Global Policy Forum

Arms Race in Space


By Marko Beljac *

Foreign Policy In Focus
April 1, 2008

When the United States recently shot apart a crippled spy satellite over the Pacific Ocean, it also tested an offensive anti-satellite weapon and the potential for ballistic missile defense. "The shot," as the Pentagon called the $100 million operation conducted on February 20, came immediately after Russia and China put forward a detailed, but flawed, proposal for a treaty to ban space weapons at the United Nations. In response, the United States immediately reaffirmed its unwillingness to participate in any arms control accord covering space.

These developments are just the latest wrinkles in a rapidly unfolding saga that underscores the fact that we're entering a new strategic era characterized by the weaponization of space. It may sound exciting, but the potential consequences of space weaponization are cataclysmic.

"The shot" has important implications for defense planners everywhere. To be sure, as Victoria Samson so eloquently explained, this was an orchestrated operation and didn't in any way mimic the real-world conditions that would prevail if a missile defense system were to be used to "shield" the U.S. from an enemy-fired weapon. The satellite, after all, was very large and was moving along a predictable trajectory. Of course, all Ballistic Missile Defense tests carried out until now have been highly idealized and largely developmental in nature, as the Government Accountability Office noted in a recent report on the topic. Therefore, it would not be too far off the mark to even characterize this highly idealized action as a developmental weapons test.

Ground Control

In December 2006, the United States successfully placed a reconnaissance satellite, USA 193, into low earth orbit. However, ground control very soon thereafter lost contact with the satellite and therefore the satellite went out of control. U.S. officials recently notified the United Nations and potentially affected countries that USA 193 was to de-orbit by early March 2008.

Because the failure of the satellite occurred so early in its planned mission the fuel tank used to maneuver the satellite for intelligence missions remained tanked up on hydrazine rocket fuel. Washington claimed that it was likely that the fuel tank would survive re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere and could well have, albeit the chances were remote, impact on populated areas. It was feared that the rocket fuel could disperse and infect the respiratory system of anybody near the impact zone, perhaps even fatally.

Given this alleged possibility, President George W. Bush ordered that the satellite be intercepted by a kinetic energy kill vehicle from an SM-3 missile interceptor launched from an Aegis class Naval vessel in the Pacific Ocean. The plan was for the "kill vehicle" to impact the satellite and hopefully break up the fuel tank leading the fuel to escape before re-entry. In actual fact the Pentagon is 80-90% certain that the kill vehicle made impact on the fuel tank itself. It's important to also realize that "the shot" didn't target the actual satellite as a whole, but rather its fuel tank.

Hitherto the SM-3 interceptor has been a part of Naval-based Ballistic Missile Defense. The SM-3 is designed to hit warheads from medium range missiles at high altitudes. Minor changes have been made to the system's software to enable interception against the satellite. It has also been revealed that the telemetry for "the shot" was gathered by Missile Defense systems, according to a Pentagon background briefing, "because this is more like a test." Also, "the shot" used the Pentagon's space identification, tracking and targeting systems to co-ordinate the destruction of the satellite.

Flimsy Rationale

It's important that we understand that the Bush administration's stated reasons for "the shot" can't be taken seriously. Given that the fuel tank was most likely not heat shielded it should not have survived re-entry. Even if by remote chance it were to survive re-entry, the pressure and heat of re-entry should have vaporized its hydrazine rocket fuel.

Instead, the administration found a convenient way to do what China did last year: test an offensive anti-satellite weapon against its own redundant satellite. We now know that the United States knew that China was going to shoot down one of its own satellites beforehand, but the White House decided not to protest diplomatically before the Chinese test. This puts all the rhetoric directed at Beijing's way following China's anti-satellite test in perspective. The United States is not responding to Chinese space programs. It secretly welcomes them as public justification for its own drive to weaponize space.

The Bush administration's anti-satellite weapon test has obvious implications for Australia. Brendan Nelson (then the Australian defense minister and now the country's opposition leader in Parliament) last year mandated a Defense Department study, which Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has inherited, of the possibility of equipping the Australian Navy with SM-3 interceptors for Ballistic Missile Defense in Northeast Asia. The Bush administration's recent demonstrated the offensive capabilities of missile defense in general and of the SM-3 interceptor in particular.

Barely a week after "the shot," the Rudd administration, following the U.S.-Australia "AusMin" defense talks, announced its support for Ballistic Missile Defense and a desire to deepen Australia's participation. This would most likely take the very form proposed by Brendan Nelson.

Washington's anti-satellite missile test must complicate matters for strategic planners in Canberra because an Australian SM-3 capability was sold on the basis that it would have no strategic effect on China. But "the shot" has blown apart this rhetoric. Moreover it is also the case that the SM-3 will have more advanced capabilities in future such as a larger kill vehicle and faster boosters which means that it can reach even higher altitudes. Anybody who knows the minutiae of strategic arms control from the Cold War knows that one of the key characteristics of a strategic missile, as opposed to a shorter range missile, is its boost phase velocity. Strategic missiles are faster than their lower range siblings.

What is also of interest here is that the USA 193 satellite was in a very low orbit, just near the atmosphere, when impacted and its flight profile resembled the trajectory of a strategic nuclear re-entry vehicle launched from an inter-continental ballistic missile like those in the hands of Russia and China. "The shot" acts as a convenient way to test the interception capabilities of the SM-3 against inter-continental missiles without the appearance of doing so.

Northeast Asia

The SM-3 based interceptor system for the Northeast Asian ballistic missile defense system has been sold by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency on the basis that it only has a theoretical capability against medium range missiles such as that possessed by North Korea. Canberra will no doubt follow suit but we must reject any such attempt by Rudd to justify a U-turn in the Labor party's policy.

It's true that USA 193 was larger than any strategic re-entry vehicle, was traveling along a predicted path and came without any accompanying decoys. In this sense "the shot" wasn't a test of the combat capabilities of the SM-3 per se but ballistic missile defense tests, especially initially, are highly idealized and the shooting down of the satellite was an important test of the identification, tracking, and targeting systems. This means that these systems could be combined with the even more capable ground based mid-course interceptor system in an anti-satellite missile role. The GMD system, as it is called, lies at the heart of the current controversy between Moscow and Washington on Eastern European-based Ballistic Missile Defense. Those most gung-ho about ballistic missile defense want to go further and actually place interceptors in space itself perhaps even employing directed energy weapons such as lasers and particle beams.

This all means that we have had more than just a simple test. It was a double whammy that tested both an anti-satellite weapon and of the strategic missile interception capabilities of the SM-3 and of the ability of ballistic missile defense systems to track and monitor a satellite slated for destruction.

Chinese Submarine

The noted space and missile analyst John Pike has also surmised (see "Nations to take notice of US satellite destruction") that the test also demonstrates a theoretical capability to intercept Chinese submarine launched ballistic missiles using the SM-3. This is important because it appears that China is placing greater emphasis on the sea based leg of its strategic nuclear deterrence force given continued U.S. efforts to achieve a theoretical first strike capability known as "counterforce."

This undermines U.S. and global security in a very significant way. As pointed out by the 2008 annual Pentagon report on Chinese military power China's shift toward a more road mobile and sea based strategic nuclear deterrent leads to a whole raft of issues about the safety and reliability of its command and control system. In other words the U.S. attempt to develop a first strike counterforce capability and Chinese efforts to mitigate this increases the likelihood of an accidental nuclear exchange.

The United States has actually been committed to the weaponization of space well before the Chinese anti-satellite missile test last year. U.S. Space Command documents show that the United States seeks to "control," indeed even "own," space through "space superiority," even if that means using weapons "in, from and through space" in the words of the Rumsfeld Space Commission report.

Space Weaponization

The United States has been quietly working on implementing this vision. Space weaponization is a relatively long-term project that is expected to culminate by 2030. But the pace seems to be quickening. The Pentagon has produced a series of doctrinal documents that clarify what is meant by war in space and how it is to be properly waged.

Hitherto, the program has emphasized improving situational awareness in space. It's impossible to wage war in space without knowing precisely who has what where. However, in the 2008 budget, Congress appropriated $7 million dollars for "offensive counterspace" operations out of a $53 million dollar budget for "counterpace operations" which actually amounts to an increase in the level of funding sort by the White House. That suggests that the United States is moving up a gear on space weaponization and that this has both congressional and White House support which is critical for long-term strategic planning.

In fact we have just learnt that the Air Force is working on plans to develop a "counter-ASAT" space weapon system by 2011. Reports suggest that most aspects of these plans are secret but some information has emerged in the public domain that sheds some interesting light on US space weapons planning. The system is known as the Rapid Attack Identification Detection Reporting System (Raidrs) Block 20. The rationale for this program is to develop information in a timely fashion to enable the Pentagon to intercept a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon, which are launched from the Earth, before it strikes its target in low earth orbit. But if the asset used to achieve this objective is space based then this may well enable BMD hawks to also obtain a space based BMD interception capability and there is no reason to suppose that a "counter-ASAT" weapon could not also function as an offensive space weapon.

Nascent Asian Space Race

As noted, China has tested an anti satellite weapon and Russia has stated that it would not allow other states to control space and threaten its own space assets. In Asia a nascent space race seems to be developing between China, Japan and India. In the far future the large deposits of Helium-3 on the moon's surface could lead to a militarized race to colonize the moon to secure Helium-3 for nuclear fusion energy technologies based on anuetronic fusion reactions in the context of depleting hydro-carbons.

Washington argues that it has too much commercially riding on space to allow others to have the potential capability of disrupting U.S. space assets. In 1998 the failure of one satellite, the Galaxy IV, made some 80% of pagers in the U.S. malfunction.

Though the latest Russian and Chinese space arms control proposal is flawed, because of the clumsy definition of what constitutes a "space weapon," this doesn't mean that space arms control is not possible in principle. A global space arms control regime would protect U.S., Russian, Chinese, and even Australian space assets. An arms race in space will eventually lead other states to catch up with the United States and thereby placing Washington's commercial satellites at risk.

Space weaponization may well have cataclysmic consequences given the link between space weapons and nuclear weapons strategy. This is because Russia, and the United States, to a certain extent rely on satellites for early warning of nuclear attack. As other space nations with nuclear weapons develop their space capacity it is expected that they will follow suit.

The deployment of space weapons means that the first shot in a nuclear war would be fired against these early warning satellites. Currently strategic planners in Moscow have about 10 minutes between warning of an attack and the decision to launch nuclear weapons in response before they impact. Weapons in space would lower this in certain scenarios down to seconds. This would also apply for weapons placed in space that would be considered to be defensive such as say a space based BMD interceptor or a "counter-ASAT" weapon.

On occasion, ground warning radars falsely show that a nuclear attack has been launched. In the 1990s a false alarm went all the way up to President Boris Yeltsin and was terminated after approximately eight minutes. We are still here, noted analysts believe, because warning satellites would have given Moscow real time information showing the alarm to be false. Should such a false alarm coincide with an accident involving an early warning satellite when space weapons are known to exist, an accidental nuclear exchange could result. The risk would increase if the false alarm occurred during a crisis.

Space weapons could lead to itchy fingers on nuclear triggers. They would therefore significantly increase the importance nuclear weapon states place upon nuclear deterrence.

About the Author: Marko Beljac, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches at the University of Melbourne. He blogs at

More Information on Empire?
More General Analysis on US Military Expansion and Intervention
More Information on US Military Expansion and Intervention


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.