Academic journal article Naval War College Review

SPACE-BASED WEAPONS: Long-Term Strategic Implications and Alternatives

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

SPACE-BASED WEAPONS: Long-Term Strategic Implications and Alternatives

Article excerpt

The U.S. Air Force Transformation Flight Plan released in November 2003 reinvigorated the debate on the issue of space weaponization. Taking a "snapshot in time" of that service's ongoing and future transformation efforts, the Transformation Flight Plan lays out current programs, advanced concept technology demonstrations, and "future system concepts."1 Many of the systems described can be interpreted as a significant move by the United States toward weaponization of space. As Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) pointed out during a recent hearing of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, "putting weapons either offensive or defensive into space is a major policy decision."2 This decision will require thorough discussion and analysis to ensure that American system deployments not only provide the short-term benefits promised by service advocates but contribute to increased security in the long term.

This article addresses one component of the debate on whether or not to weaponize space. Specifically, it looks at whether a decision to base weapons in space would produce a net, long-term increase in relative military capability for the United States or serve to reduce its current military dominance. It defines "space-based weapon" as a system placed in orbit or deep space that is designed "for destroying, damaging, rendering inoperable, or changing the flight trajectory of space objects, or for damaging objects in the atmosphere or on the ground."3

U.S. Air Force Transformation Flight Plan has several program concepts that include space-basing of weapons. The Evolutionary Air and Space Global Laser Engagement (EAGLE) concept will use "airborne, terrestrial, or space-based lasers in conjunction with space-based relay mirrors to project different laser powers and frequencies to achieve a broad range of effects from illumination to destruction."4 Another, the Space-Based Radio Frequency Energy Weapon, will "be a constellation of satellites containing high-power radio-frequency transmitters that possess the capability to disrupt/destroy/disable a wide variety of electronics and national-level command and control systems... typically... used as a non-kinetic anti-satellite weapon."5 A third, "hypervelocity rod bundles," would "provide the capability to strike ground targets anywhere in the world from space." While other system concepts and programs Flight Plan describes are less specific on the point, there seems little doubt that space-basing of weapons is an accepted aspect of the Air Force transformation planning. Now, therefore, is the time to analyze the advantages and disadvantages of basing weapons in spacein the end, either endorsing or recommending revision to this space-basing assumption.

In the event, this analysis indicates that space-based weapons, though in the short term increasing military capabilities, are in the long term very likely to have a negative effect on the national security of the United States. Specifically, I will argue, the vulnerabilities of space-based systems would largely negate their projected advantages. Further, potential enemies would react to U.S. deployments, either avoiding their effects or, more ominously, space-basing weapons of their own. These deployments would fundamentally reduce the current relative advantages the United States enjoys in conventional forces and strategic depth-reducing the time and distance in which effective defenses must be created. Arguments for the necessity of space-basing weapons are politically untenable, based on false assumptions, or narrowly focused on space-centric concepts that fail to integrate and take full advantage of capabilities of terrestrially based forces. Finally, I will propose a balanced policy and strategy that should optimize maintenance of relative advantages while hedging against uncooperative adversaries.


Space is frequently referred to as the "ultimate high ground. …

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