Satellites and Seriousness

By Angelo M. Codevilla

Reprinted by permission from The American Spectator, April 2007

  Reactions to China’s January 11 test of a direct ascent anti-satellite weapon have not been commensurate with the prospect that the US military will have to fight the next war without assurance that its satellites will work. It is impossible to overstate our military’s dependence on satellites, or how little technology is required to destroy them. Acquiring our own anti-satellite weapons , while good in itself, can do precisely nothing to protect our own satellites. While defending satellites is more challenging than destroying them, the technology for doing it is very much in hand. Our foreign policy and defense establishment’s failure to take seriously the defense of our satellites is yet more evidence of its unseriousness.

  The New York Times and the left took China’s test as another occasion to call on the US to lead the way to a treaty banning all anti-satellite weapons. Such a treaty would be a narcotic that would render us insensible to two realities.

  First, it is impossible to define what an anti-satellite weapon is, because so many things can destroy satellites. The technology for the job was first proved in 1960, almost a half century ago, when the US performed the first orbital rendezvous. That means that any time anyone launches any satellite into orbit, he can put a bomb on it and program it to end up right next to any other satellite. That so-called “co-orbital ASAT” was a staple of the Soviet arsenal and continues in the Russian. Any of the dozen space-faring nations can prepare co-orbital attacks without being detected. “Direct ascent,” meaning sending a bomb-tipped missile to meet a satellite at some point in its orbit, requires a little more precision. But not much. The US did ASAT in the 1980s by launching “direct ascent” rockets from F-15 fighters. That was a wastefully hard way to do a simple job. Then there are ground-based lasers, which can place just enough energy on satellites passing overhead to overload their sensitive instruments. Such weapons have to wait until the earth’s rotation and the satellites’ orbit, and clear weather coincide. But they are easy to build. Even Saddam Hussein had one.

  So the first reality is that anyone who wants one can have an ASAT while calling it something else. The second, of course, is that even if a treaty could be written intelligently and detection and detection of violations were certain, the US establishment is as allergic as ever to the challenge posed by Fred Ikle’s 1961 Foreign Affairs article, “After Detection, What?” Its historic answer has been, “Sign another treaty.” Were we to follow the left’s advice, the next time America went to war with a space-faring nation our Armed Forces would find themselves without the service of the satellites on which they have come to rely.

  Let there be no doubt: For the US Armed Forces, satellites are not just nice to have. Nor do they just make the difference between victory and defeat. No. They make the difference between being able to operate and not being able to operate. Take one example. Only a short generation ago (when yours truly was in uniform), all naval officers and some enlisted men were trained to fix ships’ positions by the sun and the stars, and to plot courses with parallel rulers  and slide rules. Nowadays, they do these essential tasks ever so much better with the help of Global Positioning satellites. But they would not know what to do with the old tools, if they had them. Take away GPS, and they are up the proverbial creek.

  Almost the same goes for ground and air forces. Nowadays, their instruments, fed by satellite data, allow them to hit their targets by shooting just a few rounds or missiles. Once upon a time, before satellite data made everything accurate, many more planes and tanks would have had to shoot much more than that. But today’s forces are not as numerous as yesterday’s and don’t have as much ammunition as yesterday’s. Take away the satellites, and their weapons and tactics make no sense. That is why anyone who cares for the lives of Americans in uniform, never mind their success, has no choice but to care a lot about our satellites.

  Rightly but insufficiently, the Wall Street Journal and the right reacted to China’s reminder of the reality of ASAT weapons by insisting that America get its own. Sure, because China among others has its own network of orbital eyes and ears, which its military would rather not lose, there is every reason for the US to shut them down in case of war. But because America is more dependent on satellites than any other country, any enemy is sure to gain far more from destroying our satellites than we are from destroying his. That is why any serious enemy will attack our satellites and why any serious American must want to defend them.

  In the past, such defense of satellites as we have had has been wholly passive. Because satellites are inherently fragile, we have toughened their skins a bit, secured their electronic links, and in some cases provided things analogous to circuit breakers to guard against weak ground-based lasers. Because orbital locations are predictable, we have made a few of our satellites more difficult to detect through stealth technology. But we can no more make them invisible than we can make tanks out of them. Hence defense must be active: Something has to shoot down whatever is shot at them.

   Theoretically, there are two ways of doing this. But providing each satellite with an armed escort (or endowing each with the capacity to shoot at whatever comes too close) is impractical. The sole practical way of enforcing “keep out zones” around satellites analogous to the safety zones that warships secure for themselves is to place the equivalent of guard stations into the several orbital planes that our satellites occupy, in sufficient numbers and with sufficient range, to control access to the satellites in those orbits.

  Fortunately, we do not have to invent such things. The pieces have existed for some two decades, and a working system that embodies them (though configured for a different purpose) exists at White Sands proving ground, New Mexico. It is called Theater High Energy Laser (THEL), being reworked and renamed SKYGUARD for deployment in Israel to shoot down Katyusha rockets. The laser shines megawatts of infra-red light through a rapidly retargetable beam director. It’s quite a sight. What you would not know, unless you asked, is that this ground-based device is really an adaptation of a much simpler one originally designed for use in orbital space. Indeed, THEL’s biggest part, the laser’s vacuum exhaust, is there to simulate the outer space conditions for which it was designed and in which it works best. Originally designed in the early 1980s and perfected in the 1990s, this device was intended to shoot down ballistic missiles just as they are rising out of the atmosphere. Only after politics thwarted using it for this purpose did the Space Based Laser (SBL) add the complexities that made it into THEL, able to operate on the ground. Hence reconfiguring a version of THEL for use in space is not a technical challenge.

    Arguments about how effective the SBL would be against missiles revolved around how tough, how resistant, the missiles might or might not be. But there was never any argument about what a megawatt-class laser firing from space, through space, would do to a satellite target, or to the terminal guidance system of anything aiming for a satellite. In short, it was and is beyond dispute that the SBL is the gold standard of weapons for controlling outer space. Simply, there is no alternative to the SBL for safeguarding US satellites.

  Satellites are widely separated in certain orbital planes. But their relationship with one another is entirely predictable. Hence it is possible to know precisely which satellites will be in any sector of space at any given time. Knowing how much power our SBLs generate, it becomes straightforward to calculate how large a sector of space any one of them could control, and to program into each what object it may be in charge of guarding at any given time. Enforcing “keep out zones” around things that belong to us is not a problem in international law. It is worth noting, however, that SBLs would also give any country that possessed them the option of allowing or disallowing any country’s launch of any given object into space.

  Any other possible uses of SBLs notwithstanding, the fact remains that active defense of satellites is a touchstone of military seriousness. Any claimant to seriousness who might oppose building SBLs for satellite defense had better come up with a good alternative. Quick.

Reprinted by permission from The American Spectator, April 2007