ashland.news
July 24, 2024

Relocations: Sure, let’s talk about ASATs

space laser
An artist's concept of what a space laser satellite defense system could look like. U.S. Air Force image via Wikimedia Commons
February 22, 2024

Russia’s anti-satellite nuclear weapon program popped up as a news item and disappeared just as quickly

By Herbert Rothschild

On Feb. 15, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner publicly called on President Joe Biden to declassify information related to an alleged national security threat. This followed a closed-door briefing of his committee on what, thanks to Turner’s ploy, the White House revealed the next day to be Russia’s capability of placing an anti-satellite (ASAT) nuclear weapon in space. However, at the news conference National Security spokesperson John Kirby said, “First, this is not an active capability that’s been deployed, and though Russia’s pursuit of this particular capability is troubling, there is no immediate threat to anyone’s safety.”

Ashland.news-Secretary-Herbert-Rothschild
Herbert Rothschild

The news story didn’t “have legs.” It’s not likely that we’ll hear any more about it. First, there was no startling new development in Russia’s program, which we’ve been monitoring continuously. Second, Turner’s motive probably had nothing to do with ASATs, but instead was his attempt, in which the White House may have been complicit, to get the House to extend authorization of warrantless surveillance of American citizens under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which expires in April. The vote had been scheduled for the following week. Some of the House Republicans who are opposed to extending the FISA provision were openly angry with Turner. Faced with still more disarray in his caucus, House Speaker Mike Johnson canceled the vote.

But that’s a story for another time. Now I want to pursue the subject of ASAT technology, because the militarization of space is a growing threat. An indication of how much emphasis the Pentagon is putting on space as the last military frontier was President Donald Trump’s elevation in 2019 of the U.S. Space Command to a fourth branch of our armed services. It was renamed the U.S. Space Force.  

According to the Space Force website, we had no choice but to make this big commitment to the militarization of space. At a news conference in 2020, then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that while nations have been in space for a long time, “It’s just been recently that both China and Russia pushed us to the point where it now became a warfighting domain.” (Do you ever wonder if people like Esper believe their own bull—-?)

Sci-fi movies have accustomed us to think of weapons in space. It’s true that when President Ronald Reagan promoted his Strategic Defense Initiative to intercept incoming long-range ballistic missiles and win a nuclear war, schemes for space-based nuclear and laser weapons abounded. Nothing came of all that except enormous outlays. Thankfully, Reagan did an about-face and initiated the beginning of the end of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race.

Doubtless, such weapons remain on the drawing boards. For now, though, space is used for two military purposes. One is intelligence gathering. The other is command, control and communications (C3) of ground warfare. Satellites are essential to both activities.

Intelligence helps all parties avoid an outbreak of nuclear war, either intentional or accidental. Its value was so apparent that when President George H.W. Bush proposed the Open Skies agreement in 1989, which allowed aircraft surveillance under strict protocols, it was accepted by all NATO and Warsaw Pact countries and went into force in 1992. Trump pulled us out of the treaty in 2020, followed shortly thereafter by Russia. But satellites have made that agreement less important, and there is no reason to threaten them unless a country is preparing to launch a nuclear first strike. Attacking an opponent’s satellites would be tantamount to starting the war, however, so it would yield no appreciable advantage.

Attacking satellites to degrade another nation’s C3 capabilities makes sense only if your nation is already at war with it. Both Russia and Ukraine have used various methods, primarily cyberattacks and jamming GPS signals. The Center for Strategic and International Studies discussed those activities extensively in its 2023 Space Threat Assessment.

That report also explains the several ways a country might attempt to destroy satellites. It’s not easy to hit one satellite, much less many simultaneously, from ground launch. The odds improve if a nuclear weapon is exploded in the vicinity of the satellite. The U.S. explored that technique with a number of tests before the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty ended nuclear explosions in space as well as on sea and above ground. The largest of those tests (it involved a 1.4-megaton bomb) was conducted July 9, 1962, above the Pacific Ocean. Named Starfish Prime, it created an electromagnetic pulse so huge that it blew out 300 streetlights and interrupted telephone service in Hawaii hundreds of miles away. Over time, the lingering radiation belts the test created knocked out six satellites.

Much more recently, four countries — the U.S., Russia, China and India — have destroyed their own satellites in ASAT tests. The U.S. last did so in 2008, a malfunctioning reconnaissance satellite. These explosions cause a lot of debris. A Russian test in November 2021 created a debris field that threatened the International Space Station. It’s likely that even absent a formal international agreement, such ASAT tests will be halted for fear of endangering the global network of both civilian and military satellites. In 2022, Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the U.S. will stop.

Doubtless, Russia will continue to work on its ASAT capability, as will we. We know a great deal about its various programs, none of which include stationing a nuclear weapon in space, which would violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and offer only the modest advantage of making it easier to destroy a single satellite right away.

What this all amounts to, I think, is another indication that we made a serious mistake of resetting the U.S.-Russia relationship as an adversarial one after the dissolution of the Soviet Union gave us a wonderful opportunity for lasting peace. Despite the war in Ukraine, it’s desirable — and still possible — to avoid reigniting a nuclear arms race, which can benefit no one but the military industrial complex.

Herbert Rothschild’s columns appear on Friday in Ashland.news. Opinions expressed in them represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at herbertrothschild6839@gmail.com.

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Jim


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