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Satellite Safety
A New Arms Race in Space

China tested an anti-satellite missile this week, according to U.S. officials, following up on a similar 2007 test which drew international condemnation for (among other things) creating the biggest and most dangerous cloud of space debris ever. The AP reports:

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the “non-destructive” test occurred Wednesday. She said a previous destructive test of the system in 2007 created thousands of pieces of dangerous debris in space.

Harf said Friday that the continued development and testing of destructive anti-satellite systems threaten the long-term security and sustainability of the outer-space environment that all nations depend upon.

The proliferation of more advanced and long range missiles is changing the battlefield of the 21st century. This has serious implications for U.S. defense spending. As the unit cost and strategic value of individual U.S. military assets has skyrocketed (see: carriers, F-35s, and most notably modern satellites), the destructive threat from missiles becomes a greater liability. For example, China’s so-called “carrier-killer” DF-21D missiles may be punching way above their weight, strategically speaking. That’s because defense analysts do not really know their range or effectiveness, so China’s foes must behave as though the missiles are as dangerous as the most pessimistic estimates say they could be. For the U.S., that means assuming that costly carriers would be under threat during a potential U.S.-China military escalation if they are within a few thousand miles of China.

In the age of communications and information technology, the safety of satellites is crucial. As an arms race in space begins to look a little more likely, it is important to remember that the cost of establishing missile defense for satellites would be yet another burden for the already overstretched U.S. defense budget. Anyone hoping that the U.S. will enjoy a “peace dividend” after the end of the war in Afghanistan may be sorely disappointed

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  • Tom Billings

    The great fear of Ballistic Missile Defense (especially space-based) in the progressives I was in contact with from the 1960s onwards always had a large component of belief that it would sooner or later morph into a US Space Force. That would then be as much more expensive over the Air Force as the Air Force was more expensive than the Navy.They truly believed that if we did nothing, then our opponents would do nothing to threaten our assets in Space. I am glad to note here a willingness to believe that they would do so anyway, …because they will.

    Humans go where wealth is, and some will try to make sure only they have it, whether in war or at an extreme, in peace. The high information densities allowed by comsats, and the gathering of information from Space, are not quite a license to print money, ….not quite, but close. If we allow the PLA’s generals pushing ASAT strategies to believe they will be unopposed, then they will push even harder. Humans who want to impose control tend to push at where the least resistance is. This is not only natural, but accords with some of the recommendations of Sun Tzu.

    Even without the PLA, Hezbollah and Hamas show that better and better rocketry is closer and closer to those who wish harm to industrial society around the world. Their current lack is in guidance systems. Allowing the present regrowth of Caliphate Revivalist movements from 2009-2017, we may yet see the newly proposed LEO comsat constellations becoming targets of opportunity for “Islamists” who wish to “expunge pornography” by shooting at satellites that might transmit it. Such acts would be applauded in places swhere Caliphate Revival is thought well of. If they can be sure of a nuclear-protected base for their operations, whether Iran or elsewhere, then they will be that much more bold. What was done by the US Navy in 2007 to shoot down an errant US spysat could be done by a rust-bucket steamer based out of Bandar Abbas in 2027, to a LEO comsat. It would be a wonderful way to remind the supporters of reviving the Caliphate around the world where to send their donations.

    IMHO, the proponents of a US Space Guard have a proper balance. It can make sure that LEO orbits are cleaned up, through a modification of the Outer Space Treaty allowing a Space Guard to proceed with interception and deorbit of final stages of old launchers. Establish it as a rescue operations group for LEO and higher orbits of crewed space stations having emergencies. Lastly, make sure it can monitor all CisLunar Space, so that an ASAT launch is detected inside the atmosphere, and stopped before 200 kilometers altitude.

    • curmudgeoninchief

      Space Guard! That means that junior officers in this organization would be Space Cadets! The Future is finally here!

    • B-Sabre

      Except for Iridium, I don’t think there are that many Comsats in LEO. Most of them are in geosynchronous orbits where they can provide continuos regional coverage. Imagery and GPS satellites are what live in the shallow depths of space.

      If you want to see what future Jihadis may be capable of, look to the High Performance Rocketry enthusiasts in the US. Those guys are close to breaching the space barrier with their rockets, so a simple “bucket of buckshot” ASAT might not be far behind.

  • curmudgeoninchief

    The main reason the US defense budget is “overstretched” is that for the past five and one half years, the present administration has been beating swords into food stamps and ObamaPhones. That has to stop, and be reversed.

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