In 1978, Adm. Stansfield Turner, then the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, said that the “Russians can kill us in space.” Turner was referring to the Soviet Union’s kinetic anti-satellite weapons program. In other words, the Soviet military could shoot down U.S. satellites in orbit with missiles. Today, there are even more sophisticated threats to U.S. and allied space systems, and Washington should decide how to respond.
The United States began viewing space as a contested domain in the early 1960s. Due to the Soviet threat, the Pentagon developed kinetic space weapons programs like the F-15-launched Miniature Homing Vehicle. The space operating environment has changed since the end of the Cold War. There are considerably more spacefaring nations and some of these actors (e.g., China and Russia) have increasingly capable anti-satellite weapons. Additionally, the global economy now depends on the safe use of space.
Washington should not, however, reinvigorate its former kinetic space weapons programs to address the threats to its satellites. The use of kinetic space weapons during a conflict would create an enormous amount of debris that would harm the space systems that the United States needs for precision targeting, early warning, navigation, communications, and other critical functions. Charles Powell has persuasively argued that debris, which can remain in orbit for years, is one of the most serious threats to satellites.
Not all space weapons are created equal. The U.S. military should focus on the development of non-kinetic systems that can disarm adversary satellites without physically destroying them. If the United States must “hit back” due to an attack on space systems, it can do so using non-kinetic capabilities (e.g., electronic warfare or cyber) or a kinetic response in another domain. Targeting command and control facilities on the ground using kinetic and non-kinetic weapons could negate adversary space capabilities without creating debris that would threaten American, allied, and neutral space systems. To prevent the creation of even more debris, Washington should also work with other spacefaring nations to establish a moratorium on testing kinetic weapons against objects in space.
U.S. Space Weapons Programs in the Cold War
During the Cold War, the United States was torn between competing priorities related to space remaining a sanctuary and developing anti-satellite weapons. Some policymakers wanted to keep space safe for reconnaissance, in addition to non-military purposes. Other officials, however, wanted to be able to shoot down Soviet military satellites. Less than six months after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, the National Security Council adopted NSC 5802/1, which called for vigorous research into anti-satellite systems. In October 1959, the United States conducted its first successful anti-satellite weapons test. The missile came within four nautical miles of a U.S. Explorer satellite, which was deemed close enough to have demonstrated sufficient accuracy. In a conflict, the missile would have utilized a nuclear warhead, creating an enormous amount of debris.
President John F. Kennedy was convinced that the United States needed to be able to deter aggression against U.S. national security satellites. In May 1961, Kennedy instructed Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to develop an anti-satellite program “at the earliest practicable time.” McNamara approved Program 437, which used a nuclear-tipped Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile launched from Johnson Atoll in the Pacific to target satellites in low-earth orbit. In 1964, it achieved initial operating capability. The program, however, was not without problems. It had difficulty accurately targeting space objects, and Soviet advancements in anti-satellite technologies prompted the Air Force to request funds for an upgraded space weapons system.
In the 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union began using intelligence satellites to support tactical military operations, which made satellites even more important targets in wartime. In 1971, the Soviet military formally accepted into operations its istrebitel sputnikov (“satellite killer”) system. President Gerald Ford responded by signing National Security Decision Memorandum 345. This directive established a new U.S. anti-satellite system capable of destroying Soviet radar satellites that were used to target NATO naval forces. President Jimmy Carter authorized the Pentagon to test U.S. anti-satellite systems against objects in space.
The Reagan administration also believed in the necessity of space weapons. In March 1983, the president announced what would become the Strategic Defense Initiative, a missile defense program with land-, sea-, and space-based components. While the U.S. government did not officially identify the Strategic Defense Initiative as an offensive space control capability (i.e., a system for destroying adversary space systems), declassified documents reveal that senior U.S. officials recognized that it could be used as such. The United States established Space Command, which oversaw all U.S. military space activity, in 1985. President Ronald Reagan also directed the secretary of defense to develop options “regarding the continuation of the U.S. ASAT [anti-satellite] program.” The Cold War came to an end before concerns about conflict in space were transformed into a reality.
Post-Cold War Space Weaponization
Shortly before the Cold War ended, former Secretary of the Air Force Edward Aldridge, Jr., stated that “spacepower will be as decisive in future combat as airpower is today.” Concerns about space security remained after the Soviet Union collapsed. The U.S. Army, for example, maintained its kinetic energy anti-satellite program well into the early 2000s.
The increasing number of space actors, both benign and potentially hostile, coupled with America’s reliance on space systems, have once again made the vulnerability of national security space systems a central source of anxiety for U.S. officials. Additionally, the space economy is now valued at over $400 billion, raising the stakes of war in space. Doug Loverro, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space, said in 2015 that “we can no longer view space as a sanctuary.” In reality, space has not been a true sanctuary since the 1960s. The notion of congested and contested space has only surfaced as a public issue in the last decade or so.
A watershed moment in perceptions about space and national security came in 2007, when China conducted an anti-satellite test in low-earth orbit that created over 3,000 pieces of debris. This was China’s first-ever weapons test involving the destruction of an object in space. A little over one year later, the United States used an Aegis SM-3 missile to destroy a malfunctioning U.S. satellite. The missile impacted the satellite shortly before it reentered the earth’s atmosphere, generating far less debris than the Chinese test.
The Russian government has tested its ground-launched anti-satellite system at least nine times, including a test earlier this year. While the U.S. government and its allies have expressed serious concern over Russian anti-satellite developments, Moscow has refrained from conducting tests that create debris. New Delhi conducted an anti-satellite test in 2019 that destroyed an Indian satellite in low-earth orbit. While the impact generated debris, it was not nearly as significant as Beijing’s 2007 test.
Security analysts believe that Iran could develop a rudimentary anti-satellite system in the near future, and Israeli experts have stated that their Arrow missile defense system could be adapted for an anti-satellite role. While developing kinetic space weapons remains a considerable technical and engineering challenge, they are no longer confined to a small circle of superpowers.
Shortly after the establishment of the U.S. Space Force in December 2019, senior leaders in the new service began to argue for being ready to “fight for space superiority.” The Defense Space Strategy, published last month by the Trump administration, identifies maintaining space superiority as a primary objective of American space policy. It also highlights the need to “deter and defeat adversary hostile use of space.” The document identifies objectives but provides no clear strategy for achieving them. While no senior U.S. officials have endorsed the development of kinetic space weapons, they have yet to close the door on that possibility. Additionally, former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said that “there may come a point where we demonstrate some capabilities so that our adversaries understand that they will not be able to deny us the use of space without consequences.” She did not, however, specify what these capabilities might be. To obtain its stated goals, the United States should focus on the further development of non-kinetic counter-space weapons that have reversible effects. This would include electronic warfare and, potentially, cyber capabilities.
During the Cold War, American and Soviet national security officials sought to match any new capability developed by their adversary. This was certainly the case with space weapons. The United States wanted to be able to neutralize hostile satellites that supported terrestrial military operations. Even though there was growing concern beginning in the 1960s about Soviet anti-satellite weapons, not everyone in the U.S. government agreed that kinetic space weapons were a useful tool. Amrom Katz, who was involved in the early U.S. space reconnaissance program, penned a memorandum in 1972 that argued the Soviets would not use anti-satellite weapons because the consequences would be too grave.
Washington has certainly contributed to the weaponization of space. It is not surprising that Beijing and Moscow view actions like Operation Burnt Frost as a continuation of Cold War-era space weapons programs. The kinetic space weapons genie cannot be put back into the bottle. But the United States can and should refrain from falling back into a Cold War space mentality by focusing only on developing non-kinetic space weapons.
Since the end of the Cold War, debris has become the main enemy of national security and civilian space operations. A war that extends into outer space and involves the use of kinetic weapons would create devastating damage and long-term effects for national security and the economy. In this situation, no one can truly win a space war. Only a pyrrhic victory would be possible, at best.
Space security analysts have warned about the potential vulnerability of satellites to cyber attacks and electronic warfare. Hackers could take control of satellites, deny access to their services, and spoof satellites’ signals (e.g., broadcasting fake GPS signals that are disguised as real ones). In a crisis, the United States should actively exploit these vulnerabilities to deny adversaries access to their military space assets.
The United States should be able to prevent China and Russia from using their space-based capabilities without transforming them into hazards that could impede American, allied, and commercial space operations. Using non-kinetic space weapons has long been on the minds of senior national security officials. When Ford authorized the development of a new kinetic anti-satellite system in 1977, he also called for “a non-nuclear anti-satellite capability, including means for electronic nullification.” Today, the emphasis should only be non-kinetic weapons with reversible effects.
Most importantly, the objectives of the Defense Space Strategy can be achieved through the use of non-kinetic space weapons like the Space Force’s counter communications system. Instead of destroying communications satellites, they can be jammed. Rather than developing weapons to completely eliminate adversary intelligence satellites, the United States can invest in directed energy weapons that could “blind” them.
In a conflict, the United States could respond to an attack on a satellite in another domain of operation. American air, maritime, and land forces could target command and control infrastructure on the ground that supports adversary space systems. This would be escalatory because it would involve destroying facilities located on enemy territory and possibly include loss of life. However, this approach would deny access to space without permanently destroying satellites in orbit.
Non-kinetic weapons are not without limitations. Cyber capabilities are dependent on access. In other words, the operator needs to be able to effectively infiltrate an adversary network. Sophisticated cyber actors like Russia and China recognize that space systems are critical resources in a conflict and will likely take measures to protect their networks associated with space system command and control. Cyber tools do not constitute a one-size-fits-all capability — they must be tailored to the target. As a result, it is unclear whether a cyber operation would be able to negate an adversary space system in a timely manner. If the goal is to permanently destroy an adversary space weapon in orbit, electronic warfare systems might not be deemed sufficient to eliminate the threat.
Kinetic space weapons can be unreliable, too. Program 437, for example, had multiple problems with its ability to accurately target adversary satellites. Destroying a satellite requires highly accurate locational data that can be quickly transmitted to the anti-satellite weapon operator. If the targeting information from a space surveillance network is out-of-date because of a minor satellite maneuver, for example, the anti-satellite weapon could miss its target. For countries like Iran and North Korea that have the capability to build rudimentary kinetic anti-satellite systems, their space surveillance networks are likely not robust enough to field an effective weapon. Given the technical challenge involved, it is not clear if even the space surveillance networks of China and Russia can reliably target U.S. satellites or vice versa. While these adversary programs should be monitored, the United States and its allies should not overreact to them.
To prevent the arms competition in space from becoming even more dangerous, Washington should work with its allies and adversaries to establish a moratorium on testing kinetic weapons in space. Concerns about verification mechanisms have been the primary impediment to progress on limiting kinetic space weapons. During the Cold War, U.S. officials believed the Soviet Union would be able to effectively conceal ground- and space-based weapons. Debris generated from tests cannot, however, be hidden. Focusing on banning kinetic testing is a feasible and immediate step to be taken. Due to increased awareness about space security issues among U.S. allies, now is the time to collectively develop a framework for preventing these harmful tests that create long-term hazards for both civil and military space operations.
A War That No One Wins
The United States should prepare for any and all contingencies, including a war that extends into outer space. Space security concerns have been a source of anxiety for American officials going back to nearly the beginning of the space age. History provides important lessons about space policy. For example, American and Soviet intelligence satellites operated unimpeded during the Cold War, which was an essential source of nuclear stability. However, it is also essential to recognize changes in the strategic environment. Space is a contested military domain that is now inextricably linked to the global economy. The Cold War mentality of matching any and all Soviet capabilities should not be the framework employed for responding to space threats in the 21st century.
In the immediate future, the United States should establish an international moratorium on weapons tests involving the destruction of man-made objects in space. This could be a useful framework for ensuring that spacefaring countries do not create debris that harms other states operating in the space domain. As Charles Powell noted, Beijing and Moscow have shown renewed interest in a Proposed Prevention of an Arms Race in Space Treaty. It is unrealistic to expect the United States, China, and Russia to develop a framework that bans all kinetic space weapons. This would require an effective verification mechanism, and monitoring treaties involving space systems is especially difficult. A ban on kinetic anti-satellite tests involving the elimination of a target is, however, a realistic and necessary development.
Four decades after Adm. Stansfield Turner said that “the Russians can kill us in space,” America’s adversaries still have the ability to destroy U.S. satellites with kinetic weapons. However, that doesn’t mean that the United States should respond in kind with kinetic capabilities of its own. The United States can achieve lethality in space without resorting to the permanent destruction of adversary satellites. Striking this balance is key to securing American interests in space.
Aaron Bateman is a Ph.D. student in the history of science and technology at Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he served as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent any institutions with which he is affiliated.
Image: U.S. Army