Friday, October 20, 2006

Some people call him a space cowboy

Olaf on Bush's plan to militarize space:
I mean, I'm no space expert (which is evidenced by the fact that I don't even know what a space expert is called), but I'm pretty sure outer space is huge, and therefore not easily patrolled. To make things more difficult, it also extends in all directions.
It's actually relatively simple. The militarily-important satellites the US government uses daily are in predictable orbits around the Earth, which (all things considered) limits the space we're talking about considerably. A satellite in orbit 20,000 kilometers up is rather high up there, but it's not that far, all things considered.

There are only a few ways for America to conceivably "dominate space", if we mean the denial of space to non-friendly nations - either with ground-based weaponry designed to shoot down other countries' assets, or (more speculatively) with actual orbiting weaponry. The orbital weaponry - despite the expense - at least as the option of possibly being deniable: a satellite that "mysteriously" blows up while orbiting the Pacific might not be credited to the Americans. Ground based weaponry by defintion leaves a trail.

The problem for the US is that it is shockingly easy to destroy an orbiting satellite in retaliation. Their orbits are predictable, and most are easily tracked. (Almost by definition, the dangerous satellites are the ones whose orbits are above you, where they can see you and you can see them.) A modestly determined opponent could put together an anti-satellite weapon, as both the US and USSR did during the Cold War. Think what was doable for the Soviets 30 years ago is beyond the Chinese, the Indians, or for that matter the Brazilians today?

(There are obvious exceptions - GPS satellites are much too high above the Earth for the kind of near-term land-based ASAT weapon that a middle power is likely to build. A high-power laser, on the other hand...)

The point is, if America is seriously going to start threatening other people's space assets, they need to be prepared for others to do the same in short order. But unless America is willing to shoot down other people's satellites, or otherwise render them inoperable, it's difficult to think of what Washington could conceivably do.

More questionable is the entire idea that America has some kind of incomparable, irreplaceable advantage in space. America's space assets are highly impressive, but these are technologies that can be, and are, applied in other areas such as aircraft. (Witness the rise of unmanned aerial vehicles, with arguably higher battlefield value than satellites.) The actual role of space as a dimension of warfare - such as land, air, and sea conventionally - is so far uncertain. (Not saying there isn't a real oneThe biggest - and most important - exception is the role of global telecommunications in the military (low-frequency communications satellites are used to call submarines, etc.) But it's not news to say that America is opposed to people interfering with it's communications.

None of this negates the fact that, in a hypothetical war with the US over Taiwan, I imagine China would start trying to plink US satellites. Of course, China would also be trying to sink US carrier groups, which any sensible leader would see as a far more important threat.


Stephen said...


Destruction of the orbiting space asset isn't the only means of 'denial,' though it is the most extreme.

US military doctrine, reflected in documents like the USAF's 2004 Counterspace Doctrine, contemplates temporary and reversible means of 'denial' as well. Ground-based laser weapons could blind or dazzle an optical surveillance satellite (some in the US have accused China of trying to do this recently), or sophisticated 'hacking' could interfere with a satellite's computer system.

Of course, as you say, satellite orbits are predictable, and one could destroy a satellite fairly easily, with a ground- or air-launched missile (or possibly with another satellite), but one could also simply bomb the ground-station receiving satellite signals: 'denial' achieved.

At the more banal end, there are legislative, regulatory and even commercial means of 'denial.' For instance, many national militaries rely on commercially available satellite imagery provided by instruments like Canada's own RADARSAT. Legislation like last year's Bill C-25 allows for governmental or military exercise of 'shutter control' to prevent the satellite's imagery from reaching the hands of a potential opponent in a time of crisis.

Under C-25, a cabinet minister could order RADARSAT to stop providing imagery to a potential foe, or to give priority access to Canada or its ally.

During the Afghanistan invasion, the United States engaged in effective 'shutter control' by simply buying up exclusive rights to large amounts of commercially available satellite imagery. The real intent there was apparently to prevent news outlets from getting the imagery first-hand, but the tactic could be applied to 'deny' an opponent access to the space-based asset on which they had hoped to rely.

The new US policy, which entrenches tendencies seen in other documents for some years now, does contain a paradox in that insists on absolute US freedom of action in space, while also implying that other states enjoy no such rights: they can be 'denied' if the US sees fit.

The reason for entrenching this policy of 'space dominance' or 'space supremacy' is simple: modern wars can't be fought without space assets. Satellites guide bombs to targets, relay instructions to UAVs, allow commanders to talk to soldiers in the field or 'reach back' to assets based outside the theatre of conflict, etc. etc.

It's not just the US, of course: Canada's Cf-18s are being upgraded to carry satellite-guided JDAM bombs, while our soldiers currently in Afghanistan are firing howizters with GPS-guided munitions. Space is becoming ever more heavily militarized, and as militaries become more dependent, they also become more vulnerable: hence the US policy.

There's a good analysis of the policy here, by Theresa Hitchens.

john said...

Thanks for the excellent insights. While I understand the critical nature of satellites in modern war, and the US desire to defend those assets, I was trying, in the post, to express my confusion as to why this space policy, and why now.

The kind of countries that America can use conventional "shutter control" (nice phrase, hadn't heard it before) are not, by and large, the same countries that the US would require total space dominance over to defeat. Even if the Taliban had access to commercial imagery, it's inconceivable that they would have prevented the US from achieving its objectives in 2001.

This space policy, therefore, seems aimed at theoretical peer competitors like China or Russia, not Iran or North Korea.

The other reason I focused on asset destruction, as opposed to other means of space denial, is the assumption that if all other means fail a state is going to want to be able to physically destroy the satellite - arguably easier (if you've got the capability) than destroying the ground station, which is potentially deep in enemy territory. But thank you for expanding on the other, non-destructive means.

Plus, it's cooler than the other means. What?