Space Assets Can Be Protected Without Space Weapons, Says New FAS Report
Satellites have become an absolutely critical component of U.S. military operations. They are used to guide munitions, provide intelligence, relay communications, and enable live video links from battlefields. Because of the central role of space, it is possible that potential adversaries will seek to destroy or disrupt U.S. space assets in a future conflict. The 2001 Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, also known as the Rumsfeld Commission on Space, argued that countering threats to U.S. space assets would require “superior space capabilities.” This statement has been taken by some advocates of space weaponization as a recommendation to place weapons in space, in order to defend critical U.S. systems.
In December of 2002, the Federation of American Scientists assembled a panel of scientists and engineers, including academics and former high-level government officials, to assess the threats to U.S. military and civilian space assets over the next five to ten years and to determine the best method to counter these threats. The final report of the panel’s findings is scheduled to be released to the public this summer.
The chief findings and recommendations follow.
- Space weapons do not constitute the best mitigating strategy to any of the perceived threats to space assets: ground-based anti-satellite weapons, jamming, space mines, orbital debris, or a high-altitude nuclear explosion.
- No space weapons should be deployed by the United States in the next five years, although R&D should continue at an appropriate level so that the United States is not caught by surprise.
- The U.S. should ensure that critical space systems are redundant and placed in multiple orbital planes to reduce the damage caused by losing an individual satellite.
- Critical military infrastructure in low earth orbit should be hardened against radiation to increase survivability in the event of a high-altitude nuclear explosion. Quick launch capabilities should be developed in order to replace critical space infrastructure.
- The U.S. should take the initiative to secure verifiable international agreements, including “rules of the road” that make clearer what is considered threatening activity in space.
- The U.S. should continue to improve its space monitoring capabilities and space situational awareness to prevent stealthy hostile actions and further reduce the threat posed by background orbital debris.
- The threat posed by small satellites is not well understood. Athorough technical study should be undertaken to assess the magnitude of this threat over the next ten years. In particular, the study should investigate the minimum requirements in fuel and mass for various orbital maneuvers, how much support from ground stations they would require, and the homing and stealth capabilities of small satellites.
- The panel developed a rigorous analytical model of the hazard posed by orbital debris. Based on this model the panel determined that suborbital and low earth orbit explosions will not generate debris fields that are significant hazards to space infrastructure. Such debris fields could result from the interception of ballistic missiles in space or from the direct destruction of satellites. Assets in geostationary orbit, however, are much more closely packed and explosions at or near this orbit could potentially cause debris fields that would be extremely dangerous to military and commercial assets.
- To improve confidence in models of the debris problem, the panel recommends that the appropriate government agencies undertake or commission studies to better correlate the current fragmentation models with more precise measurements.
- The panel recommends that a similar study be commissioned in five years to assess how changes in the political and technological landscape may have altered the arguments for and against space weaponization.
Josh Kellar is an FAS Research Assistant who has worked extensively on the Space Weaponization Project.