The United States Requirements for an Antisatellite (ASAT) Capability

By Mowthorpe, Matthew | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The United States Requirements for an Antisatellite (ASAT) Capability


Mowthorpe, Matthew, The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


This article examines the United States policy towards acquiring antisatellite weapons. It seeks to examine why the United States deemed it necessary to develop antisatellite weapons and indeed poses the question is the United States nearer to acquiring an ASAT now. Initially it analyses the philosophy which believed that ASAT weapons had a destabilising effect on the United States' relationship with the Soviet Union. The article then addresses the successive administration's policies towards ASAT weapons and discusses the technological systems. Towards the latter period of the Cold War in the late 1970s ASAT arms control measures began to be debated. It is beyond the scope of the article to address all of the ASAT negotiations, so the focus of this section is on the period when ASAT limitations were at their closest. With the end of the Cold War the ASAT issue has not gone away, indeed the issue has risen to the fore, especially in the light of the US policy which seeks to control space. The final section addresses the US approach to this. This is the salience for ASAT discussions to date, in that appears that the development of a space control policy is driving the requirement for an ASAT capability and such a capability could be closer now than at any time before.

Key Words: Space weapons, military space, antisatellite weapons, space control, antisatellite treaty, space policy, space warfare

While space itself is relatively remote from human conflict, certain kinds of satellite could have a potentially decisive impact on the outcome of conflicts on earth. Both sides recognise this fact. In peacetime, their satellites operate freely. But each side maintains some capability to interfere with or attack satellites that-given the outbreak of war-might threaten to reveal the location, size or readiness of their terrestrial or maritime forces.2

Antisatellite weapons are deemed to have a similar impact on strategic stability as ballistic missile defence, in that they are seen as destabilising. ASAT weapons threaten the satellites which are said to enhance stategic stability namely early warning satellites, communication satellites and photoreconaissance satellites. Early warning satellites are vital to strategic stability in that they provide warning of an impending attack, especially in a nuclear context. In a nuclear arena the warning time is of essence to strategic stability in that it prevents one side achieving a surprise first strike attack on the other side's two retalliatory nuclear assets namely ICBMS and nuclear equipped aircraft. An ASAT capability targetting early warning satellites is seen as extremely destabilising in that it undermines a central essence of nuclear deterrence, namely that a suprise attack is unachievable. Also, the targetting of photoreconnaissance satellites which are important in the context of arms control verification, undermines the stability of the international security environment which arms control can provide. It is for these reasons that ASAT weapons are deemed to be destabilising in an international security context.

The United States ASAT Programmes During the Cold War

The Eisenhower Administration's position towards the development of an anti-satellite system was founded on the belief that the United States was more reliant on reconnaissance information provided by satellites than the Soviet Union and subsequently did not want to initiate anything which could jeopardise that. Indeed, the following quote from Herbert York the former Director of Defence Research and Engineering, encapsulates this belief:

The President himself, in recognition of the fact that we didn't want anybody else interfering with our satellites, limited [one ASAT] programme to study only status and ordered that no publicity be given either the idea or the study of it.4

Implicit within this belief is that the United States by forgoing the development of an ASAT capability would have a subsequent effect on the Soviet Union's own desire to have such a system. …

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