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Space Weapons Unneeded to Protect Space Assets, Says FAS Panel

Space Weapons Unneeded to Protect Space Assets, Says FAS Panel
07-22-2004

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Type: Release


Satellites have become an absolutely critical component of U.S. military operations. They are used to guide munitions, provide intelligence, relay communications, and enable live video links from battlefields. Because they could be attractive targets to a technologically able adversary, it is in the strategic interests of the United States to ensure these assets are defended. Furthermore, billions of dollars worth of non-military commercial satellites--numbering about 2,700--should also be protected.

One of the arguments for placing weapons in space is that such weapons might be useful to defend vital space assets. In December 2002, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) assembled a panel of experts, including representatives from industry, researchers, and former government officials to examine the threats to US space assets and determine the best way to counter them.

Ensuring America's Space Security is the draft report just released. In it the Panel finds conclusively no threats that can best be countered by placing weapons in space. After examining all threats to space assets over the next five to ten years, the Panel recommends alternative ways to ensure America's security in space. Some of its recommendations:

  • No space weapons should be deployed by the United States in the next five years. While R&D should continue so the United States is not caught by surprise, it should not be at a level commensurate with early deployment.
  • The U.S. should ensure its critical space systems are redundant and placed in multiple orbital planes to reduce the damage caused by losing an individual satellite.
  • Quick launch capabilities should be pursued by the United States to replace critical space infrastructure rapidly in the event of an attack or a system failure.
  • The U.S. should continue to improve its space monitoring capabilities and space situational awareness, to prevent stealthy hostile actions and further reduce the threat posed by background orbital debris.
  • The Panel recommends more study of small satellites. In particular, an examination should be made of the stealth capabilities of potential adversaries. It concludes that for the next five years, at least, it is unlikely that any adversary will deploy a non-detectable space mine. The best counter to the threat posed by stealthy space mines is for the United States to emphasize and improve situational awareness in space. An international treaty spelling out "rules of the road" for space would further reduce the threat posed by space mines.
  • The Panel finds differences in various reports concerning the threat posed by a high-altitude nuclear explosion or HANE. It recommends a study to improve the models of such an event and to disagreements over the severity of this threat. In the meantime, the Panel recommends hardening important satellites to withstand higher radiation doses as a cost-effective, near-term precaution.
  • The Panel developed a rigorous analytical model of the hazard posed by orbital debris. Using this model, it determined that suborbital and low earth orbit explosions, for instance from the interception of ballistic missiles, will not generate debris fields that are significant hazards to space infrastructure. Assets in geostationary orbit, however, are much more closely packed and explosions at or near this orbit could potentially cause debris fields that are extremely dangerous to military and commercial assets.

The final report will include detailed technical appendices that shed new light on the robustness of the Global Positioning System, the threats posed by potential adversaries, and the problem of space debris.

Ensuring America's Space Security may be obtained by contacting the Federation of American Scientists. Copies are $15.00 for the public, free to Members.

Members of the Panel on Space Weapons:

Leonard Weiss, Chair
Phillip E. Coyle III
Charles A. Fowler
Robert A. Frosch
Ivan Kaminow
C.Kumar N. Patel
John L. Remo
Ian Roxborough
Lawrence Scheinman
Ray Williamson
Jill Wittel

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