Ban on space weapons not enough to keep satellites from being shot down

deproliferatorTHE DEPROLIFERATOR — At New Paradigms Forum, Christopher Ford writes that an attack on our military and commercial satellites “would be no less an act of war than attacking one of our naval vessels on the high seas.” This past spring, he explains, the Obama administration “agreed to Chinese and Russian demands that the U.N. begin discussions on preventing an ‘arms race in outer space’ [by enacting] ‘a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites.'”

Great — sounds like it’s of a piece with the president’s disarmament overtures, right? To Ford, it’s not that sample. In fact, “A ‘space weapons ban’ may be an incoherent and perhaps dangerous idea [because] trying to define and prohibit space ‘weaponry,’ [is a] fool’s errand.”

Is this the space equivalent of the dual use syndrome, in which tools like knives and axes — or enriched uranium — can be transformed into weapons? Ford explains:

The present campaign to ban ‘space weapons’ dates from 2002, when China and Russia [focused on prohibiting] actually stationing weapons in space . . . while leaving unconstrained the terrestrially-based anti-satellite (ASAT) weaponry Moscow has possessed for decades. . . and which Beijing tested in 2007.

The problem, he writes, “is that essentially anything that can reach space can be used against space assets,” including transmitters and lasers capable of damaging satellite circuitry. Thus, the abolition of space weapons would require banning “essentially all access to space. … including weapons that defend the United States such as missile defense systems [and] ballistic missiles.”

“So is there a better way to address space security?” Ford asks.

Yes — but only if we’re willing to abandon the mistaken notion that arms control is necessarily about banning technology. It may not be possible [to] intelligibly define a “space weapon,” but we could perhaps better spell out, and penalize, impermissible space conduct. … and reaffirming existing norms against harmful interference with space objects.

In other words, “President Obama should shift his focus from the crowd-pleasing chimera of a ‘space weapons’ ban” to establishing and enforcing a code of conduct. (Insert your own opinion here. Far be it from me to take on someone with Ford’s treaty experience — he was the Bush administration’s lead negotiator for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — and legal mind.)

Now to tie up some Loose Nuclear Ends. . .

• The New York Times reports that “the Obama administration has developed possible alternative plans for a missile defense shield that could drop hotly disputed sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.” Those plans, which include building launching pads or radar installations in Turkey or the Balkans, would, officials claim, “be intended not to mollify Russia, but to adjust to what they see as an accelerating threat from shorter-range Iranian missiles.”

That’s your story and you stick to it. In fact, those plans are intended to repair relations with Russia, which believes, not without cause, that the purpose (pipe dream on the part of the United States is more like it) of missile defense is to stop missiles that Russia would theoretically launch.

It might strike the casual student of national and global security as odd that a system which intercepts incoming missiles from another state can be as destabilizing as a ballistic missile system, which launches missiles at a state. In fact, it’s not as difficult to understand as first it seems. The state — in this case, Russia — from whose nuclear attack missile defense is tasked with defending the United States — fears that the United States, once immune from a nuclear attack, might be tempted to launch its own.

(In reality, Russia’s nukes are far too overwhelming for missile defense to intercept. If North Korea developed a long enough range ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead, we’d be lucky if we could even intercept one of theirs. Hawks, however, hold out hopes that one day an all-powerful system will realize Ronald Reagan’s vision of an overarching umbrella to ensure that the “shining” in his city on the hill won’t be the result of post-attack radiation.)

In any event, this administration’s thinking is that repositioning missile defense — or refraining from implementing it at all — might incline Russia to join us and the European Union in strong sanctions against Iran. We can dream too: Is this the beginning of the end for missile defense?

• The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) just released its latest report on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Since this author is not equipped to interpret its implications, we’ll turn to the trusty Arms Control Association (ACA):

The improved access that Iran has provided in some areas is a step in the right direction since greater IAEA monitoring increases the likelihood that any diversion for military purposes would be detected. … [Nor do the report’s findings] alter calculations regarding when Iran could have enough highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. … most likely between 2010 and 2015.

On the other hand, “the report goes on to note that the information provided about potential past military nuclear activities [by outside sources] is credible enough to require serious answers from Iran.”

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) expands on that:

The IAEA reports no substantive progress in resolving issues about possible “military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear program. Its report does appear to rebut Iran’s continued charges that the documentation that forms the basis of the alleged studies is forged [which many believe with good reason — RW]. … At the same time, the IAEA also chastises member states for placing undue constraints on the IAEA’s use of the information.

The last sentence may be directed at the United States, which is in possession of the “alleged studies,” They were downloaded from the notorious Laptop of Mass Destruction, which was likely stolen by the unsavory MEK (Mujahadeen-e-Khalq), the militant anti-Iran government association.

The “undue constraints” most likely refers to the refusal of he United States to release copies of the documents to Iran. Why won’t we? Oh, I didn’t know. Perhaps because they are, in fact, forged?

That issue aside, the ACA concludes:

The Obama administration and the UN Security Council must focus on improving IAEA access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, personnel, and plans. [For starters] Tehran must be persuaded to halt the expansion of Natanz and accept more comprehensive inspections [until] a more comprehensive, long-term solution [can be worked out].

Meanwhile, writes Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk, “the evidence points to Iran continuing to reject suspension as a condition of negotiations.”

Still, reports Louis Charbonneau at Reuters, there are those in Iran who seek to throttle back the nuclear program in hopes of a thaw with the West:

Iranian leaders received and rejected in May a proposal from domestic “pragmatists” to [temporarily] halt Iran’s nuclear enrichment program to resolve its feud with the West and avoid new U.N. sanctions, Western diplomats said. [But] Iran’s Ambassador to the [IAEA] in Vienna, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said. … “As far as I know, on this issue nobody is in favor of suspension. There is one solid voice on the nuclear issue.”

Consensus? After what Iran’s just been through? As Borzou Daragahi reports in the Los Angeles Times:

Iran’s political crisis could prevent the nation from making any swift move to ratchet up its nuclear program, said analysts and officials, giving President Obama and Western allies more time to grapple with the issue. …

For now, most Iran watchers agree that Tehran will not only be unable to respond positively to the Obama administration’s offer of talks, but also is in too much political disarray to make the major decisions necessary to. … make a dramatic move toward constructing a nuclear weapon.

• Next, the BBC reports on Pakistan’s nuclear Santa Claus:

It is not clear whether the authorities will heed [its] decision. [But] A court in Pakistan has lifted the final restrictions on controversial nuclear scientist [read: merchant of death — RW] Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, allowing him total freedom of movement.

In February he was freed from house arrest and this decision would remove his last restraint: reporting his whereabouts to the authorities. Too bad the Nobel committee never saw fit to award him the peace prize. As with Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, that might have been his ticket to eternal house arrest.

• Across the border, the Times of India reports on a prominent scientist who recently went public with long-rumored concerns that India’s 1998 test of a thermonuclear device (aka the hydrogen bomb) was unsuccessful. Why now?

To ward off growing American pressure on India to sign various nuclear containment treaties [like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — RW] and perhaps enable India to conduct one last series of tests to validate and improve its nuclear arsenal. [Gary Milholin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, said] “An Indian test would be very toxic to cooperation it has just gained under the [India-U.S.] nuclear deal [it signed with the United States].”

Especially because, as Nita Lal writes at Asia Times Online, the deal “comes with a clear caveat — that another nuclear test would lead to its abrogation.” Meanwhile, India must be wondering what, if anything, Pakistan’s cavalier attitude toward A.Q. Khan signals. . .

First posted at the Faster Times.

2 replies »

  1. Some argue for using Space War as a means of controlling the new high ground. I argue that it is a very poor place to put critical war assets.

    The Only
    High Ground in Space
    is Boot Hill

    Space is not a militarily viable battleground, because it is transparent. This is the elephant in the room that no one talks about.

    Lasers are not the only directed energy weapons technology, they are just the most recent. Archimedes invented a technology that is over 2000 years old which is capable of destroying even high orbiting space assets. To destroy high orbiting satellites it would be fantastically large, technically challenging and not at all cheap, but it would be far from impossible. This is a simple example to show the flawed thinking in using Space as the new high ground. On a terrestrial high ground you have something substantial to hide behind.

    All space assets are visible and therefore extremely vulnerable. America has been lulled into the sin of pride by defense company salesman. Against poorly trained and organized troops, American technology led to a slaughter. With U.S. space assets destroyed, a skilled opponent with a greater number of technologically inferior weapons could force an outcome that would be a military disaster for U. S. Forces.

    The issues of Missile Defense and Nuclear Proliferation are two sides of the same coin, both seem to be a natural response when someone feels threatened.

    When a country feels under threat, it will get nuclear weapons to defend itself. History
    has not yet shown a successful invasion of a nuclear armed country. Recent history has
    shown that a non-nuclear armed country can be invaded. (see Iraq)

    When a country that has been been unfairly dealt with in the past, acquires nuclear weapons, the United States feels threatened. (see Iran)

    When the United States feels threatened, it tries to design and field the missile defense capabilities to smother any nuclear attack by a smaller country.

    A country may acquire nuclear weapons without threatening the United States by limiting it’s means to deliver them. To defend itself, a country does not need to project it’s nuclear weapons much beyond it’s border. It needs to show discipline and refrain from targeting the whole world.

    If the U.S. continues to use space assets for terrestrial warfare into the far future it can appear that the U.S. has made Near-Earth Space a hostage, to maintain it’s military position. While this point is militarily irrelevant, it could become a common viewpoint in the rest of the world.

    And one must never lose sight that any degradation of the space environment is nearly impossible to reverse. Losing access to space at this time when supplies of energy and other natural resources are become critical, might also remove a sanctuary for human civilization. The Earth will endure, mankind will endure, but human civilization could fall to the level of a lot of hungry animals in a very small cage.

    Louis P. Quinn September 2009

  2. You make a lot of sense, Mr. Quinn. Visibility of satellites, indeed. Like your site, too, though it’s over my head.