The New Space Race
The Pentagon envisions a war in the heavens, but can it defend the ultimate high ground?
By Richard J. Newman
Cover Story, U.S. News & World Report
The war was not going well. Serbian forces were sowing terror across Kosovo.
NATO pilots squinting through clouds could do little to stop them. Errant
NATO bombs had killed dozens of civilians and shaken support for the
alliance. Then the Pentagon saw it had another problem. A Colorado outfit
called Space Imaging was about to launch a picture-taking satellite with
clarity nearly as good as that of U.S. spy satellites. The company could have
sold photos of NATO air bases or troop encampments to, say, Serbian
operatives. That had to be stopped. But how?
The brass canvassed its experts for recommendations. The U.S.-licensed firm could simply be ordered not to take pictures over a broad swath of Europe. A similar ban could be issued for a few key areas, such as northern Albania. In the end, however, no order was issued. "We got lucky," says a U.S. official: A malfunction sent Space Imaging's satellite plunging in- to the Pacific Ocean 30 min-utes after it lifted off on April 27.
Fortune may not be so kind next time. Space Imaging launched another satellite in September and plans to start selling pictures from it in January. Several other companies are right behind it. Before too long, an international bazaar for high-quality satellite imagery will be open for business. And potential foes are making headway with their own satellite capabilities. "There's a new proliferation [of space-based capabilities]," says Gen. Richard Myers, head of the Pentagon's U.S. Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo. "Plus, our Cold War-era capabilities have atrophied."
That's pushing the Pentagon into a whole new kind of warfare. In the future, the U.S. military will be responsible for "countering . . . space systems and services used for hostile purposes," says a Pentagon space policy paper published in July. That's a nice way of saying the Pentagon needs to be prepared to defend the ultimate high ground by attacking hostile satellites. The new policy also directs the Space Command to start developing tactics and doctrine for conducting warfare in the heavens. It must also come up with plans for deploying space-based lasers or other weapons that could be used against targets anywhere on Earth or above it. If the United States ultimately deploys such weaponry, not only would it break one of the great taboos of the past 40 years, but it could also transform the way America structures its military and fights wars.
But aggressive "space control," as the military calls its quest for dominance in the sky, could backfire. "The military view is, it would be the neatest thing in the world to have a death ray in space," says one Space Command official. "But will deploying it lead to a war with somebody?"
Very possibly, some critics say. Virginia Democrat Charles Robb, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued in a recent article that developing space weapons would be "a mistake of historic proportions" that would trigger an arms race in space. He foresees scenarios in which other nations follow the U.S. example and scramble to launch their own space weapons while frantic generals, unable to tell exactly who has put what into orbit, plead for extravagant countermeasures. In Pentagon war games, just trying to defend U.S. satellites causes problems. "If you defend the satellite, you often widen the war," says Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel and war-gaming expert. "The thing ends up being the problem and not the solution."
Tempting targets. Still, the Pentagon may have no choice but to fight in space. Some military analysts believe that with U.S. companies likely to invest $500 billion in space by 2010, the military will be called upon to defend American interests in space much as navies were formed to protect sea commerce in the 1700s. "U.S. interests and investments in space must be fully protected to ensure our nation's freedom of action in space," reads Space Command's Long Range Plan. And intelligence reports show that attacking U.S. space systems may be an irresistible option for potential foes who could never match the United States tank for tank or jet for jet. That's partly because of the Pentagon's huge dependence on space during military operations. During the war against Serbia, the Pentagon's global-positioning constellation was essential for guiding precision bombs to their targets in bad weather. Spy satellites monitored Serbian troop movements and intercepted conversations among top Serbian officials. A system of satellites designed to pick up missile launches tracked the exact impact point of thousands of NATO bombs, helping to determine whether they fell where they were supposed to.
The overmatched Serbs had little recourse against U.S. space systems. But the Pentagon expects tougher challenges down the road. A classified 1997 study found that the military's nearly total dependence on space today, combined with new threats, should make protecting satellites a much higher priority than during the Cold War. Last winter–shortly before the Kosovo war–the Space Command stopped publishing information on the whereabouts of the 27 satellites that make up the Global-Positioning System (GPS), which up till then had been posted on a NASA Internet site. "It is incumbent on us," said a memo explaining the decision, "to ensure [that] space assets essential to our nation's defense are protected from potential adversaries."
One problem is that many U.S. satellites lack basic self-defense measures like those that are integral to warplanes. Except for some highly classified spy systems, most satellites can't tell if they are tracked or targeted by ground radar, illuminated by a laser beam, or even attacked outright. The Air Force is developing some technologies that would identify threats and develop targeting data. But such self-defense options add extra weight, which can make launch costs prohibitively high.
Until recently, there was little apparent need to defend satellites. The Soviet Union developed antisatellite weapons as early as the 1970s, but "an attack on satellites was like an act of nuclear war," says Allen Thomson, a retired CIA analyst who tracks space issues. "The government felt nobody would do this."
Not anymore. A 1998 Pentagon report says China may already have lasers or other devices that can blind the optical sensors on U.S. spy satellites. India is trying to buy antisatellite lasers from Russia, according to a study by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass. New ballistic missiles being developed by Iran and North Korea are also a threat. Using those to disperse something as simple as buckshot into low Earth orbit–which ranges up to about 1,500 miles above Earth, where reconnaissance satellites operate–could create a series of space pileups, since even small objects can produce disastrous collisions at orbital speeds of 17,000 miles per hour. Space watchers even worry that a maverick dictator might strap a crude nuclear device to a rocket and explode it in space. Such a blast would be harmless to people on Earth, but the Pentagon estimates that at the proper altitude the radiation could fry every satellite in low Earth orbit.
And an enemy wouldn't have to actually go to space to kill a satellite. Computer hackers could interrupt signals sent between satellites and their ground operators. Commandos could attack ground stations that serve as control centers or relay points for data, some of which aren't even manned. Security is even lower at operations centers for private satellite companies such as Iridium, which the Pentagon plans to use increasingly for much of its communications. "You could take out the whole Iridium constellation by taking down one building," an expert says.
Already, there's a sort of spy-versus-spy game going on in the skies. The Pentagon calls this "navigation warfare"–or NavWar. The Pentagon plans to install GPS guidance kits on nearly 90,000 gravity bombs by 2008. The technology is critical for maneuvering ships or troops in unfamiliar terrain. American forces would be vulnerable without it. "Wiping out our GPS system, that would be a critical advantage [for an enemy]," says a defense official. "We'd come crashing down, while they'd be about the same."
Potential foes have noticed. The Pentagon believes the Chinese may be able to completely interdict the GPS signal within 10 years. A Russian company has developed handheld GPS jammers with an advertised range of about 150 miles. At one Moscow arms show, according to intelligence officials, the Russian firm displayed a map of Iraq that showed how many jammers it would take to block the GPS signal throughout the country–and, theoretically, confound U.S. weapons. The Pentagon is working on ways to strengthen the GPS signal–or at least the part of it the U.S. military uses. That would force an enemy to field bigger jammers that would be easier to target and destroy.
Scud sharpshooters. Pentagon researchers are also puzzling over how to prevent an enemy from using GPS to make its own weapons more accurate–while still providing the signal to U.S. forces likely to be fighting them right across the front lines. Since GPS travels like radio waves, it is available to anybody with a receiver. That means countries such as North Korea, Iraq, and Iran could strap cheap GPS guidance kits onto clumsy weapons like Scud missiles and suddenly be able to deliver them to within 50 or 100 feet of a target. "Precision [weapons] in the hands of others is going to drive us crazy," predicts retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Bill Jones. Classified NavWar tactics being developed include "spoofing" the GPS signal by sending out a corrupted version that appears to be the real thing, or blocking the GPS signal over a limited area, perhaps by using jammers loaded onto unmanned aircraft.
Even American spy satellites–for years the crown jewels of the U.S. intelligence system–are becoming less effective as the rest of the world becomes more space-savvy. Technologically, U.S. capabilities remain the world's best. Reconnaissance satellites 500 miles high are thought to be able to distinguish objects on the ground as small as 6 inches wide. Others use radar to take pictures through clouds and camouflage. But some newcomers are beginning to match U.S. capabilities. The Canadian Space Agency plans to launch a radar satellite in 2001 that will be nearly as capable as the Pentagon's Lacrosse spy satellite. And those under surveillance have learned how to evade the American eye in the sky by studying U.S. tactics and developing ways to track the satellites. When Indian officials were getting ready to explode a nuclear bomb last year, for instance, they predicted when U.S. satellites would be passing overhead and moved workers indoors during those times. They also created a diversion by setting up a test of an air-defense missile system several hundred miles away–guessing correctly that U.S. analysts would cue the satellites to zoom in on that. When the nuclear test occurred, critics called it the biggest intelligence failure in years.
Intelligence officials say part of the problem is that the spy satellites in orbit now were designed to take periodic peeks at Soviet military installations–not to offer unblinking surveillance capability over far corners of the globe where the United States typically finds itself monitoring crises these days. The next generation of sky spies, due to be launched around 2005, will be smaller and more numerous. Instead of the five or six spy satellites believed to be in orbit now, there could be two dozen or more. That will increase "revisit times" over a given area, leaving fewer gaps for conducting surreptitious activity. Thomson, the retired CIA analyst, points to some satellites that have mysteriously disappeared over the past decade as evidence that the United States has developed stealthy satellites and techniques for "storing" satellites in deep orbits where they are hard to detect, then maneuvering them close to Earth as needed.
But with India, China, Russia, and many private companies rapidly crowding into space, keeping the U.S. edge will require more than technological superiority. That's why the Pentagon is tiptoeing down the path toward space warfare. In a report prepared for Congress this summer, the Pentagon gave a few clues about what it has in mind. "Physical destruction of [enemy] satellites is not the preferred approach," says the report. That's not because the Pentagon can't do it; when the Army test-fired a laser at an aging Air Force satellite in 1997, it inflicted significant damage. But blowing up a satellite would unleash debris that could damage U.S. space systems. The Pentagon report stated that "we must retain the option for irreversible denial"–military jargon for smashing something to smithereens. But it also emphasized tactics like jamming and disrupting satellite signals as the best ways to carry out space control.
That's what's known as "soft kill." The approach has proved more effective than blowing stuff up. During the first weeks of the war against Serbia, NATO commanders became increasingly concerned about propaganda being broadcast on Yugoslav television. Finally, on April 23, NATO bombed Yugoslavia's main TV transmitting tower. But the Serbs made repairs and were broadcasting again within days. Then NATO tried another approach: It asked EUTELSAT, a European space consortium, to shut off the satellite service that sent the TV signal throughout Yugoslavia. That did the trick.
A real space standoff might not be so easy to resolve. The Army set up a war game last year, for instance, in which the United States fought a fictitious Middle Eastern country called the "New Islamic Republic." In the exercise, China provided satellite imagery of U.S. troop movements to the enemy. That left U.S. decision makers debating whether to try to knock out China's satellites–almost certain to draw China into the war. Another complication was that the New Islamic Republic sent military communications over the same international satellites used by journalists to send their war stories back home. Deciding whether to attack those satellites, said Richard Armitage, a former top Pentagon official who played the role of commander in chief, was a matter of "how much of the world we want to piss off." In the end, he decided not that much. The best course, Armitage concluded, was to do nothing.
"Energy rods." As touchy as talk of space warfare may be, some still think the Pentagon isn't going far enough. A recent Senate report argued that instead of treating space merely as an "information medium," the Defense Department needs to start focusing on space as "the strategic high ground from which to project power." That means developing lasers or "kinetic energy rods" or other weapons that could be used to attack enemy spacecraft or missiles or even ground targets like bridges and buildings. The Pentagon has looked into the idea–and the possibilities sound mesmerizing. A space-based military force "could deliver precisely calibrated effects, from taking a picture to dropping a precision munition, anywhere on Earth, in less than an hour from the 'go' order, with surprise and immunity to most defenses," according to a 1998 study by the Air Force's scientific advisory board. In one war game last year, the Air Force tested three types of forces–one armed mainly with space weapons and two more conventionally equipped–against the same "enemy." The space force won the war in days, while the other outfits took months and required three times as many troops.
The Pentagon does have at least one space-based weapon in the works–the space-based laser, which could be carried on a space-shuttlelike vehicle. The laser's purpose would be to shoot down ballistic missiles like the Scud–but space experts say it could easily be reconfigured to attack other objects in space or on the ground. The space-based laser isn't due until at least 2020, however, and the Pentagon does not appear eager to court the controversy that would come from anything more ambitious. The Russians, for one, have already objected to U.S. plans to field a national missile defense system. That would rely on satellites only to detect launches and relay data rapidly to ground stations–not to fire any weapons. But the Russians argue that detection alone would violate the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty. The Clinton administration is seeking to modify the treaty and may withdraw from it if the Russians don't agree to a compromise.
Doves aloft? But some still say the Pentagon is, of all things, going soft on space. Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on strategic forces, has threatened congressional action to establish a fifth military service–a Space Force–if the Air Force, which has responsibility for most of the Pentagon's orbiting systems, doesn't pursue space weapons more aggressively. Some critics argue that costly programs like the $60 billion F-22 fighter jet are soaking up funds that could be spent more wisely on cutting-edge space programs, such as a proposed constellation to do full-time surveillance of key parts of the globe. Retired Gen. Howell Estes, who headed the Space Command until 1998, has argued that the Air Force should be much more aggressive in pursuing new satellites that would monitor missile launches far better than existing systems.
But the prospect of a space force puzzles some analysts. "What would it be?" wonders John Correll, editor of Air Force Magazine. "A kind of paramilitary NASA?" Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters defends the Air Force's space programs by pointing out that the service will double the proportion of money it spends on space over the next five years. And new satellites for detecting missile launches, he argues, have little value if there's no missile defense system for shooting them down. "Why do you want to put up a satellite before you need it?" he asks. Better computers, says Peters, are helping enhance the capabilities of existing satellites.
But after years of theoretical debate, many now believe it is inevitable that
weapons will invade space. "It's a question of whether the threat is so
compelling as to persuade a president to cross this line and put weapons in
space," says Robert Bell, President Clinton's former special assistant for
arms control. In the end, it may take a Pearl Harbor-like attack on a
satellite to justify such a momentous move. But if that day arrives, the
Pentagon may pull a few surprises of its own off the shelf.