News

From: Allen Thomson ([email protected])
Subject: Re: AWST interview with DoD Space Architect 
Newsgroups: sci.space.policy, sci.space.tech, alt.politics.org.cia
Date: 1996/06/10 


In article <[email protected]>, Frank Crary 
 wrote: 


FC: Allen Thomson  wrote:


AT:   "And while the actual physical attack of an orbiting U.S. 
AT:   spacecraft probably won't happen for a long time, the 
AT:   development of crude anti-satellite weapons is not particularly 
AT:   difficult, he [Gen. Dickman] said." 


AT:    This seems contradictory.  If acquiring rudimentary ASATs isn't 
AT:  difficult (which I believe to be correct), and attacking the 
AT:  satellites is militarily very desirable (which it obviously is), 
AT:  then why are such attacks not to be expected for a "long time?" 


FC: Because military decisions almost never focus on a single issue,
FC: especially during a war. ASATs would be easy if almost any
FC: nation focused most of its military effort on producing them.
FC: But, in a crisis, they are likely to ask themselves, "How
FC: useful would this be? Would we be better off expending the
FC: same effort to increase tank production instead?" Or something
FC: similar. 


   The thing about attacks (ASATs or other) directed against US 
space systems is that they have enormously high leverage against 
the widely-advertised US intent to achieve quick victories 
through "information dominance of the battlefield."   A great 
deal of that dominating information is either produced by 
satellite systems or passes through them or both.  And the 
number of satellites and ground stations involved is, in some 
crucial cases, so small that taking out even one would make an 
important difference to the ability of the US to fight the kind 
of war it's preparing for.  The most worrisome are the imaging 
reconnaissance satellites, of which there are apparently four in 
LEO  (two optical and two radar) plus (maybe, this is still a 
matter of speculation) one or two in MEO -- and, as far as is 
known, the ground stations are even fewer. 


   So an Evil Country (EC) contemplating the possibility of 
future conflict with the US would very likely consider that 
space denial capabilities should be high on its shopping list 
for military hardware.  At present, it would probably take an EC 
like pre-1991 Iraq a few years (I like to say five) to come up 
with an arsenal of a couple of dozen ASATs on its own, less if 
it could cut a deal with China or other such power. 


FC: In addition, there are political issues. Iraq could probably 
FC: developed an ASAT variant of their Scud missiles before or 
FC: during the Gulf War, but a terror weapon that could reach Israel 
FC: was seen, politically, as a valuable thing. Presumably (assuming 
FC: they even thought of ASATs), knocking out a few satellites 
FC: wasn't considered as important. 


   True, it's always difficult to predict how people will set 
their priorities.  Even though I think that there's a powerful 
case to be made that ECs would give high priority to space 
denial weapons, there's no telling how someone sitting in 
Teheran will view things. 


   BTW, there have been a couple of post-Desert Storm reports 
that the Iraqis were thinking about ASATs, and perhaps had done 
some preliminary work on them. 


FC: Also, there are some theories about "limited war" that argue
FC: that group global weapons together and say that _any_ use
FC: of ballistic missiles would result in retaliation from
FC: ballistic-missile launched weapons. Basically, "If we
FC: launch a ballistic missile, they'll feel free to nuke us."
FC: That strikes me as an absurd idea, but I have heard it
FC: suggested by academic, "political scientists". But, to
FC: a lesser degree, I could easily see many nations viewing
FC: ASATs as an escalation of the conflict, which they might
FC: not be willing to do. 


    I often heard versions of this while in the gummint: "If they 
[the Soviets at the time] attack one of our satellites, we'll 
nuke 'em."  When a rationale was expressed for this seemingly 
lunatic statement, it was that the USSR would only attack our 
spysats as an immediate precursor to a general nuclear attack 
against the US.  I was never sure of this, and am just as glad 
we never had the chance to put it to the test.  More recently 
and more relevant to the present context, an official of the 
NRO's programs and analysis office opined (*) in mid-1992 that 
no EC would dare attack US satellites because of the massive 
conventional retaliation that would ensue. 


   IMHO, this will depend greatly on time and circumstance.  If 
an Ira[nq] were to zap one of our spysats in peacetime or time 
of tension, then yes, we'd have the option to take out their 
launch site (if it could be found) or something of equivalent 
value, like some airbases.  No significant international 
opprobrium would be likely to be created by such a retaliatory 
action.  More drastic retaliatory measures seem implausible, 
because the satellites are unmanned machines and have a not 
insignificant military role. 


   In time of war, I can't see that destruction of a spysat 
would be seen by the international community as justifying any 
change in the rules of engagement.  Could we have carpet-bombed 
Baghdad (or worse) if they'd taken out a KH-11 during Desert 
Storm?  What would have happened to the Coalition if we had? 


FC: So I don't really see a contradiction in the statement you quote: 
FC: In more detail, it might mean, "ASATs are currently possible and 
FC: would be harmful to our military, but for other reasons, they 
FC: probably won't be used in the near future, i.e. until they become 
FC: easy and opposed to possible."


   I'd modify this to say "extremely harmful" and "but we think 
that for other reasons,..."  I.e., we're risking a lot on the 
proposition that hostile countries will agree with our 
assessment of risks and benefits and forgo potentially vast 
advantages on that basis. 


   As for when ASATs and other space-denial techniques become 
easy, that is largely a matter of will and commitment, not 
technology or even money.



(*)    Actually, the full version of his opinion was even more 
interesting: it was, as I recall and paraphrase, 'Our systems 
aren't at risk, and anyway no EC would dare attack US satellites 
because of the massive conventional retaliation which would 
ensue.'   As this was opined shortly after the current round of 
reduction of the numbers of satellites and ground stations got 
underway, it probably reflects the thinking that went into the 
decision to downsize.  That is, some combination of defensive 
measures and deterrence was felt to insure the survival of small 
numbers of big, expensive, difficult-to-replace satellites.  
Let's hope that will be true for the next couple of decades, 
because few, big, and difficult-to-replace is the way we're 
going.