Are We Setting Ourselves Up for a Space Pearl Harbor?
June 12, 2001
Imagine offering America’s enemies a cheap and easy way to shut down our interstate commerce, or to blind and baffle our military forces, or to distract and detour the attention of our national security watchdogs. And then imagine trying to forestall such damaging actions through United Nations resolutions, through ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ and tradition, through hoping for the best, and through signed contracts and treaties with a few of the many possible players. How secure would that make you feel?
This is the frightening prospect faced by US strategic planners when they look at our growing dependence on space-based equipment. “Our lack of preparedness for threats against our space systems is analogous to the US military’s lack of preparedness for Pearl Harbor,” warned retired Air Force General Thomas Moorman a few months ago. He and other experts are concerned that the lack of preparedness – both in terms of hardware and more importantly in terms of credibility – may spark attacks which might otherwise be deterred.
The United States is continually expanding the harvest of enormous economic, scientific, and military benefits from its growing fleets of automated space vehicles. Space technology is providing ever more valuable services such as communications, weather forecasting, navigation, observation, and even industrial applications. These assets provide both an unprecedented advantage to the US, and a daily-more-tempting target to any adversary.
In an ideal universe, these peaceful space machines would be forever 'off-limits' to hostile interference, and the US could continue to benefit from the capabilities they give us. But to a growing number of forces on Earth, those very benefits are seen as an active assault on their own status. They feel their privacy is invaded by overhead eyes. They feel their domestic cultures or the power of their ruling cliques being eroded via unwanted images and information from on high. And they see their military forces diminished and made impotent by space-based devices exploited by American armed forces. “For countries that could never win a war by using tanks and planes, attacking the US space system may be an irresistible choice,” wrote a Chinese news media commentator in July 2000.
And year by year, many of these potential space adversaries have been developing the technical means to do something nasty about their concerns. With the threshold of space skills needed for entry level systems steadily lowering, rudimentary space weaponry is within the grasp of almost any state and even some corporations and terrorist groups.
In the past, most analysts who considered ‘space war’ were worried exclusively about Russia, and more recently, China. For the first decade and a half of the Space Age, ideas were hopelessly ill-conceived and no-one sent weapons into space -- although since the 1960s cosmonauts have carried handguns just in case of hostilities from local wildlife after an emergency landing.
Then, in 1974, the Soviet Union created a literal 'space order of battle' by secretly putting an operational weapon in orbit. That was the year the Soviets launched the Salyut-3 space station, the first manned military reconnaissance. In anticipation of an American attack, they mounted a machine gun on the craft, ready to greet any intruder with a burst of cannon fire.
Uninterested in a confrontation and probably unaware of the armament, the Americans didn’t show. In fact, we never even built the combat spacecraft the Soviets had been waiting for. Plans for both manned and unmanned interceptors had been all over Western space trade magazines, but they never advanced much beyond the paper stage.
Within two years, Soviet military officials thought they understood why the U.S. hadn't attacked their space spy base. Salyut-3 was ill-conceived and failed to demonstrate genuine military utility. It was decommissioned, although not quite without a shot being fired. The ground crew loosed off a few rounds by remote control after the cosmonauts had gone home. It must have been quite a sight, but apparently it escaped the notice of American intelligence agencies.
In the years that followed, the US and Soviet Union designed and built various pieces of space hardware to perform missions the American generals euphemistically referred to as “breaking things”. Systems were built, sometimes tested, but then decommissioned without being fired in anger. And because both sides had space resources which served as hostage to attacks on those of the other side, a stable ‘balance of terror’ prevailed.
That worked fine for two countries, or even three or four. But now that ‘Nth Countries’, as analysts call the large array of new players, have entered the arena, all assumptions of stability and mutual non-interference have been overthrown. The current danger is that few US policy makers seem to have recognized this.
The US and the USSR never got around to shooting at each other in orbit, but that's not to say hostilities have never broken out in space. There are some reports of communications satellites being attacked, so far all electronically. Some were hacked along their computer connections, one was alleged to have been temporarily kidnapped and driven off course (it's owners denied it, probably accurately), another European relay was supposedly jammed by Turkey because of some objectionable Kurdish-language broadcasts to one of their restive minorities, and a fourth was supposedly jammed in a dispute between two equatorial nations over a parking slot in space. In that last case, representatives from the equatorial Pacific nation of Nauru, which by geographic accident 'owns' a segment of the 24-hour orbit arc directly overhead, accused neighboring Indonesia of spoofing a commercial satellite that Nauru had leased its space in space to. Indonesia proclaimed its innocence and blamed the malfunctions on bad hardware.
Rhetoric about justifications for such attacks is also ratcheting up. Earlier this year, in Saudi Arabia, the pro-government newspaper Al-Watah ran a series of articles on “political sedition” spread by communications satellites. In the newspaper's opinion, a certain Arab space television channel “undermines the morale of the Arab nation, enables its enemies to address the Arab masses, and spreads discord” by transmitting opinions different from official government ones. The newspaper advocated that the offending satellite be silenced. Probably dozens of other authoritarian governments around the world have been lured by that same temptation.
Other temptations have been around for years. 'Spying eyes' are most resented by countries that have things to hide. China, upset with the EP-3A reconnaissance plane incident and no doubt offended by the commercial satellite photographs of the plane on the runway at its airbase on Hainan, recently denounced the ‘Open Skies’ concept that had given free rein to satellite reconnaissance for forty years. Whether it’s military preparations near Taiwan, or the full-scale mockup of Taipei International Airport that Beijing built to practice airborne assaults, or natural disasters, or concentration camps, there are lots of sensitive things that China does not want Western satellites to take and publish photographs of.
There now exists a wide spectrum of options for China, ranging from laser beams to blind the optical systems of snooping satellites, to interceptor missiles, to orbit-to-orbit interceptors that sneak up and attach explosive charges to the outside of target satellites. And China is not alone in its ability or its desire to move in that direction.
Because most of the potential targets are American, the US especially fears a full-blown conflict. Last year a special American commission, chaired by the now Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, studied the military aspects of space activities and concluded that a future conflict in space was “a virtual certainty”. In January American military planners conducted a ‘war game’ based entirely in space. The scenario was set in 2018 and involved an enemy state attacking a number of US space vehicles which were supporting a military build-up on the ground. The enemy state -- not named, but China was clearly intended -- also purchased commercial satellite services which essentially neutralized the U.S. technological dominance.
During the US intelligence community's annual "world threat" briefing in February, the heads of both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency voiced concerns about a future war in space. It was the first time US intelligence officials had discussed the threat in public, according to press reports.
DIA director Thomas Wilson warned that a number of foreign governments were already experimenting with space weapons. “China and Russia have across-the-board programs under way, and other smaller states and nonstate entities are pursuing more limited, though potentially effective, approaches," he said. By 2015, he predicted, hostile states would be capable of blowing big holes in the US's space program. CIA Director George Tenet agreed. "Our adversaries well understand U.S. strategic dependence on access to space," Tenet said. "Operations to disrupt, degrade, or defeat U.S. space assets will be attractive options for those seeking to counter U.S. strategic military superiority."
How would one space craft go about destroying another? Fighting is space isn't like fighting on Earth. For one thing there's no atmosphere or gravity. For another, the vehicles involved aren't designed for combat, they're working satellites. There's no space equivalent of a fighter plane or aircraft carrier. Not yet, anyway.
Also, because satellites circle the entire planet at high speeds, narrow geographic zones have no practical significance. This feature of spaceflight makes it more practical to keep anti-space weapons on the ground and then launch them only when the target satellite comes into range due to its own motion. For faster action, some planners advocate based anti-satellite weapons permanently in space, but unless they have ranges of thousands of kilometers -- say, an energy beam -- it's difficult to orchestrate an effective attack. And once in space yourself, you become what submariners traditionally call any surface ship -- "a target".
Even so, there's a dismayingly long list of technologies available to attack things in space, ranging from projectiles to nuclear warheads, lasers, ‘electromagnetic cannons’, and particle beams. Some require extremely sophisticated technology. Some are so simple that dozens of nations are already capable of them.
Although these devices have a 'Star Wars' tinge about them, there is one major missing element from the Hollywood images. No current planners seem to desire putting human combat crews aboard these combat spacecraft. They would be controlled from the ground via communications links. That feature creates simply another 'target' for attack, the elements of that link itself.
The simplest way to take a satellite out is with a high speed impact. In other words, shoot at it. This is a classic kill mechanism, but for space vehicles it needs some explanation. Opening fire on a satellite is not like shooting down an aircraft, when its engines or wings are damaged so badly it falls out of the sky. Satellites stay in orbit due to their own momentum, not to the functioning of any onboard equipment. So even dead satellites continue to orbit very nicely, which is a problem if you're in the way. This can be especially worrisome if the attack has blown the satellite into hundreds of smaller fragments.
The fatal effect of such impacts is usually the hypersonic shock wave set up in the satellite’s structure by the impact. This shock wave shatters electronic equipment, pulverizes the glass in viewports or on solar panels, and cracks open pressurized propellant tubes. If the hit is on the outside of a hull containing a breathable atmosphere, the energy of impact can start a fire which incinerates the contents. But in the vacuum of space there would be no billowing "Star Wars" clouds or shock rings, just an eerie silence and tumbling, twinkling space confetti.
Firing a gun in space isn’t as loony an idea as it first seems. The very high muzzle velocity means that shells fired in almost any direction will hit the atmosphere and burn up. Those fired upwards may reach as far as 1500 km higher into space but will then fall back into the atmosphere as well. The only safety concern would be shells fired straight off to either side in a horizontal direction, within 5 or 10 degrees of level. Guided by unearthly implications of Newton's Laws, some of them could zoom away, then reverse course and fly directly back at the originator within 45 minutes.
Take the machine gun aboard Salyut-3. The gun was a version of the Nudelmann cannons used on Mig fighters and other Soviet jets since the 1960s, modified to operate in a vacuum that interfered with mechanical lubrication and other functions. It weighed about 40 kg, was 2 meters long, and fired 200 gram projectiles at rate of 900 rounds per minute and a velocity of 780 m/se. It was mounted at one end of the two-man space station, pointing along the station’s long axis. The cosmonauts aimed it by turning the entire station and tracking the target in a viewfinder at the control panel. Each cartridge contained an explosive mix that needed no ambient air to ignite.
The Soviets probably assumed that the interceptor vehicle would come at them "in plane", and not from off to the left or right. That is, it would be flying parallel to the circle made by Salyut-3’s orbit. This was a reasonable assumption, dictated by the physics of orbital motion. The interceptor would approach in a lower and faster orbit, then boost itself into collision course with the target. From the target’s point of view, the approach would be from behind and below and in the final few hundred meters would be close to a straight line. Other approaches could be attempted but they would be much more complicated and use much more fuel.
That's when the cannon would have been most lethal. Once hit, the target would fragment into hundreds of pieces, some of them on collision course with the target station. But their different orbital motions would quickly pull almost all of them away from the space station. Some pieces could remain in space for years, and in fact the USSR sowed the spacelanes with a dozen clouds of shrapnel from killer satellite tests in the late 1960's which were lingering threats to navigation for decades. These small fragments were too small to track and too numerous to dodge, so important vehicles were just armored against them.
This was the preferred kill mechanism for many anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, from the Soviet space-to-space “killer satellite” of the 1960’s and 1970’s which used a shrapnel charge aimed at its target to the air-launched U.S. ASAT missile of the 1980’s, which used precise guidance to directly ram the target. Neither system is still on active service but either could probably be rebuilt within a year or two.
'Impact kill' is also the mechanism for the ‘poor man’s ASAT’, a low-reliability but highly credible system that uses a small missile to rise vertically in front of an oncoming satellite, where it deposits a cloud of sand, ball bearings, or other hard objects. The target’s own velocity provides the impact energy. At least a dozen countries around the world including North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Libya probably have the hardware and the know-how to build such a system, although nobody’s yet made any claims about having done so. They can get all the orbital data they need on intended targets from privately-maintained Internet sites which were established for space tracking hobbyists.
In the early 1960’s, both the USSR and the USA developed techniques to redeploy prototype nuclear-armed anti-missile systems in anti-satellite role. Recently released Russian memoirs describe such a system based at Sary Shagan in Kazakhstan in the early 1960's, and in the mid-1960’s the US developed a dedicated nuclear missile system based on Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean. The kill mechanism for both systems would have been radiation from a detonation 5 to10 km from the target. Energetic X-rays from the blast would hit the target, inducing a sudden thermal expansion of its outer skin. This converted into a hypersonic shock wave which travelled into the satellite and tore fragments from the interior walls, which took on the speed and lethality of a shotgun blast. The electromagnetic pulse from the blast induced surges of electricity in all metallic items in the target, erasing (or even vaporising) memory circuits, throwing sparks and blowing components off their circuit boards. But since such a pulse could wipe out satellites thousands or even tens of thousands of kilometers away the system’s utility was dubious at best, and in fits of rationality both sides scrapped the idea.
But the nuclear threat hasn't gone away. For nations with nuclear weapons but little space infrastructure -- India and Pakistan come to mind, and especially China -- space detonation offers an attractive deterrent, and a powerful club to persuade the US to alter or avoid certain behavior. For other nations with a potential nuclear capability, the threat of such a strike could also have advantageous diplomatic and psychological results.
Short of a nuclear orbital omnicide – destroying all non-hardened objects over an entire hemisphere – the near-term hazards are mainly electronic assault, laser blinding, and ground-to-space missiles armed with buckshot. The greatest danger today is that such attacks might not even be detected, or recognized as hostile actions.
For years, American DoD officials have urged commercial satellite owners to add features to their payloads similar to those already installed on military vehicles. This includes some shielding against electromagnetic interference, and protection for optical devices against bursts of bright light. But it also would involve sensors to detect impacts and backup power to broadcast alarms. All such hardware detracts from the commercial payload’s profit-making potential, and so have usually been dismissed as ‘too expensive’. But since the DoD has become a dominant customer of many of these commercial satellites, its influence on their future design is growing.
As with any dark road, driving forward into the future without knowing the twists, turns, and potholes ahead is a recipe for disaster, a blueprint for somebody else’s sneak attack on what has become indispensable space-derived benefits to our nation. Better foresight by our planners, and making our space vehicles less tempting targets, can go a long way towards preventing these grim scenarios from moving from science fiction to space reality, or at least towards minimizing their harm if they occur. And the first step towards this goal is understanding the reality of the threat, not clinging to comforting myths and obsolete attitudes.
@Biog:James Oberg is a space writer and a former spaceflight engineer based in Houston, Texas. His book, Space Power Theory, can be downloaded at http://www.jamesoberg.com/books/spt/spt.html, and two more of his books will be published later this year: 'Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the US/Russian Space alliance", by McGraw-Hill, and "2001: A Mars Odyssey", from Crossroads Publishing on the Internet.
The US has been researching ‘space death rays’ for decades, as part of preparation for a space slugfest with the USSR. The DoD has its High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility at White Sands, New Mexico, the home of the “Mid Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser” (MIRACL), a deuterium flouride laser built about twenty years ago. There are also radio frequency weapons which would in theory fire an intense burst of radio waves at a target, damaging its electronic components (according to a recent study by a special U.S. space commission, this device “is approaching maturity after decades of research”). There is also research on particle beam weapons at the High Energy Research and Technology Facility on Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, tucked away in a remote valley in the Manzano Mountains. The Soviets conducted similar research.
But such hi-tech