U.S. Faces Military Threats To Its Space Assets From Nations, Terrorists
But No U.S. Arms Race In Space Seen By U.S. Aide
The United States faces a burgeoning threat to its space assets, both those in the cosmos and ground-based links to satellites, and that threat could devolve into a Pearl Harbor-style disaster in space, a senior U.S. government official said.
The threat comes not only from rogue nations, but also from terrorists and some nations with advanced capabilities but no advanced commitment to peaceful uses of space, according to Robert Joseph, under secretary of state for arms control and international security, in a review he provided for the George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington think tank.
At the same time, Joseph rejected complaints that the United States is moving to adopt a bellicose stance or to weaponize space, as some critics say appears to be implicit in the recently released U.S. National Space Policy update.
While the United States insists upon the right to defend its space assets, that doesn’t amount to starting an arms race in space, or am automatic move to place weapons there, he said.
Rather, Joseph argued, the United States is a peaceful nation advocating the peaceful use of space, but it is compelled by threats from others to press forward with erecting defensive capabilities to safeguard its assets in the heavens.
Those threats have proliferated, according to Joseph. Terrorist groups can gain knowledge of satellite orbiting schedules, and then employ Global Positioning System jammers or other means of disrupting sats.
Or, on an even more basic level, terrorists might use rocket propelled grenades or other weapons to attack ground stations or communications nodes that link to satellites, according to Joseph.
And more advanced nations are developing systems capable of attacking and defeating U.S. space assets, he noted.
The situation is likely to go in one direction: worse, he predicted.
“We are becoming increasingly vulnerable to threats to our space-based assets,” he stated. And as far as ground-based assets linking to space assets, there too “we are vulnerable,” he said.
All this is immensely significant, because so much of the U.S. economic activity, and that of its allies, has become dependent on space assets such as communications satellites, weather sats and more.
Transportation networks, the electrical power grid, water supply, gas and oil industries, emergency services, banking and finance and more are at stake here.
The United States government wouldn’t fail to protect these vital economic sectors on land, sea or air, and therefore, why should the United States fail to protect them in space? he demanded.
A fundamental right to enjoy the peaceful use of these assets is undeniable, a right the nation must defend, according to Joseph.
“The United States [must] defend our rights” in space, Joseph said. He noted that “the secretary of defense has been asked to develop a set of capabilities to defend our rights in space.”
He dismissed concerns by some that this represents a move by the Pentagon to weaponize the heavens, saying “I can’t discern an arms race in space.”
Joseph sees the use of the phrase “weaponization of space” as a move to skew an argument away from the facts, a move to strip the United States of its ability to act in space to defend itself and its assets.
“We don’t need a new arms control” regime in space, he said. Rather, the United States does need an ability to defend itself there.
In responding to a question, Joseph said the latest U.S. National Space Policy doesn’t direct the military to establish weapons in space. On the other hand, the new document doesn’t preclude such a move, he said.
The policy “does not preclude us from moving in that direction in future,” he said.
The space policy paper leaves that option open, he asserted.
Should others choose to trample on U.S. rights in space, then the nation has a full range of options to protect its space assets and other vital assets, he said.
According to Joseph, these defensive systems could include non-space back-ups, on-board sub-component redundancy, maneuvering, system hardening, encryption, and frequency agility.
He confirmed the oft-repeated truth that the United States is more dependent upon space than any other nation. While a cause for pride, that also means the U.S. economy is highly vulnerable, he noted
He recalled that a previous space commission reported that “the U.S. is an attractive candidate for a space Pearl Harbor,” because the political, military, and economic value of U.S. activities in space may provide the motive for an adversary to attack them.
“Ensuring the freedom of space and protecting our interests in this medium are priorities for U.S. national security and for the U.S. economy,” he stated.
While the United States is bent upon solely peaceful use of space, at the same time strategists must recognize that some other nations may not pursue such a peaceful path.
He made his presentation after North Korea this year fired a series of missiles, all but one successfully, and also detonated a nuclear weapon underground.
As well, China has ample ballistic missile capabilities. While China has said it is poised to invade Taiwan unless the island nation submits to rule by Beijing, the United States opposes any such violent move and has pledged to defend Taiwan in that event.
China recently “painted” a U.S. military satellite with a laser. And a Chinese submarine abruptly surfaced within torpedo range of a U.S. aircraft carrier.
Not all nations “can be relied upon to pursue exclusively peaceful goals in space,” Joseph noted.
“A number of countries are exploring and acquiring capabilities to counter, attack, and defeat U.S. space systems. In view of these growing threats, our space policy requires us to increase our ability to protect our critical space capabilities and to continue to protect our interests from being harmed through the hostile use of space.”
The United States cannot remain quiescent and do nothing in the face of this threat, he said.
“To achieve this end, the United States needs to remain at the forefront in space, technologically and operationally, as we have in the air, on land, and at sea,” Joseph urged. “Specifically, the United States must have the means to employ space assets as an integral part of its ability to manage crises, deter conflicts and, if deterrence fails, prevail in conflict.”
To be sure, Joseph attempted to avoid the image of the United States as a belligerent power weaponizing space or claiming space as U.S. territory.
“By maintaining the right of self-defense, the United States is not out to claim space for its own,” Joseph continued. “This is not about establishing a U.S. monopoly of space, as some have asserted. In fact, even a cursory reading of the new policy statement demonstrates the exact opposite. There is significant emphasis on international cooperation throughout the National Space Policy, and in other related policy directives on space transportation, commercial space imagery, space exploration and positioning, navigation and timing.”
According to him, the United States repeatedly has adopted a position of cooperation, not confrontation, in space.
“We are not transitioning away from broader international initiatives like the International Space Station,” he reasoned. “On the contrary, we are embracing them to a greater degree than ever before. One need only look at NASA for proof of this commitment. Through the ongoing assembly of the International Space Station, as well as through shuttle launches, NASA is continuing our long tradition of international cooperation.”
The space station, for example, will include modules from Europe and Japan, he continued. And crew members on the space station come from many nations.
Looking to the future, when NASA pursues its vision of manned missions to the moon, Mars and beyond, the American space agency “is encouraging other nations’ space agencies to join in this bold endeavor,” Joseph stressed. “This embracing of international partnerships reflects the U.S. policy of pursuing scientific, economic and international cooperation based on the participants’ capabilities, expertise and interest. This approach has led to a high degree of cooperation between NASA and its international partners, a result we view as very positive.”
At the same time, he sees nothing to be gained by new rules regarding the peaceful use of space.
“We see no value in proposals such as the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, commonly referred to as PAROS. Advocates of PAROS argue that we need another international agreement to prevent an arms race in space,” he said. But at this point, “there is no arms race in space and we see no signs of one emerging.”
While the United States “should focus on ensuring free access to space for peaceful purposes and deterring the misuse of space,” that doesn’t require “a new treaty regime,” he asserted.
Existing space treaties will suffice to provide rules for peaceful uses of the nether regions, he said.
The United States will continue to abide by the Outer Space Treaty and other conventions, he said. At the same time, “given the vital importance of our space assets, foreclosing technical options to defend those space assets in order to forestall a hypothetical future arms race in space, is not in the national security interest of the United States.”
“No nation, no non-state actor, should be under the illusion that the United States will tolerate a denial of our right to the use of space for peaceful purposes,” according to Joseph. “We reserve the right to defend ourselves against hostile attacks and interference with our space assets. We will, therefore, oppose others who wish to use their military capabilities to impede or deny our access to and use of space. We will seek the best capabilities to protect our space assets by active or passive means.”
Aside from defense capabilities, the State Department leader said the United States also will employ diplomacy in “efforts to gain the broadest possible appreciation of the benefits all nations gain from peaceful uses of outer space and we will be vigorous in our defense of this international right.”