9 February 2009
Can Obama Ban Space Weapons Successfully?

Popular Mechanics


The first, and most obvious problem for this administration is answering the question, "What is a space weapon?" Currently, weapon systems aimed at space�like the antisatellite capability of U.S. Aegis cruisers, demonstrated in last year�s shootdown of a dead spy satellite, or the Chinese antisatellite weapon demonstrated in 2007�aren�t "space weapons" at all, and wouldn�t be covered by a ban on weapons in space. At the moment, no country has much of a dedicated space-weapon presence. But improvised or disguised space weapons are another story. In space, kinetic energies are huge, and satellites are delicate, making anything with an engine a potential kinetic-kill vehicle. How would negotiators account for this problem? That�s not clear.

According to space-weapons analyst Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center, the best way to address this is to look at capabilities, not specific weapon systems, and to ban testing of weapons in, or aimed at, space. This would also prevent the creation of more space debris, like the kind left behind by the Chinese antisatellite test. Krepon suggests a model Code of Conduct for spacefaring powers.

But why is Obama acting now? As far as we know, neither the United States nor any other country has a program to deploy dedicated space weaponry. Is this a clever bit of misdirection, designed to let the United States look like it supports arms control without actually having to give up any capabilities, or is there information out there that has not been made public? Do we think the Russians, Chinese or Indians have secret orbital weapons programs?

Of course, the Obama Administration may just want to get ahead of the curve. The United States military depends on satellites more than any other nation (and that dependence will grow if we deploy systems such as GPS-guided hypersonic cruise missiles), meaning that we have more to lose if the world pursues a ban on orbital assets. A suggestion that this might be the reason comes from another related Obama initiative, one to negotiate "a prohibition against harmful interference against satellites." Such a prohibition would discourage attacks. That�s long been a U.S. goal�President Jimmy Carter first announced the principle that an attack on an American satellite would be treated as an act of war�but incorporating it into its own international agreement is a new approach.

Critics might argue that a ban on space weaponry would just breed complacency among law-abiding nations, while giving cheaters the advantage of surprise. On the other hand, a crude improvised system probably wouldn�t be that useful, while a more sophisticated space-based weapons program (one that went beyond maneuvering exploding satellites close to their targets) would probably require a fair amount of testing, making cheating difficult.

The likeliest possibility, though, is that this is mostly about atmospherics. As China�s interception demonstrated, attacks on satellites generate dangerous levels of orbital debris�shrapnel that continues to orbit the Earth for days, weeks or even years, and that menaces anything in its path. (And because the debris consists of small, fast-moving and widely-dispersed fragments, it�s almost impossible to clean up). This means that no spacefaring power is likely to want to mount wholesale attacks on another power�s satellites. The result of any such attack would make space as unusable for the attacker as for the target. In the next decade or two, the biggest threats are likely to come from rogue nations with some space capability, like Iran (which last week launched a satellite on its own), or North Korea�countries that have the ability to attack spacecraft from the ground, but not a lot of their own satellites at risk. Perhaps Obama thinks that a space-weapon ban among the spacefaring nations will encourage them to close ranks against rogue states that are a threat to everyone. That would certainly be a positive development.

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