False Alarm on Foreign Capabilities

By Lewis, Jeffrey | Arms Control Today, November 2004 | Go to article overview
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False Alarm on Foreign Capabilities


Lewis, Jeffrey, Arms Control Today


The Commission to Assess U.S. National security Space Management and Organization, which Donald Rumsfeld chaired until his nomination as secretary of Defense, warned of a coming "Space Pearl Harbor."1 During congressional testimony in 2002, Rumsfeld repeated the warning:

Consider for a moment the chaos that would ensue if an aggressor succeeded in striking our satellite networks: cell phones would go dead; ATM cards would stop functioning; electronic commerce would sputter to a halt; air traffic control systems would go offline, grounding planes and blinding those in the air. U.S. troops would see their communications jammed; their precision strike weapons would stop working.2

"Today," Rumsfeld allowed, "no nation has the capability to wreak such havoc." He added, however, that the United States "must make sure no one can. Our goal is not to bring war into space, but rather defend against those who would."3

Who would? Some countries, particularly China and Russia, might have the capability to develop counterspace capabilities that would disable U.S. command, control, and intelligence systems based in space. They have not yet made that choice, however. Their decisions will depend in large measure on whether U.S. policymakers have the wisdom to forgo similar efforts; the United States is the only country currently developing counterspace systems (see page 12).

Rumsfeld claims that "adversaries are likely to develop ground-based lasers, space jamming, and 'killer' microsatellites to attack U.S. space assets," but this alarmist judgment is not based on the available evidence. Indeed, a fair reading of unclassified intelligence estimates and the Pentagon's own official statements suggest countries are not investing the time, money, and energy needed for such efforts.

Ground-Based Lasers

The Pentagon does not claim that it has evidence that any operational anti-satellite (ASAT) lasers have been deployed overseas or that a laser weapon has ever been used to destroy an orbiting satellite.4 Department of Defense officials do assert that working prototypes have "reportedly" engaged ground targets.

The "working prototype" in question is probably a reference to the Soviet-era Sary Shagan facility in Kazakhstan, which Russia continues to use to test anti-ballistic missile capabilities.5 Although 1980s-era editions of the Defense Department's Soviet Military Power speculated that the laser "may have sufficient power to damage some unprotected satellites in near-earth orbits," that conclusion was undermined by a visit of a team of researchers to the facility in 1989.6

China is sometimes said to be developing ground-based lasers that can be used to damage satellites, but the Defense Department, according to the most recent edition of its Chinese Military Power, has not found any facilities in China.7

Space Jamming

"Jamming" is the transmission of signals that interfere with the operation of a satellite or its payload.8 The Rumsfeld Commission cited "Indonesia jamming a transponder on a Chinese-owned satellite and Iran and Turkey jamming satellite TV broadcasts of dissidents" as recent examples.9 A closer look at the details of these cases reveals some general information about the overall sophistication of foreign jamming capabilities.

In the case of the dispute between Indonesia and China, APT Satellite of China reported "limited interference" with its Apstar-lA satellite from another satellite in a nearby orbital slot, operating on the same frequency.10 Although the commission calls the interference "jamming," the interference resulted from satellites operating too close together because the countries disputed ownership of the orbital slot. The dispute was eventually resolved peacefully.

Turkey and Iran have jammed satellite broadcasts by dissident groups. A Kurdish television station claimed the Turkish government jammed its broadcasts; Iran, operating from the Iranian Embassy in Havana, jammed a dissident radio station.

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