Neither Star Wars nor Sanctuary: Constraining the Military Uses of Space

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Space has been militarized for over four decades. Should it now be weaponized? This incisive and insightful book argues that it should not.

Since the cold war, space has come to harbor many tools of the tactical warfighter. Satellites have long been used to provide strategic communication, early warning of missile launch, and arms control verification. The U.S. armed forces increasingly use space assets to locate and strike targets on the battlefield. To date, though, no country deploys destructive weapons in space, for use against space or Earth targets, and no country possesses ground-based weapons designed
explicitly to damage objects in space. The line between nonweaponization and weaponization is blurry, to be sure—but it has not yet been crossed.

In Neither Star Wars nor Sanctuary, Michael E. O'Hanlon makes a forceful case for keeping it this way. The United States, with military space budgets of around $20 billion a year, enjoys a remarkably favorable military advantage in space. Pursuing a policy of space weaponization solely in order to maximize its own military capabilities would needlessly jeopardize this situation by likely hastening development of space weapons in numerous countries. It would also reaffirm the prevalent international image of the United States as a global cowboy of sorts, too quick to reach for the gun.

O'Hanlon therefore asserts that U.S. miltary space policy should focus on delaying any movement toward weaponization, without foreclosing the option of developing space weapons in the future, if necessary. Extreme positions that would either hasten to weaponize space or permanently
rule this out are not consistent with technological realities and U.S security interests.

About the Author:
Michael E. O’Hanlon is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution and holder of the Sydney Stein Jr. Chair. His recent books include Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: How to Deal with a Nuclear North Korea (McGraw Hill, 2003; with Mike Mochizuki) and Defending America: The Case for Limited Missile Defense (Brookings; with James M. Lindsay).

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This is a well-written, tightly argued case for a measured and pragmatic US policy towards the future military exploitation of space. It is hard not to agree with his overall thesis and this slim volume is a major contribution to a rational debate about the future of military space." —Jeremy Stocker, Center for Defense and International Studies, RUSI Journal, 6/1/2005

"Neither Star Wars nor Sanctuary is a very sensible book, sucessfully charting a middle ground between the poles of the space weapons debate." —John M. Logsdon, Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University, Joint Force Quarterly, 1/1/2006

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780815764564
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 120
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael E. O'Hanlon is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, where he holds the Sydney Stein Jr. Chair. His recent books include The Future of Arms Control (Brookings, 2005; with Michael A. Levi), Neither Star Wars nor Sanctuary (Brookings, 2004), and Crisis on the Korean Peninsula (McGraw Hill, 2003; with Mike Mochizuki).

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction 1
2 A brief primer on space and satellites 29
3 Current threats and technology trends 61
4 A future Taiwan Strait conflict 91
5 Arms control in space 105
6 Preserving U.S. dominance while slowing the weaponization of space 119
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First Chapter

Neither Star Wars nor Sanctuary

Constraining the Military Uses of Space
By Michael E. O'Hanlon

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2004 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8157-6456-1

Chapter One


What future role will space play in warfare? And what should the United States do about it now? These questions have not been the focus of intensive and sustained political debate since the cold war days of the 1980s. In the meantime, technology has changed a great deal; geopolitics has changed even more. This book attempts to answer these broad questions for the context in which military space policy will be made in the early years of the twenty-first century.

Space is already militarized. Indeed, it has been militarized for more than four decades. But satellites played a rather benign role during much of the cold war, when they were most important for preserving strategic stability. Particularly since the cold war ended, however, space assets have been reestablished as competitive military instruments, especially by the United States. This trend has not extended to placing weapons in space or developing weapons for the purpose of threatening objects in space, but that clearly could change in the coming years. And weapons now being developed for other purposes, most notably missile defense, will make low-altitude satellites increasingly vulnerable even if no explicit steps are taken to achieve that end.

The Soviet Union and the United States employed satellites during most of the cold war. They did so largely for purposes of watching each other's nuclear tests, missile launches, and military force deployments. They also used space for communicating with their own global force deployments and operations, weather forecasting, mapping, measuring Earth's gravitational field (largely to improve the accuracy of ballistic missiles), and maintaining exact and uniform time standards for their deployed military forces. Many of these activities ultimately served the nonconfrontational and desirable purposes of maintaining strategic nuclear stability and promoting arms control. But their purposes were still basically quite military-contributing, for example, to the development of nuclear war plans-and hence were competitive as well. Indeed, from the launching of Sputnik in October 1957 until 1963, when a series of UN resolutions, implicitly at least, acknowledged and allowed the use of reconnaissance satellites, the Soviet Union struggled with the question of whether to tolerate U.S. satellites over its own territory. Both superpowers ultimately concluded that mutual toleration served their interests. The United States wanted means to tie together its global force deployments and to monitor capabilities in closed societies like the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (PRC). The Soviet Union saw its space program as a sign of national prestige and may have found reconnaissance satellites quite useful for watching events in places such as Cuba, China, and Europe.

As time went on, both sides explicitly agreed not to interfere with the operations of each other's satellites in a number of arms control accords, including the 1972 ABM Treaty, the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty, the 1976 Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty, the 1979 SALT II Treaty, the 1990 multilateral CFE Treaty, and the 1991 START accords. (They also signed the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, along with a couple dozen European countries, providing mechanisms for aerial monitoring under specific circumstances.)

Since the cold war, the United States has increasingly used satellite assets for tactical warfighting purposes in wars against Iraq, Serbia, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Space systems, notably the global positioning system (GPS) satellite constellation, were used to help American soldiers navigate in the featureless desert starting most notably in the 1991 war against Iraq. GPS satellites are employed to synchronize operations in time as well, with remarkable accuracy. They are also increasingly used to pinpoint the locations of enemy targets and help guide precision-strike munitions, such as cruise missiles and the GPS-guided joint direct attack munition (JDAM), to those targets. Hundreds of JDAMs were used in the Kosovo war of 1999. More than 5,000 were employed in the Afghanistan war of 2001-02, striking as close as five meters from their aim-points, and a comparable number were used in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. GPS devices are also integral to the "blue force" tracking systems that keep tabs on friendly units in a given region to reduce fratricide. Such systems still have only limited capabilities and use, and present challenges for filtering data so that users are not swamped by information they do not need, but they are quite useful nonetheless.

Communications satellites are used for an increasing range of activities as well. While they still carry traditional voice messages, they also transmit real-time imagery taken by cameras and radar on platforms such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and reconnaissance aircraft to individuals far removed from the scene of battle, whether for purposes of data processing or for command and control. They transmit detailed air war targeting plans to commanders and pilots.

As a result, the use of such satellites in war has skyrocketed. In Desert Storm, a total of sixteen military satellites and five commercial satellites provided coalition forces with a maximum possible transmission rate of 200 million bits per second (the equivalent of nearly 40,000 simultaneous telephone calls). Nearly twice as much capacity was available during the Kosovo war eight years later-much of it commercial, however, and hence unhardened against possible enemy action, such as electronic jamming, and unsecured. It was used for purposes that included teleconferencing among commanders. Available capacity doubled again, to close to a billion bits per second, during the Afghan campaign of 2001-02. Again, much of the data flowed through commercial systems. What that means is that, remarkably, a U.S. military operation of some 50,000 troops in 2001-02 used five times as much communications bandwidth as did a war with 500,000 troops a decade earlier-fifty times as much bandwidth per person, on average. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the military used 2.4 gigabits per second.

But the 2003 Iraq war was less notable for further increases in bandwidth, perhaps, than for several other aspects. More than fifty satellites were used in the war effort; commercial firms, including France's leading satellite services company, provided the majority of communications capacity and a fair amount of imagery as well. Satellite channels in the so-called EHF frequency band gave ships fifty times more bandwidth for secure data transmissions than in the past (128 kilobits per second). And the GPS permitted the United States to drop more than 6,000 satellite-guided JDAMs.

Recognizing what satellites now offer the warfighter, the U.S. military is improving its means for utilizing their services. A space team was established and put on full-time duty in the Persian Gulf in late 2002 to plan operations against Iraq, for example. Among other things, its purpose was to help air planners understand when the greatest number of GPS satellites would be available to help guide bombs to target as accurately as possible.

Space systems may soon be used to maintain a track on ballistic missiles, so that ground-based interceptors can be launched to shoot them down. Further in the future, space-based weapons may be used to destroy the ballistic missiles directly, though this is not necessarily a desirable goal for American policymakers anytime soon, as discussed below.

The increasing militarization of space is not exclusively a superpower story, however. The United States certainly dominates military space spending-accounting for more than 90 percent of the total, by some measures. U.S. space funding over time is reported in table 1-1; the country's military space budget totals exceed $15 billion a year. But other countries besides the United States and Russia have also increasingly sought military satellites, largely for reconnaissance and communications purposes so far, and will surely continue to pursue space capabilities of many types in the future. They may make use of civilian and commercial assets for military purposes as well. They are surely studying American capabilities to find, track, and quickly attack targets using space assets. Some are trying to emulate the United States; some are trying to find vulnerabilities in U.S. space systems so they can challenge them in any future wars. China may be the most notable example of a country that is doing both. Its progress to date is limited, as far as we can tell, and its progress in the coming years is likely to be modest as well-but these prognostications may prove wrong, and in any case will not be applicable forever.

Although space is becoming increasingly militarized, it is not yet weaponized-at least as far as we know. That is, no country deploys destructive weapons in space, for use against space or Earth targets, and no country possesses ground-based weapons designed explicitly to damage objects in space. The challenges of weaponizing space should not be overlooked; in the words of one top Air Force specialist, space is a very challenging environment in which to work. It is also a very different medium than the air, as Air Force Chief of Staff General John Jumper emphasized when he discarded the popular term "aerospace" and instead insisted that the Air Force must specialize in both air and space operations. On the other hand, trends in technology and the gradual spread of space capabilities to many countries will surely threaten the status quo. Not only the United States but other major western powers, China, and smaller states as well, will have weaponization opportunities within reach.

But space is not a true sanctuary from weapons today. Virtually any country capable of putting a nuclear weapon into low-Earth orbit (LEO) already has a latent, if crude, antisatellite (ASAT) capability (though in many cases such weapons would have to be modified so that the warheads could be detonated by a timer or by remote control). Not only would such a weapon be likely to physically destroy any satellite within tens of kilometers of the point of detonation and to damage or destroy unhardened satellites within line of sight many hundreds of kilometers away (if not even further); it would also populate the Van Allen radiation belts with many more charged particles, which would destroy most low-Earth orbit satellites within about a month.

Nor has space been treated as an inviolable sanctuary in the past. The nuclear superpowers made some progress toward developing antisatellite weapons in fits and starts from the 1950s through the 1980s. For example, the United States had something of an ASAT capability with its Nike Zeus and Thor nuclear-armed interceptor missiles in the 1960s and early 1970s, and with the Spartan program of the 1970s. The Soviets later developed and tested a nonnuclear "co-orbital" ASAT that needed to conduct a couple orbits to gradually approach its target (see table 1-2). Into the 1980s, the United States developed a nonnuclear "direct ascent" ASAT, launched by an F-15, that would reach its target much more promptly and then collide with it. Soviet antiballistic missile (ABM) systems deployed around Moscow probably had ASAT capability as well; given the size of their warheads, they may have been able to damage satellites as distant as hundreds of kilometers from their detonation points. Some of these capabilities may remain warehoused in some form. Still, the ASAT competition was held in check. Likewise, technological constraints made any deployment of space-based ballistic missile defenses impractical, even though the idea of such missile defenses was hotly debated.

Decisions not to deploy ASATs or space-based missile defenses during the cold war did not, however, reflect any permanent commitment to keep space forever free from weaponry. Nor do existing arms control treaties ban such activities. Instead, they ban the deployment or use of nuclear weapons in outer space, prevent colonization of heavenly bodies for military purposes, and protect the rights of countries to use space to verify arms control accords and conduct peaceful activities. In addition, in 2000 the United States and Russia agreed to notify each other in advance of most space launches and ballistic missile tests. Most other matters are still up for grabs. And the concept of space as a sanctuary will be increasingly difficult to defend or justify as space systems are used more and more to assist in the delivery of lethal ordnance on target.

Some scholars, such as Ambassador Jonathan Dean, do argue that the START I, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF), and multilateral CFE treaties effectively ban the use of ASATs by one signatory against any and all others, given the protection they provide to satellite verification missions. But these treaties were signed before imaging satellites entered their own as targeting assets for tactical warfighting purposes, raising the legal and political question of whether protection originally provided to a satellite for one, generally nonprovocative and stabilizing mission can be extended to its use in a more adversarial fashion. Moreover, no one argues that these treaties ban the development, testing, production, or deployment of ASATs.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, debates over military space policy became less visible than they had been during the Reagan era and a number of periods during the cold war. Détente, and then the end of the cold war, defused the immediate argument for such systems. Bill Clinton's election in 1992 reinforced these strategic developments, among other things leading to a shift in missile defense efforts from strategic to theater systems, for which weapons based in space did not figure prominently (though some theater missile defense [TMD] systems could have capabilities against low-Earth orbit satellites). Even when Clinton reemphasized national missile defense in mid-decade, his plan called for land-based interceptors. Sensor technology was to be based in space, but other capabilities were not. Clinton also curtailed the development of a kinetic energy, or "hit-to-kill," antisatellite system that he inherited from George H. W. Bush, as well as a microsatellite program known as Clementine II, despite the efforts of Senator Robert Smith of New Hampshire and other conservatives.

But Clinton did not stop technology in its tracks. Two of the missile defense systems he promoted steadily, the midcourse national missile defense program and the airborne laser theater missile defense program, continue to this day and have latent capability as ASATs (see chapter 3).


Excerpted from Neither Star Wars nor Sanctuary by Michael E. O'Hanlon Copyright © 2004 by Brookings Institution Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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