The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Efforts like the F-15 ASAT have been the exception to the rule in the US for most of the last half-century, given concerns about orbital debris, among other issues. (credit: US Air Force)

Letter: Regarding “sticky airbags”

The January 22 article “Sticky airbags and grapples: kinetic ASATs without the debris” unfortunately contains more opinion than actual facts. The article dismisses unnamed critics of space weaponization (why were they not named?) as “naïve or self-deluded,” and portrays them as hysterically concerned with the generation of space debris. But the reality is that the American military itself has generally demonstrated only lackluster support for ASATs. Furthermore, the military, NASA, and the White House have been the biggest proponents of minimizing space debris, even at the cost of limiting American anti-satellite weapons.

Any discussion of American development of ASATs should start with a discussion of what exactly they will do. Do potential adversaries have satellites that the United States may want to destroy? Is an ASAT the most versatile method of achieving desired results? Is such a weapon worth the cost of developing it? There is no reason to believe that the best way to respond to an adversary’s ASAT capability is to develop ASATs of our own. After all, America’s potential adversaries undoubtedly value their own satellites less than the United States values our satellites. So wouldn’t the best response be to find something that the potential adversary values highly and place that at risk instead?

There has long been a substantial gulf between the hawkish pro-space weaponization crowd and the actual civilian and military operators who have to build, fly, and make policy for military space systems. Among the latter, ASATs have never been a very popular option—which explains why during most of the time it has had a space program, the United States has not had any anti-satellite weapons. The last ASAT system that the United States actually tested, the ASM-135A missile carried by an F-15, was developed not because the United States Air Force saw great military utility in such a weapon, but because the White House viewed it as a deterrent against the Soviet Union (see “Blunt arrows: the limited utility of ASATs”, The Space Review, June 6, 2005). In the 1990s the United States Army began development of a ground-based kinetic energy (KE) ASAT, but the military dropped its support for it in 1993. The only reason it stayed alive was because of congressional action (i.e. earmarks). The fact that the US military did not want the weapon that Congress was forcing upon it demonstrates that the military has long been ambivalent about ASAT weapons. It is also worth noting that although that system was designed to minimize debris by using a mylar “flyswatter” to smack the target rather than smash it, even the U.S. military determined that it still would have generated too much debris. The military turned its attention toward systems that a) would produce no debris, and b) were potentially reversible, like jammers or other electronic warfare systems. Producing minimal debris does not place our own spacecraft at risk, and reversible systems can be used against a much wider array of targets or satellites that might be required after the cessation of hostilities. Lasers are also useful as ASAT weapons because they could damage a satellite without producing debris, but their effects are not reversible.

There has long been a substantial gulf between the hawkish pro-space weaponization crowd and the actual civilian and military operators who have to build, fly, and make policy for military space systems.

The article also states that if orbital debris “was as dangerous as has been claimed, spacecraft would be breaking up on an almost weekly basis.” But like the refusal to name who is being “naïve and self-delusional” about space weaponization, the article also does not indicate who is making such supposedly extreme claims. Nor does it acknowledge that several satellites are known to have been hit by debris and taken out of operation. Later the article states “Whatever happens the US should be wary of making too big a deal out of the orbital debris issue.” What these statements clearly miss is the fact that the United States already makes a “big deal” out of the orbital debris issue, and with good reason. Rather than some vaguely defined whining liberal environmentalist whacko anti-space weaponization crowd, the biggest push for orbital debris prevention has been the United States government, including the military.

For instance, Defense News reported on a March 2001 Defense Writers Group meeting where then-commander of Space Command General Ralph Eberhart explained that “if the United States starts ‘blowing up things in space’ the collateral damage may be too high… For example, while trying to take out an enemy satellite capability, a KE-ASAT could inflict damage on U.S. satellites or other commercial satellites, he explained.” Eberhart also “said he would rather employ satellite disruption tactics that are ‘temporary and reversible as opposed to blowing it up.’”

NASA also has an orbital debris office, which states:

Controlling the growth of the orbital debris population is a high priority for NASA, the United States, and the major space-faring nations of the world to preserve near-Earth space for future generations. Mitigation measures can take the form of curtailing or preventing the creation of new debris, designing satellites to withstand impacts by small debris, and implementing operational procedures ranging from utilizing orbital regimes with less debris, adopting specific spacecraft attitudes, and even maneuvering to avoid collisions with debris.

The NASA site also explains that:

In 1995 NASA was the first space agency in the world to issue a comprehensive set of orbital debris mitigation guidelines. Two years later, the U.S. Government developed a set of Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices, based on the NASA guidelines. Other countries and organizations, including Japan, France, Russia, and the European Space Agency (ESA), have followed suit with their own orbital debris mitigation guidelines. In 2002 after a multi-year effort, the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), comprised of the space agencies of 10 countries as well as ESA, adopted a consensus set of guidelines designed to mitigate the growth of the orbital debris population. These guidelines were formally presented to the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in February 2003.

Debris mitigation is also part of the official national space policy adopted last summer. The reason is simple: with the most satellites, as well as astronauts in low Earth orbit, the United States has the most to lose from greater orbital debris, no matter how it is produced.

Thus, rather than a struggle between “America’s space warriors” versus a strawman group of anti-space weaponization hysterics concerned over an overblown orbital debris threat, it is the US government that has raised the issue of orbital debris the most, and adopted practices intended to reduce debris. It is also the US government that has led the way in international forums on this issue, adopting guidelines and negotiating in the United Nations. This concern with debris prevention has also long been a priority for American ASAT weaponry.

Finally, it is worth repeating that the US government that has not yet seen a compelling need for an ASAT capability. Whether or not the United States requires anti-satellite weapons is a debate that has not been settled, but it is clear that minimizing debris will be a major part of that discussion.