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F-15 aSAT test
A 1985 test of an anti-satellite missile released from an F-15 fighter. Development of that ASAT stemmed from a policy debate in the 1970s about the utility of ASATs. (credit: USAF)

To attack or deter? The role of anti-satellite weapons


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Last week, Russia conducted another anti-satellite (ASAT) test, apparently one of a series they have been undertaking as part of what increasingly looks to be a broad-ranging ASAT program. This follows a recent statement by the commander of US Space Command, General John Raymond, who acknowledged something that amateur space trackers have noticed for a few months: a Russian satellite appears to be “stalking” USA 245, an American reconnaissance satellite, raising the possibility that the Russian satellite might have offensive capabilities. As Bart Hendrickx noted in a 2018 article in Jane’s Intelligence Review, there was ample evidence that Russia was developing a co-orbital anti-satellite weapon designated “Burevestnik,” although the satellite that may be following USA 245 is probably of a different but related type named “Nivelir.”

While all this ASAT, and potential ASAT, activity is underway, it is generating very little public discussion. It seems as if ASATs have become accepted weapons at the same time that space is becoming more crowded.

China, Russia, and India are all reported to have anti-satellite capabilities. The Director of National Intelligence’s annual report to Congress stated that the PRC and Russia have operational ASATs for targeting low Earth orbiting satellites, and the PRC is “probably” developing capabilities for geostationary orbit. Even the French, who were vehemently opposed to American ASATs in the 1980s and one of the loudest advocates of ASAT arms control, have now declared their intent to develop an anti-satellite weapon. The United States demonstrated the ability to knock low-flying satellites out of orbit over a decade ago and has made major classified expenditures on space systems in recent years, making it entirely possible that the US has an unacknowledged ASAT program of its own.

While all this ASAT, and potential ASAT, activity is underway, it is generating very little public discussion. It seems as if ASATs have become accepted weapons at the same time that space is becoming more crowded, and no effort is underway either to seek their negotiated elimination or to establish deterrent postures to limit or prevent their use. If any debate has happened in US government circles about ASATs and whether the United States needs them, it has only taken place in classified settings. This is unsurprising when one considers the historical context of American ASAT weapons.

Over the sixty-plus years of the space age, the United States has had an inconsistent—some might even say schizophrenic—attitude toward developing ASATs. In fact, for much of that time the United States has lacked an ASAT capability. Sometimes this was due to a policy decision to pursue arms control rather than space weaponization (see “Blunt arrows: the limited utility of ASATs”, The Space Review, June 6, 2005.) Hovering over all of these decisions was the fact that ASATs have rather limited utility. They have rarely been viewed as magic bullets that can substantially achieve a strategic advantage for one side or another.

Declassified documents from the mid-1970s shed some light on the American pursuit of ASAT weapons. What the documents indicate is that in the last year of the Ford Administration, the United States government determined that Soviet satellite capabilities had changed sufficiently to justify the development of a limited American ASAT capability. The purpose for this new American ASAT was to destroy Soviet ocean surveillance satellites, including their nuclear-powered radar ocean surveillance satellites known as RORSATs, not to deter Soviet ASAT use.

The United States had possessed an ASAT capability from the mid-1960s until 1972. Known as Program 437, it used spacecraft carrying 1.4 megaton nuclear bombs and launched atop Thor intermediate range ballistic missiles from an island in the Pacific Ocean. Program 437 was an expensive and limited capability weapon with many disadvantages, and after a storm damaged the launch pad, the Air Force shut the program down. At the time this debate took place within the Ford Administration, the United States had been without an ASAT capability for several years. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was actively testing their own system.

A little light on the ASAT debate

In 1976, the National Security Council (NSC) conducted a study on several issues related to the vulnerability of American satellites to attack and the need for a new US ASAT capability. The documents were released as part of the State Department series known as Foreign Relations of the United States (or FRUS for short). A FRUS volume produced in 2009 included a chapter on space.

Paul Stares first wrote about the NSC deliberations in his excellent 1985 book on ASAT history, The Militarization of Outer Space. Stares based his discussion of the NSC study on several interviews he conducted with anonymous former NSC staffers. The account in Stares’ book differs slightly in tone with the declassified documents. Whereas Stares emphasized the international and arms control aspects of the NSC discussion, as well as the focus on American satellite vulnerability, the documents declassified two decades after he wrote his book (and four decades after they were produced) indicate that the NSC actually became concerned about a newly-emergent Soviet threat that required an American ASAT capability. Simply put, the discussion was not about deterring attacks on American satellites, but attacking Soviet ones.

Simply put, the discussion was not about deterring attacks on American satellites, but attacking Soviet ones.

During this time period the Soviet Union was conducting tests of its co-orbital ASAT, which launched into orbit, moved near its target, and then exploded a conventional fragmentation warhead in the direction of the target. The Soviets continued testing their ASAT despite the fact that in 1972 they had signed an arms control treaty with the United States agreeing to not interfere with “national technical means of verification”—i.e. American reconnaissance satellites.

One of the FRUS documents, from June 1973, was a memo from Kenneth Rush, Deputy Secretary of State, to the acting Secretary of Defense. Rush referred to a recent Defense Department study of United States responses to Soviet ASAT activities, which called for a study of US space system vulnerability and development of a plan for an anti-satellite technology program. Although the Program 437 ASAT had not been completely shut down at the time Rush wrote his memo, it was clearly non-operational and in the process of dismantling. Rush noted that any new American efforts to start an ASAT program would likely become public and that there would be possible negative consequences. In fact, a year earlier, when Rush had been Deputy Secretary of Defense, he had signed an order declaring ASAT research to be classified. Clearly, he did not think that it could stay secret. Now Rush recommended a high-level interagency review of the issues involved concerning ASAT research.

According to Stares, at least one classified study began looking into the issues of the vulnerability of American satellites to attack in the new Ford Administration. This was prompted by several incidents in late 1975 where American satellites were apparently blinded or interfered with by the Soviet Union. The United States government officially determined that these were natural events, not deliberate interference, but not everybody who knew about these incidents agreed with the official explanation.

Vulnerability and ASATs

A resumption of Soviet ASAT tests in February 1976 helped highlight the satellite vulnerability issue. In March 1976, national security advisor Brent Scowcroft informed President Gerald Ford that the National Security Council had initiated a study of three related issues: “1-near-term measures (3-5 years) which can be taken to decrease the vulnerability of our satellites; 2-projection of the military use of space over the next 15 years, including analysis of the problems of satellite survivability; and, 3-the most feasible options for development of a U.S. anti-satellite capability.”

Their primary conclusion was that such a capability was necessary and that “the need for such a U.S. anti-satellite capability is related to its military value and is not directly related to the Soviet anti-satellite program.”

In April, Scowcroft sent another memo to the President after the Soviets conducted another ASAT test. His memo referred to the ongoing NSC study, and noted that “although the Soviet capability is limited, it is probably sufficient to completely deny U.S. satellite photo reconnaissance missions for periods up to years if the Soviets were willing to risk the serious repercussions such an attack in space entail. They could also selectively deny several other critical U.S. low altitude missions, including the Navy ocean surveillance satellites and the submarine navigation satellites.” Scowcroft also added that development of a U.S. ASAT “will not contribute to the survivability of U.S. space assets.”

In July, the National Security Council issued National Security Decision Memorandum 333, “Enhanced Survivability of Critical U.S. Military and Intelligence Space Systems.” NSDM 333 stated that the President had directed that the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence prepare an action plan to improve the survivability of American military and intelligence satellites to Soviet attack.

Also in July, the NSC panel produced its interim report on the need for a US ASAT. Their primary conclusion was that such a capability was necessary and that “the need for such a U.S. anti-satellite capability is related to its military value and is not directly related to the Soviet anti-satellite program.” After receiving the interim report, Ford requested that the final report be completed as soon as possible. As a result, the panel decided to split its report into three parts and to deliver the ASAT report early, with the satellite vulnerability reports delivered later.

Smashing satellites

In early November 1976, the NSC panel produced its final report on the need for an American ASAT weapon. The panel concluded that Soviet space capabilities had changed from general intelligence collection to direct support of military forces, and that their new capabilities, particularly to use satellites to target American warships at sea, justified the development of an American ASAT. The panel stated that “there is an urgent need for the U.S. to have the capability to destroy a few militarily important Soviet space systems in crisis situations or in war.”

In particular, the Soviets had developed electronic ocean surveillance satellites (commonly referred to as EORSATs) and radar ocean surveillance satellites (RORSATs) that could provide the locations of American warships to Soviet surface ships and submarines. The Soviet vessels also had acquired long-range missiles and “this long-range missile threat to the U.S. surface Navy is of great concern and, if not countered, could bring the viability of the surface fleet into serious question.”

There were few of these Soviet satellites and they were in low orbits, and if they were destroyed the Soviets would be forced to find American ships using submarines and aircraft, which were limited and could be countered by the Navy.

In addition to the Soviet ocean surveillance threat, the Soviets also operated low altitude communications satellites and photo-reconnaissance satellites that could also be targets for American ASATs. But these were lower priority than the EORSATs and RORSATs.

According to Stares, Ford was apparently so alarmed by what he regarded as the Department of Defense’s lackadaisical attitude toward developing an ASAT that he directed that the US seek to develop an ASAT capability involving both a kinetic weapon and electronic interference.

The report noted that a previous Air Force Aerospace Defense Command requirement for US ASAT capability called for the ability to destroy 20 low altitude, 5 intermediate altitude, and 15 high altitude satellites within 24 hours. This requirement to wipe out 40 satellites in a range of orbits and a short period of time “would result in a long development program and a high cost operational system,” according to one official.

The NSC panel recommended much less demanding requirements. They suggested that the ASAT be capable of limited operations by the end of 1980, be directed at low altitude satellites, have a response time of about a day from Soviet launch until US intercept, and be capable of making 6–10 intercepts in a week.

The panel’s final presentation was made to President Ford in December 1976, by which time it was clear that Jimmy Carter would replace Ford as president. According to Stares, Ford was apparently so alarmed by what he regarded as the Department of Defense’s lackadaisical attitude toward developing an ASAT that he directed that the US seek to develop an ASAT capability involving both a kinetic weapon and electronic interference, as recommended by the NSC. This resulted in National Security Decision Memorandum 345, signed on January 18, 1977. NSDM committed the nation to developing a new ASAT.

But two days later Ford was out of office and Carter was in and it was up to the new president to decide what to do. Carter pursued a two-track policy: negotiations with the Soviet Union over an ASAT ban, and development of a new ASAT. Eventually, ASAT arms control failed, and the research program transitioned to a weapons system and was tested during the subsequent Reagan Administration. The system involved a “miniature homing vehicle” mounted atop a missile fired from an F-15 aircraft. After several tests, a contentious fight in Congress, and a massive increase in costs, the Reagan Administration shelved the system, although according to one retired US Air Force official involved in the program, the capability was secretly maintained for a year after the public cancellation.

Throughout the remainder of the 1980s and the 1990s, there was some discussion of re-acquiring American ASAT capability, although US policy was to seek methods of destroying satellites that did not produce debris in low Earth orbit, such as lasers, or preferably jamming or hacking enemy satellites. But it was not until 2008, when a US Navy cruiser shot down an errant American satellite in low orbit, that the United States demonstrated such a capability, albeit using a system that could produce substantial debris in low Earth orbit.

Is everything old new again?

The discussion four decades ago about ASATs provides a case study about how and why the United States might develop an ASAT capability now. Although the vulnerability of American satellites to Soviet attack was important, and punctuated each time the Soviet Union blasted one of their orbiting satellites with their new weapon, the 1970s NSC study was emphatic that the reason the United States needed an ASAT was not to trade it away in an arms control agreement, but to attack Soviet ocean surveillance satellites. Of course, there were also other methods for thwarting Soviet satellites, and it is possible that over time the US Navy came to view such satellites as less of a threat.

But as General Raymond recently told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, deterring adversaries requires sending a message. “They have to know what you have.”

Perhaps a similar discussion has taken place in Washington in the past decade about whether the US needs ASATs to deter Chinese and Russian actions, or to destroy their satellites. Last year, former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said that the US may need to “demonstrate offensive space capabilities.” This rather serious statement has been largely overlooked amidst the debate about the Space Force. Similarly, General Raymond, now Chief of Space Operations of the newly-created Space Force, commander of US Space Command, and the official who warned about the “stalking” Russian satellite, has said that Space Command has an “offensive and defensive mission,” which implies a capability to attack satellites. The US Air Force had already developed a ground-based satellite-jamming system a number of years ago.

Now that the PRC is significantly more reliant on space systems for supporting their naval operations, particularly targeting American aircraft carriers with long-range missiles, their satellites may be targets for American ASATs, both kinetic (i.e. hitting them) and non-kinetic (jamming or hacking them). And of course, some US military officials may be arguing that a Russian satellite “stalking” an American one might itself be a good target. We may not know if such discussions have taken place for many decades to come. But as General Raymond recently told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, deterring adversaries requires sending a message. “They have to know what you have,” Raymond said. Maybe we’ll know sooner rather than later just what the United States has.


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