “reportedly” engaged ground targets.

The “working prototype” in question is probably a reference to the Soviet-era Sary Shagan facility in Kazakhstan, which Russia continues to use to test anti-ballistic missile capabilities.[5] Although 1980s-era editions of the Defense Department’s Soviet Military Power speculated that the laser “may have sufficient power to damage some unprotected satellites in near-earth orbits,” that conclusion was undermined by a visit of a team of researchers to the facility in 1989.[6]

China is sometimes said to be developing ground-based lasers that can be used to damage satellites, but the Defense Department, according to the most recent edition of its Chinese Military Power, has not found any facilities in China.[7]

Space Jamming

“Jamming” is the transmission of signals that interfere with the operation of a satellite or its payload.[8] The Rumsfeld Commission cited “Indonesia jamming a transponder on a Chinese-owned satellite and Iran and Turkey jamming satellite TV broadcasts of dissidents” as recent examples.[9] A closer look at the details of these cases reveals some general information about the overall sophistication of foreign jamming capabilities.

In the case of the dispute between Indonesia and China, APT Satellite of China reported “limited interference” with its Apstar-1A satellite from another satellite in a nearby orbital slot, operating on the same frequency.[10] Although the commission calls the interference “jamming,” the interference resulted from satellites operating too close together because the countries disputed ownership of the orbital slot. The dispute was eventually resolved peacefully.

Turkey and Iran have jammed satellite broadcasts by dissident groups. A Kurdish television station claimed the Turkish government jammed its broadcasts; Iran, operating from the Iranian Embassy in Havana, jammed a dissident radio station.[11] No U.S. satellite, commercial or military, is known to have been the subject of jamming.[12] Military satellites reportedly have countermeasures to overcome jamming. In the case of Iran, the United States successfully placed pressure on Havana to stop the Iranian jamming originating from its embassy.[13]

“Killer” Microsatellites

Pentagon officials have also expressed concern over the development of microsatellites—those having a mass less than 100 kilograms. The University of Surrey is working with participants in several countries, including Tsinghua University in China, to build a constellation of international disaster monitoring microsatellites (IDMC).[14] Surrey also designed a microsatellite capable of conducting some limited proximity operations.

In congressional testimony and official reports during 2003 and 2004, the Defense Department claimed that China was developing killer microsatellites based largely on a January 2001 Hong Kong newspaper article.[15] The article claimed China had developed and tested a “killer” microsatellite described as a “parasitic” microsatellite that could attach itself to and disrupt U.S. military satellites.

Although the Defense Department said the newspaper story was “being evaluated,” Gregory Kulacki and David Wright at the Union of Concerned Scientists easily traced the story to a Web site run by “a self-described ‘military enthusiast’ named Hong Chaofei who resides in a small Chinese town in Anhui province.” Hong runs a Chinese-language Internet bulletin board filled with crude illustrations and “fanciful stories about ‘secret’ Chinese weapons to be used against Americans in a future war over Taiwan,” Kulacki and Wright reveal.[16]

Other Capabilities

Other threats to space assets remain much as they have for the past two decades. The only foreign ASAT system tested remains Russia’s “co-orbital” ASAT system. The co-orbital ASAT system had to be placed into a similar orbit as the target satellite, a cumbersome process that requires multiple orbits to achieve. According to the Defense Department, Russia tested the system “about 20 times with less than half the tests being successful.”[17] The last operational test was 1982, and the Defense Department last reported the system “in readiness” in 1990.[18] China also conducted some ASAT research as part of an anti-ballistic missile research program during the 1970s.

“Beijing’s only current means of destroying or disabling a satellite,” according to the Defense Department, “would be to launch a ballistic missile or space launch vehicle armed with a nuclear weapon.”[19] All satellites in low-Earth orbit that were also in the line of sight of the blast would probably be seriously damaged by radiation effects. Satellites not in the line of sight could experience drastically reduced service lives from the “pumping” of radiation belts, although considerable uncertainty exists about the additional radiation exposure that would result from a nuclear explosion and the degree to which satellites are hardened against radiation effects.[20]

The Defense Department in 2003 suggested that China is “conducting research and development on a direct-ascent ASAT system that could be fielded in the 2005-2010 timeframe,” but this claim was omitted from the 2004 edition of Chinese Military Power and Rumsfeld’s congressional testimony.[21] The Soviet Union reportedly conducted some research in the 1980s on a similar system, which would approach the satellite directly instead of maneuvering into a similar orbit.


Some Pentagon officials have denigrated the intelligence community for “failing” to find foreign counterspace efforts. In 1998, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers, then commander of U.S. Space Command, which is now part of U.S. Strategic Command, warned that the intelligence community paid too little attention to foreign counterspace systems, leaving the United States “a bit naked in knowing exactly where the threat is.”[22] In his testimony, Rumsfeld qualified his assessment that “no nation” had the capability to mount a “Space Pearl Harbor” with the phrase “in so far as we know.”[23]

Similarly, the Rumsfeld Commission noted that current capabilities were inadequate to distinguish attacks on space assets from natural phenomenon. One commission member, testifying about the loss of a Galaxy IV satellite that led to widespread pager outings, warned that, “while we have no reason to believe that that was a hostile act, interestingly enough, we have no way to prove that it wasn’t.”[24]

Yet, should we be surprised by the absence of foreign counterspace programs? The most capable of potential adversaries in space—Russia and China—have called for a moratorium on the deployment of space weapons and want to negotiate a treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space, in part because they are concerned about U.S. space systems, such as space-based ballistic missile defenses. Russia recently declared that it “shall not be the first to place any weapons in outer space.”

Other countries, especially in Europe, emphasize the benefits of commercial and civil collaboration in space. These states have emphasized that current missions in space, including military missions, are consistent with the principle that space ought to be used for peaceful uses and that the priority task is consolidating the legal environment for space operations. Choices made by U.S. policymakers, not technological determinism, will be the decisive factor in determining the future of outer space.


1. “Final Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization,” January 11, 2001, p. viii, available at http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/space20010111.pdf (hereinafter Rumsfeld Commission report).

2. Donald H. Rumsfeld, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the fiscal year 2003 defense budget, Washington, DC, February 5, 2002, available at http://armed-services.senate.gov/statemnt/2002/Rumsfeld.pdf (hereinafter Rumsfeld testimony).

3. Ibid.

4. “Threats and Countermeasures: Other Threats From Deliberate Attack,” Army Space Reference Text (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Space Institute, July 1993), chap. 8, sec. 4.

5. Oral Karpishev, “Kazakhstan, RF Exchange Documents on Testing Ranges Lease,” ITAR-TASS, May 7, 2003.

6. Soviet Military Power, 1990 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1990), pp. 60-61. On the visit, see Laura Grego, “A History of U.S. and Soviet ASAT Programs,” April 9, 2003, available at http://www.ucsusa.org/global_security/space_weapons/page.cfm?pageID=1151; “Occasional Report, A Visit to Sary Shagan and Kyshtym,” Journal of Science and Global Security 1, nos. 1-2 (1989): 165-174.

7. “According to press accounts, China can use probable low-energy lasers to ‘blind’ the sensors on low-Earth-orbiting satellites, although whether this claim extends to actual facilities is unclear.” Department of Defense, “Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,” June 2004 (hereinafter 2004 Chinese military power report).

8. “Threats and Countermeasures.”

9. Rumsfeld Commission report, p. 20.

10. For a review of the APSTAR incident and other disputes over orbital slots, see “ITU System of Satellite Coordination Eroding Fast in Asia Pacific,” Space Business News, April 2, 1997; Richard McCaffrey, “Crowded Orbital Slots Test ITU’s Influence; Dispute at 134 Degrees East Highlights Problems,” Space News, January 7, 1997.

11. Nora Boustany, “Kurdish TV Gets Static From Turks,” The Washington Post, November 25, 1998, p. A16; “U.S. Waits for Formal Cuban Response on Jamming of Satellite Broadcasts to Iran,” Voice of America News, July 22, 2003.

12. Maj. Gen. Franklin J. Blaisdell, “Air Force Briefing on ‘Space: The Warfighter’s Perspective,’” March 12, 2003 (Defense Department news briefing).

13. “Cuba Stops Iran From Jamming U.S. Broadcasts,” Voice of America News, August 20, 2003.

14. You Zheng and M. Sweeting, “Initial Mission Status Analysis of 3-Axis Stable Tsinghua-1 Microsatellite,” Presentation at the 14th Annual AIAA/Utah State University Conference on Small Satellites, 2000; Xiong Jianping et al., “Onboard Computer Subsystem Design for the Tsinghua Nanosatellite,” Presentation at the 20th AIAA International Communication Satellite Systems Conference, May 12-15, 2002.

15. 2004 Chinese military power report, 42; Department of Defense, “Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,” July 2003, p. 36 (hereinafter 2003 Chinese military power report).

16. Gregory Kulacki and David Wright, A Military Intelligence Failure? The Case of the Parasite Satellite (Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists, August 2004), p. 3.

17. “Threats and Countermeasures.”

18. Soviet Military Power, 1990, p. 60.

19. 2004 Chinese military power report, p. 42.

20. Federation of American Scientists, “Ensuring America’s Space Security: Report of the FAS Panel on Weapons in Space,” 2004, pp. 24-29. See Defense Threat Reduction Agency Advanced Systems and Concepts Office, “High Altitude Nuclear Detonations Against Low Earth Orbit Satellites,” April 2001.

21. 2003 Chinese military power report, p. 36.

22. “Threats to U.S. Satellites,” AFIO Weekly Intelligence Notes, no. 18-99, May 7, 1999, available at http://www.afio.com/sections/wins/1999.notes1899.html.

23. Rumsfeld testimony.

24. Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Senate Armed Services Committee, “National Security Space Management and Organization,” FDCH Political Transcripts, March 28, 2001.



National Space Policy: Evolution by Stealth?

By Theresa Hitchens

In recent years, Pentagon advocacy for pursuing a strategy of “space control” that includes war-fighting “in, from and through space”[1] has reached a fever pitch. Top Pentagon and Air Force space officials have repeatedly testified to Congress and made public speeches about the need for the U.S. military to establish “space dominance” to counter enemies of the future. Some officials, such as General Lance Lord, chief of Air Force Space Command, have even declared that “war in space has begun.”[2]

What remains uncertain, however, is whether such a strategy actually has been politically endorsed at the White House level and is consistent with national space policy.

Officially, the National Space Policy promulgated by President Bill Clinton in 1996 still stands, a policy that had previously been interpreted as eschewing the deployment of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons and weapons in orbit, reflecting more than 40 years of informal restraint both by Republican and Democratic administrations.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice in 2002 launched a review of space policy, but that review is still pending. Indeed, in the four years since the inauguration of President George W. Bush, no new public documents that explain overarching administration (or Department of Defense) policy toward space weapons have been released. The single new policy paper relating to the issue was approved at Pentagon level, “DoD Policy on Space Control,” signed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in January 2001. That policy, however, is classified as secret.

Meanwhile, there has been a steady trickle of lower-level military planning and doctrine documents that seem to codify U.S. intentions to develop, deploy, and eventually use space weapons. The most recent is the Air Force’s Aug. 2 “Counterspace Operations Doctrine.”[3] This precedent-setting document outlines Air Force guidelines for conducting ASAT operations, possibly pre-emptively, against satellite systems being used by enemies, whether they be dedicated military satellites; those with primarily commercial functions; or those owned and/or operated by third parties, whether governments or commercial entities.

Another document published in August by the Joint Chiefs of Staff similarly sets out operational guidelines for coordinating space operations across the services, including those to destroy enemy satellites and space systems.[4]

The situation begs a number of questions: What exactly is U.S. policy on the weaponization of space? Is the United States now determined unilaterally to break the taboo against arming the heavens that has stood since the dawn of the space age? Has such a policy and strategy been blessed, either formally or informally with a wink and a nod, by the White House? Is the Pentagon or Air Force simply trying to take advantage of a policy vacuum by rushing to quietly implement a more aggressive approach to military space?

One possible conclusion from reading the tea leaves, however, is that the White House and Pentagon are engaged in a clever political effort to avoid a controversial public argument on space weapons by reinterpreting Clinton-era policy or practice behind closed doors, that is, to reorient U.S. space policy in secret.

True, the Clinton policy itself is less than clear on the issue of space weapons and is open to a number of interpretations. Although it stresses the peaceful uses of space and downplays military applications, it also leaves the door open for the employment of ASATs for national security reasons. For example, the policy states that U.S. national security space activities should assure “that hostile forces cannot prevent our own use of space” and should “[counter], if necessary, space systems and services used for hostile purposes.” It later states that, “[c]onsistent 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.”[5]

Although vague, the 1996 policy was widely interpreted at the time as stressing a deterrent approach, while refraining from any first deployment of ASAT systems or space-based weapons for striking targets on earth. In other words, one could read the Clinton policy as based on a belief that space control could be achieved without weapons.[6] It should be noted that this reading of the Clinton policy would also be consistent with the historical approach to military space first laid out by the Eisenhower administration, according to Air Force sources.

In fact, the Clinton administration was viewed as politically hostile even to the development of space weapons, particularly those that could be seen as having offensive attributes.[7] Clinton canceled a number of research and development programs that would have crossed the line toward weaponizing space, including the space-based Global Protection Against Limited Strike program that evolved under President George H. W. Bush from President Ronald Reagan’s more ambitious “Star Wars” project; the Air Force’s planned military Spaceplane; NASA’s Clementine II satellite experiment designed in part as a proof of concept for space-based missile defense; and the Army’s Kinetic Energy Anti-Satellite Weapon. By contrast, the Bush administration has allowed a wide array of space weapons-related technology developments to go forward at the Pentagon (see sidebar). Meanwhile, the Air Force’s most recent vision for its future force structure includes a number of ASAT and space strike weapons such as the Ground-Based Laser, the Air-Launched ASAT Missile, the Space-Based Radio Frequency Weapon, and Hypervelocity Rod Bundles.[8]

“There was a while in the 1990s when we couldn’t say ‘space control’—we couldn’t talk about it,” Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, then-commander of the U.S. Space Command and U.S. Air Force Space Command, was quoted in May 2002 by Jane’s International Defence Review.[9]

Air Force and Space Command planning documents dating from the Clinton era, such as the Space Command’s 1998 “Long Range Plan,” are as equivocal as the National Space Policy itself, reflecting long-standing service efforts to press the edge of the envelope regarding space weapons. At the same time, they also can be read as reflecting the military’s view that nothing from the Clinton administration authorized the development and deployment of offensive systems designed to “negate” enemy assets in space or of space-based weapons to hit terrestrial targets.

On negation, the Long Range Plan states that “[t]he United States will need to develop national policies supporting space warfare, weapons development and employment, and rules of engagement,”[10] later adding as a recommendation that Space Command “advocate national policy and legislation to support negation.”[11] This seems to indicate that Space Command (dominated by Air Force officials) did not believe it had such policy or legislative authorization.

On space-based weapons for global strike (i.e., aimed at terrestrial targets), the document is much more blunt. It states that, “[a]t present, the notion of weapons in space is not consistent with national policy.”[12]

Fast forward to today. The most recent Air Force planning document, the “Strategic Master Plan for FY 06 and Beyond” published in October 2003, maintains that national space policy actually requires the development and “deployment as needed” of “negation” capabilities to counter enemy space assets.[13] It goes on seemingly to move the goalposts on when a presidential decision would be required. Although the Clinton policy can be read as requiring a presidential approval for deployment, the Air Force now insists presidential approval is not required for deployment but only to approve actual use of ASAT systems.

Current Air Force officials argue that the “employment” threshold was also applicable during the Clinton era as well, but there are reasons to question the logic of this interpretation. For one thing, since the use of ASAT systems would be an act of war, it is obvious it would require a White House decision, thus making the concept of an employment threshold moot. Further, the Strategic Master Plan itself is seemingly contradictory on the issue. For example, the caveat regarding “deployment as needed” raises the question of at what level the determination of need is to be made.

With regard to space-based strike weapons, rather than repeat the Long Range Plan’s assertion that such systems are “not consistent with national policy,” the Strategic Master Plan states that such weapons are allowable under international law but that “our nation’s leadership will decide whether or not to pursue the development and deployment.”[14]

Fortunately, the shifting language on space warfare used by the Air Force and Pentagon leaders has not gone completely unnoticed. The Senate and House Armed Services Committees, concerned about the lack of clarity regarding military space policy, included a clause in their conference agreement on the fiscal year 2005 Defense Department budget bill to require the Pentagon to provide Congress with an “extensive” review of national space policy. This report will provide lawmakers with a first opportunity for input on this critical national and international security issue. As a unilateral move by the United States to deploy space weapons would come fraught with a variety of risks to national and global security, it is about time there was a public debate.


1. “Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization,” January 11, 2001, p. xvi (Executive Summary).

2. “Lord: Space Command Focusing on Maintaining Space Superiority,” Inside the Air Force, January 30, 2004, p. 9.

3. “Counterspace Operations,” Air Force Doctrine Document 2-2.1, August 2, 2004, found at http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/service_pubs/afdd2_2_1.pdf.

4. “Joint Doctrine for Space Operations,” Joint Publication 3-14, August 9, 2004, found at http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/new_pubs/jp3_14.pdf.

5. National Science and Technology Council, The White House, “Fact Sheet: National Space Policy,” September 19, 1996, found at http://www.ostp.gov/NSTC/html/fs/fs-5.html (emphasis added).

6. John E. Hyten, “A Sea of Peace or a Theater of War? Dealing With the Inevitable Conflict in Space,” Air & Space Power Journal 16, no. 3 (Fall 2002), found at http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0NXL/is_3_16/ai_94269862/print.

7. Bill Sweetman, Jane’s International Defence Review (May 2002): 45.

8. “The U.S. Air Force Transformation Flight Plan,” November 2003, p. D3, found at http://www.af.mil/library/posture/AF_TRANS_FLIGHT_PLAN-2003.pdf.

9. Sweetman, “USAF Plots Return to Space.”

10. U.S. Space Command, “Long Range Plan Implementing USSPACECOM Vision for 2020,” April 1998, chap. 5, p. 10.

11. Ibid., chap. 5, p. 11.

12. Ibid., chap. 6, p. 2.

13. Air Force Space Command, “Strategic Master Plan FY06 and Beyond,” October 1, 2003, p. 35, found at http://www.peterson.af.mil/hqafspc/library/AFSPCPAOffice/Final%2006%20SMP--Signed!v1.1.pdf.

14. Ibid.

Theresa Hitchens is vice president of the Center for Defense Information and served as editor of Defense News from 1998 to 2000.