From communications to global positioning to reconnaissance, satellites play an increasingly important role in human affairs, both civilian and governmental. U.S. officials say protecting U.S. military and intelligence satellites from possible enemy attack is of critical importance. The issue of how to safeguard American satellites is part of a larger debate on the role of weapons in space.
In early 2001, a report by the Commission To Assess U.S. National Security Space Management, headed by then-Defense Secretary nominee Donald Rumsfeld, urged the United States to "develop and deploy the means to deter and defend against hostile acts directed at U.S. space assets and against the uses of space hostile to U.S. interests."
Currently, U.S. policy prohibits the development of weapons that could strike enemy satellites or launch an attack on ground targets from space. But some military advisers are urging revision of the policy, especially when it comes to anti-satellite capability. High-ranking officers at U.S. Space Command, which falls under the Air Force, speak openly about the desirability of disabling enemy satellites in time of war.
A former official at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Michael Krepon, says satellites are hard to protect and easy to destroy. "Satellites are easy to kill because they typically go in very predictable orbits," he noted. "We know where to find them. And because the utility of these satellites tends to depend on incredibly precise and sensitive instruments, those instruments are very vulnerable."
But Mr. Krepon says it is because of satellites' vulnerability - and their critical importance to military and intelligence operations in Iraq and elsewhere - that the United States must work to prevent any nation from deploying anti-satellite weapons at all. He and other opponents of space weapons recently spoke at a Washington forum hosted by the Congressional Bi-Partisan Task Force on Non-Proliferation.
"We have to stop anybody from shooting [satellites] first," he says, "which means we have to refrain from shooting first." If the United States were to blow up an enemy satellite at the start of a conflict, Mr. Krepon says, the debris from that satellite could strike and damage other orbiting vessels, including U.S. satellites critical to American ground forces. He says space-faring countries must adopt a hands-off policy when it comes to other nations' satellites.
His call is seconded by Ambassador Thomas Graham, who served as President Clinton's Special Representative for Arms Control, as well as an adviser to the START-1 and START-2 negotiations between the United States and the former-Soviet Union. Mr. Graham says there is only one thing to do: ban all weapons in space, both offensive and defensive. "Pursuing an international treaty would be seen as an important move by the United States toward the enhancement of the international rule of law," he says.
But some disagree. Steven Lambakis, a senior defense analyst at the Washington area-based National Institute for Public Policy, says it is a mistake to think that other nations would forego developing space weapons simply because the United States declines to do so.
"I would not [accept] the arms control dogma that 'if we do something, they are going to do something,' because I think there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the United States does not have to do a thing in order for other countries to build up weapons," says Mr. Lambakis. "In fact, at this point other countries are looking at different technologies to defeat us in an area where we are vulnerable."
Speaking with VOA earlier this year, the vice-commander of U.S. Space Command, Lieutenant General Daniel Leaf, said it is possible to disrupt an enemy satellite without destroying it and creating a debris field in the heavens. But he was clear on the overall mission, saying, Space Command seeks to deny an adversary access to space, adding that the objective "only makes sense."
Steven Lambakis agrees. "Space control is a valid mission area," he says. "If a country had a reconnaissance satellite, [the United States] might want to be able to disable it. We might not want to be in a position where our troop movements and so forth can be viewed from above, and so I think it is prudent to have such capabilities."
Thomas Graham counters that any U.S. ability to disable other nations' satellite-based reconnaissance and early warning systems is destabilizing and could hasten, rather than deter, nuclear conflict. "Space-based anti-ballistic missile systems would make these systems [satellites] more vulnerable," he says. "But more importantly, the threat perception would be higher. The weapons in space would be perceived as being more threatening to their early warning systems and could make strategic nuclear trigger fingers in Russia more itchy [more likely to launch a pre-emptive strike]. Why should we want to do that?"
The debate has caught the attention of Congress. Democratic Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts told VOA he is deeply troubled by efforts to promote weapons in space, and that the issue merits full and open debate.