USA Today’s Editorial on Weapons in Space and the Marshall Institute Response

USA Today‘s editorial “Our view on weapons in space: Satellite shoot-down plan reignites treaty debate” followed by a response from Marshall President Jeff Kueter, “Opposing view: Space treaty would hurt U.S.”


Our view on weapons in space: Satellite shoot-down plan reignites treaty debate

Ban could prevent space from becoming the final battleground.

The Bush administration’s plan to try to shoot down an ailing U.S. spy satellite, perhaps by the time you read this, might be just what the White House says it is: a well-intentioned effort to destroy a school bus-sized contraption carrying toxic fuel before it can threaten lives on the ground.

But because the administration seemed willing as recently as last month to let the satellite plummet to Earth unmolested ? figuring that much of it would be burned up in a fiery re-entry and the rest would have little chance of hitting anyone on the planet’s vast expanse ? it’s not surprising that the shoot-down plan is generating suspicion. Critics such as Russia’s Defense Ministry say the real motive is to test U.S. space weapons capability.

Taken at face value, the administration’s rationale for shooting down satellite from a ship in the Pacific Ocean makes sense: Why not eliminate the risk, even if it’s a small one, if it can be done safely? The administration has no one but itself to blame, however, for fostering the doubts about its intentions.

It has repeatedly rebuffed a proposed United Nations treaty to ban the weaponization of space, and just as repeatedly has asserted its right to develop space weapons to protect U.S. satellites or deny the use of space to hostile actors. Had the White House been more amenable to talking about how to stop an arms race in space, the shoot-down plan might have generated less controversy.

More important than the immediate debate, of course, is how to prevent space from turning into an international combat zone.

The size of the U.S. satellite fleet ? more than half the nearly 900 in orbit ? gives America a huge advantage in space. But all those satellites are a liability, too, because they make the big U.S. fleet an attractive target. And U.S. forces aren’t the only ones with satellite-killer technology. Last year, China used a missile to shoot down one of its own aging satellites, provocatively demonstrating that it can do this, too.

China and Russia have led the international calls for a treaty that would ban deploying weapons in space and using or threatening to use weapons against space-based objects. (A 40-year-old treaty already bans stationing weapons of mass destruction in space.)

On one hand, the United States should be wary of calls for disarmament from its two likeliest global antagonists. On the other, avoiding a ruinously expensive space arms race is a worthwhile goal for a nation already fighting two wars abroad and struggling with a growing national debt.

Treaty opponents argue that it would be difficult to verify compliance, but much the same could be said about conventions against chemical and biological weapons. Their virtue is not that they can prevent all cheating, but that they give nations less reason to seek the weapons, and they create international pressure against violators.

One downside for the Bush administration is that such a treaty could ban space basing of anti-missile systems designed to intercept nuclear missiles in their “boost” phase, right after launch. That’s an iffy technology, but even if it eventually worked, it would be something worth negotiating, not a reason to reject a treaty out of hand. In the long run, the United States stands to gain more than it loses by leaving space as the final frontier, not turning it into the final battleground.

Opposing view: Space treaty would hurt U.S.

Proposed ban on space weapons is neither enforceable nor verifiable.


By Jeff Kueter


Few criticize the U.S. decision to attempt the destruction of a fully fueled, disabled spy satellite before it crashes to Earth. Using missile-defense assets to further minimize the risk of harm is commendable. But some question our motives and claim we are shooting at the satellite to demonstrate an anti-satellite (ASAT) capability, not to protect lives and property, and they call for an international treaty to ban weapons in space.

As it has for the past 50 years, the United States should resist calls for a new space treaty. Space is routinely used for military purposes, and the integration of space-based intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance into tactical military operations offers clear incentives for attacking U.S. spacecraft.

A ban is neither enforceable nor verifiable. Cold War-era space arms control efforts faltered when they could not reach agreement on what constitutes a space weapon. The U.S. space shuttle was viewed as a space weapon by the Soviets. The Chinese used a standard ballistic missile topped with a sophisticated warhead in their January 2007 ASAT test, but a treaty capable of eliminating the missiles is improbable, as is verifying the destruction of the warhead or the capacity to reproduce it in the future.

Electronic warfare ? blinding satellites with lasers or jamming of information sent from space ? presents a widespread and immediate challenge to the United States, but attributing the source is difficult, and the capabilities draw upon technologies readily available for other purposes.

Russian and Chinese efforts to advance a new treaty provide cover for their self-serving attempts to constrain the United States, while doing nothing to restrict their own clandestine ASAT programs. In the past several years, the Chinese military successfully executed at least two ASAT tests, while their diplomatic corps raged against the supposed weaponization of space by the United States.

Those who suggest that such an agreement would protect U.S. interests have yet to explain why others would abandon the capability to hold at risk the most vulnerable elements of American military power. A restraint on space weaponry, far from keeping the heavens safe, instead leaves them vulnerable to 9/11-style space terrorism.

Jeff Kueter is president of the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank that analyzes the effect of scientific issues on public policy.

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