Not long before he started a trade war with China and extended sanctions against Russia, President Trump made some offhanded remarks about wanting a US “Space Force” to compliment the US Army, Navy, Cyber Command and Air Force. But how serious is this proposal? Top military brass continue to push for space weapons behind the scenes, as they have for decades.
The idea of putting weapons in space, the so-called “high-frontier” of warfare, predates Nazism. Adolf Hitler’s regime had some ambitious — if not absurd — ideas for space, including orbiting giant mirrors to burn entire cities, based on physicist Hermann Oberth’s 1923 designs and developing an anti-gravity craft. After WWII, Nazi scientist Walter Dornberger was hired by the US Department of Defense and came up with a plan to encircle the Earth with orbiting nuclear weapons (Nuclear Armed Bombardment Satellites).
The lines between civilian science, military technology and commercial enterprise are blurred. Notoriously, hundreds of Nazis, including rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, were smuggled into the US to work on American science programs under Operation Paperclip. The BBC quips of the Nazis’ V-2 rocket: “would man [sic] have landed on the Moon without Hitler’s weapon? Probably, but perhaps not as soon.” Under a program called Alsos, the Soviets also collaborated with post-war Nazi scientists.
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The lines defining “space” are also blurred. There is no internationally or scientifically agreed Earth-space boundary. Typically, scientists refer to the Kármán Line, 62 miles (approximately 100 kilometers) above sea level as the start of outer space. To make matters worse, there is no consensus definition of “space weaponization.” For some, like the now-defunct Space Command, it meant putting weapons in orbit to attack ground targets or space infrastructure (mainly satellites). For others, like Loring Wirbel, author of Star Wars: US Tools of Space Supremacy, it means any form of space militarization, such as using space-based satellites to guide low-altitude missiles. If we accept the latter definition, space is already weaponized.
With these broad definitions in mind, let’s look at some historical events:
In 1951, the Convair Division of General Dynamics built the MX-1593 rocket. This developed into the SM-65 Atlas, the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched in October 1959. ICBMs were dual-use technologies. They relied on rockets which could carry both commercial and military satellites into space and nuclear warheads across continents to target nations. The ICBM is a space weapon in that it reaches the pre-orbit altitude of over 750 miles (1,200km), despite being launched from Earth.
In 1955, with the ICBM project initiated but not yet successful, the US Navy began Project Vanguard in an effort to put a satellite into orbit. The Soviets got there first with Sputnik 1 in October 1957.
In July 1962, the US detonated a W49 thermonuclear bomb at an altitude of 250 miles (400 kilometers), launched from the Kalama Atoll in the Pacific. This was Operation Starfish Prime. The aim included testing the effects of high-altitude nuclear blasts on electromagnetic propagation. The test destroyed electrical circuits on Earth and laid the groundwork for studies into electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons. At the same time, the Soviets were conducting their own space-altitude tests, Project K, which also had EMP effects on Earth.
AT&T’s Telstar was the first commercial satellite, launched in the same year as Prime (there was no connection between the two events) and developed with government money at Bell Labs. Since then, the US military has sought to justify its own existence in the space domain by developing strategies to safeguard space assets such as satellites. By 2017, more than 1,700 operational satellites were in orbit, 803 of which were American.
A Legal Note
In 1959, the UN established the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The UN agreed on a series of treaties banning weapons of mass destruction in space and promoting the mutual use of space for peaceful and scientific purposes. These included International Co-operation in the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (1961), the Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space (1962) and the Outer Space Treaty (1967).
These treaties were adopted by the General Assembly — not the Security Council — meaning they have no enforcement mechanisms.
Consistently, Russia and China have advocated the Prevention of an Arms Race in Space (PAROS) Treaty. In 1990, the administration of George H. W. Bush replied: “[The US] has not identified any practical outer space arms control measures that can be dealt with in [sic] a multilateral environment.” In 2007, after China shot down one of its own weather satellites to demonstrate its own anti-satellite capabilities in response to US provocations, the second Bush administration was even more blunt: “Discussions regarding the merits of treaties to prevent the so-called ‘weaponization’ of outer space would be a pointless exercise.” In 2008, Russia and China reaffirmed their commitments to PAROS. The Bush administration replied: “Additional binding arms control agreements are simply not a viable tool for enhancing the long-term space security interests of the United States or its allies.”
Strategic Defense Initiative
In 1983, President Reagan initiated the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), nicknamed “Star Wars” by the media. The so-called shield designed to destroy incoming ICBMs was also, one might argue, an offensive weapon with a first-strike capacity.
An unclassified report to Congress reckoned that the system would not be operational until at least 1995. It would include space-based “hit-to-kill” vehicles for attacking Soviet missile boosters, as well as ground-based rockets to counter missiles prior to their re-entry. In 1972, the US and the Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Interestingly, the excuse cited by the Reagan administration for SDI was their “concern over a potential Soviet breakout from the ABM Treaty.” Notice the word “potential.”
Under leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviets did not follow in kind with a Soviet SDI. The Soviet military’s plan was to simply overwhelm the US “shield” with more warheads than it could deflect. Luckily, Gorbachev did not approve this, either. Despite this, Reagan and his advisers — official and unofficial — convinced themselves or lied that the Soviets were “doing advanced research on their version of SDI.”
From this evidence, it would appear that SDI was more of an empty threat than a feasible project. However, in a world where nations are armed with nuclear weapons and have the means to deliver them, seemingly empty threats can lead to dangerous escalations.
“Full Spectrum Dominance”
In 1996, with no sign of the SDI progressing, the Joint Chiefs of Staff published Joint Vision 2010, which included the Dominant Maneuver strategy to “employ widely dispersed joint air, land, sea, and space forces to accomplish the assigned operational tasks.” In 1997, the Space Command’s Vision for 2020 committed the US to “Full Spectrum Dominance.” The report stated:
During the early portion of the 21st century, space power will also evolve into a separate and equal medium of warfare. Likewise, space forces will emerge to protect military and commercial national interests and investment in the space medium due to their increasing importance.
Both Democrats and Republicans felt it necessary to weaponize space — or “protect national interests,” as they put it. Then Defense Secretary Rumsfeld (who served under Republican President George W. Bush) and Staff Director at the Commission to Assess US National Security Space Management and Organization, Stephen A. Cambone, explained that even during the Democratic Clinton years:
The globalization of trade and the increasing ease with which technical expertise and technology flowed through international channels demanded our attention. A 1998 satellite glitch that affected pager service, the advent of commercial companies marketing small satellites on a global basis, indications that communications satellites were being jammed, and the proliferation of ballistic missiles that could potentially serve as anti-satellite weapons.
The subsequent Rumsfeld Space Commission was established to “ensure U.S. national security interests and enhance the competitiveness of the commercial sector and the effectiveness of the civil space sector.”
These pronouncements sent shudders around the world. In 2005, space weapons expert Nancy Gallagher told the UN Institute for Disarmament Research that what the US government called “evidence” against other nations’ space programs “involves no real threat to US satellites.” Iraq, for instance, jammed US GPS receivers, “not satellite signals, … [and] “the jammers were destroyed without space weapons.”
Other so-called evidence involved allegations that China was making microsatellites for “killer” purposes, namely to kill US satellites. But as late as 2005, Gallagher said, the US was “the only country … developing [anti-satellite weapons] and other space weapons,” but “other countries are capable of doing likewise should they decide to emulate or offset some of the advantages that the United States military attributes to its space capabilities.”
Despite promises as a candidate that “I will not weaponize space,” it was under Democratic President Barack Obama that arguably the US’s first orbiting space weapon, the X-37B, was launched in 2010. Contrary to the US military’s claim that it was not a weapon, Everett Dolman of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at the Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, said that the X-37B was “capable of disabling multiple satellites in orbit on a single mission and staying on orbit for months to engage newly orbited platforms.” US Air Force Deputy Undersecretary of Space Programs Gary Payton said that it “will make our access to space more responsive, perhaps cheaper, and push us in the vector toward being able to react to warfighter needs more quickly.”
In April 2016, General Dynamics’ SATCOM Technologies constructed a 7,000-square-foot radar receiver array as part of the US Air Force Space Fence radar system. General Manager of General Dynamics Mission Systems Mike DiBiase said, “The array has the sensitivity to locate, identify and track objects as small as a softball, hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface.”
Trump: Stopping “the Democratization of Space”
Donald Trump, as president-elect, famously said: “Our military dominance must be unquestioned, and I mean unquestioned, by anybody and everybody.” In March 2017, Navy Vice Adm. Charles A. Richard told the Center for Strategic and International Studies that “Just as nuclear assets deter aggression by convincing potential adversaries there’s just no benefit to the attack, we have to maintain a space posture that communicates the same strategic message.”
In the same month, weapons contractor Raytheon announced that, “On the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, one of the cleanest factories in the world runs a one-of-a-kind operation: creating rocket-propelled ‘kill vehicles’ that hunt down and destroy ballistic missiles in space.” Isn’t this a continuation of the SDI after all? Meanwhile, the Boeing Corporation provides the US its Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. An ICBM intercept was tested in May 2017. Boeing says: “The interceptor is designed to launch and destroy ballistic missile threats after receiving detection and tracking information from land-, sea- and space-based sensors.”
The globalization of the world economy, including telecoms, the internet and e-commerce, has made it essential that other nations have access to space. The 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) affirms US commitments to Full Spectrum Dominance. It reads: “America’s military must be prepared to operate across a full spectrum of conflict, across multiple domains at once.” The NSS continues, stating, “The ‘democratization of space’ has an impact on military operations and on America’s ability to prevail in conflict.”
This year, Congress approved a record $700 billion Pentagon budget. How much of it will end up in a space weaponization program? Under Trump, the Air Force Space Command (AFSC) is expanding via the new position of vice commander. In February, the AFSC presented its proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2019. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said the budget “accelerates defendable space and will accelerate capabilities to continue to ensure space dominance.”
Karl Grossman is an award-winning author and journalist who has written extensively about weapons in space. Grossman told Truthout that if Trump’s plan to weaponize space proceeds, it will likely be accompanied by a nuclearization of space.
“If the US makes space a new arena of war, moving ahead with space weapons, creating a ‘Space Corps’ comparable to the Marine Corps (as Trump is calling for), it will be opening up a Pandora’s Box,” Grossman told Truthout in an email. “It can be expected that China, Russia and then other countries will react by following in kind.”
With US corporate profits now heavily dependent on high-tech firms, which in turn rely on space operations (iPhones, internet, GPS, etc.) the push to weaponize space under the partial guise of protecting “national interests” will continue, regardless of who is commander-in-chief.