Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Real Star Wars: If Only They Had Lawyers

Just in time for the arrival in theaters of the Revenge of the Sith, The NYT reports that the Air Force is seeking a presidential directive endorsing an aggressive policy to develop weapons that can be used in outer space. Like the Law of the Sea, outer space is a logical place for international law to play a role. Indeed, there is a United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs that administers the five main treaties governing the conduct of nations in outer space (is that a cool-sounding job or what? Note also the cool acronym "OOSA").

As the article notes, the U.S. has agreed to refrain from putting any weapons of mass destruction in outer space or on the moon per the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the "Outer Space Treaty.") Everything else though appears to be fair game, which is what the Air Force apparently wants.

Expect some international lawyers, however, to pop up and claim that there is a some sort of customary international law principle prohibiting any kind of space-based weapons. After all, no state has done so yet, so maybe this has hardened into international law. And the General Assembly has passed a bunch of declarations. But only five states (if you count Brazil) have even space launch capability, so does the fact that the other 175 refrain from weaponizing space really matter for international law purposes?

Space will be developed and used, whether or not there is an worldwide treaty regulating such use. I think the law can be useful here, but let's not get carried away. The key to how outer space will be developed will lie in decisions by folks like President Bush and President Putin, and not in the world of international lawyers.


Blogger Bruce Hayden said...

I shouldn't say might makes right, but to some extent, that is true, esp. here.

It should be noted that we have had anti-satelite capabilities for a couple of decades, and we believe that the Russians do or did too. The capababilities that I am aware of are F-15 based missles that can take down satelites in low earth orbit.

5/18/2005 5:43 AM  
Anonymous Taeyoung Jensen said...

Wait, only five nations can launch? I thought it was the US, Russia, China, Japan, and the EU at least. Brazil would make six, wouldn't it?

5/18/2005 8:01 AM  
Blogger Norden said...

The Outer Space Treaty impairs the expansion of the Amrican Frontier, directly and by banning our best weapons from territory that should be ours. Given that we have reconsidered most other mistkes by Johnson, welfare, Vietnam, etc. it is time to fix this one.

Bad Law vs. Manifest Destiny

5/18/2005 8:10 AM  
Anonymous Jeff V. said...

The one thing that I found interesting about this article was the utter lack of utility of many of these proposed weapons programs. Rods of metal hurled down to the earth? A ray beam that bounces of a satellite to annhilate something half a world away? As the article noted, these very costly programs would only represent a minute upgrade in capacity over what we can do now with cruise missiles. Somehow I just think that the DoD should come up with better ways to spend the money...like missile defense, cruise missile defense, improved UAV's, something that makes multi-billion dollar cruisers able to defend themselves against tiny boats packed with explosives, etc.

But of course, my impression could be a result of the bias of the NYT, so I guess it's fair to hold true judgement for until we get a fuller sense of the capabilities of the weapons...

5/18/2005 8:20 AM  
Blogger Media Monkey said...

"these very costly programs would only represent a minute upgrade in capacity over what we can do now with cruise missiles"

Surely guns were only a minute upgrade in comparison to what someone could do with an axe by walking up to them and hitting them.

Point is that they can start researching new things to do. Cruise missiles can hit anywhere but cost a couple of million 'a pop.' Space might be able to offer the same targeting at a much cheaper price

5/18/2005 8:34 AM  
Blogger mrsizer said...

"Rods from God" is one of the cool weapons in David's Sling by Marc Stiegler.

A bit dated now - the Soviets were the bad guys - but a good book.

5/18/2005 8:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Russia, the US, the UK, France, China, India, Japan, and Israel have all lauched satellites--although the UK and France are now out of business and particiate in ESA. Adding Brazil would put 7 countries plus ESA with lauch capability

5/18/2005 8:54 AM  
Anonymous michael edelman said...

The first US ASAT program dates to 1962, based on a nuclear warhead carried into sapce on a Thor booster. I don't think it was ever tested, though it was technically operational.

The Soviets had an operational system deployed in 1967 and throughout the 70s. How effective it was is unclear; this data from a Swedish amateur satellite tracker (http://www.svengrahn.pp.se/histind/ASAT/ASAT.htm) is revealing.

The F-15 launched Vought ASM-135 ASAT had its first and only test in 1985; Congress said could not be further tested unless the Soviets did ASAT tests, neglecting the fact that the Soviet system was already operational. The program was terminated in 1988.

While the US has no operational ASAT system, it's hard to believe that countries like CHina and perhaps Russia do not have, at a minimum, some sort of basic ASAT technology or research program. In a battle between major powers, destroying satellite communications, navigation and reconnaisance capability would be a priority. Imagine what wiping out GPS satellites would do to current US targeting technology.

No doubt there are research programs into developing a new ASAT capability for the US. The Pegasus air launched booster might be used as a platform for this mission. Beyond that, there is probably research into energetic lasers, electron beams, and other technologies that are difficult to use in the atmosphere, but perfectly suited for space.

I don't see any use in moving military technology beyond Earth orbit for at least the next 20-50 years, barring some amazing new propulsion technology. Almost 40 years after the first Moon landing the action is still all in low orbit.

5/18/2005 9:03 AM  
Blogger Julian Ku said...

Whoops! Thanks for the correction on the number of states with launch capability. How to count Europe is one problem. Also, I've never heard that Israel has launch capability... In any case, the number is still very small compared to the number of total states.

5/18/2005 9:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So far, the unstated purpose of this war belies justifications given by the world's leading apologists for the predatory imperialist aims outlined by the crypto-fascist Project for a New American Century. Presumably, the apparent demise of "anti-Americanism" as a respectable means of stifling recognition of American imperialism leads our attention to the flagrant lies promulgated by the political donor class. It is not heartening that the appropriation of Arab resources can be regarded as the final subjugation of the Middle East, beginning with the $90bn invasion of Iraq. As Norman Mailer pointed out, the American state, with its unelected president, venal Supreme Court, silent Congress, gutted Bill of Rights and compliant media provides a pretext for a humanitarian disaster of unimaginable scale.

5/18/2005 9:05 AM  
Blogger madawaskan said...

The Chinese are on it.
just read this-

"Interview with Lieutenant General Liu Yazhou of the Air Force of the People's Liberation Army".


5/18/2005 9:20 AM  
Blogger Jeff the Baptist said...

After all, no state has done so yet, so maybe this has hardened into international law.

Correction: No state has done so on a meaningful military scale. Rumor has it that the Soviets tested some recoil-less 20mm guns in space for use as self-defense pieces on space stations. Especially in the capsule days, small arms were common as well. But these were not full scale deployments.

5/18/2005 9:28 AM  
Anonymous Jeff V. said...

Media Monkey,

As the article notes, targeting done by space lasers, rods, and other futuristic weapons technologies would be several orders of magnitude more expensive than existing technology.

5/18/2005 9:39 AM  
Anonymous M in Boston said...

One elementary form of ASAT discussed in Jane's Defence and AvWeek in the early 1990s was whether a nuclear warhead exploded by an adversary in space would create an expanding cloud of radioactivity and debris in geosynchronous (stationary) orbit - which would act as a "goalie" and either damage or destroy LEO satellites that passed through it.

This scenario was being visualized in the case of war with China, who at the time had proven launch capability, had limited dependence on satellite communications, and therefore had little to lose by the "shotgun" sat-killer strategy, as it was called then.

Now that the Chinese have modernized their forces immensely over the intervening decade, and launched sats of their own, they may not consider this feasible. But given American forces' complete dependence on sats, as Michael Edelman pointed out, I'm guessing this is still an open option. It might be worth a Pentagon analyst's time looking into where adversary LEOs orbit, in relation to ours. (I'm sure they're on it.)

People have been warning about a "Pearl Harbor in space" for years now, but Congress has been wilfully blind to the threat since the 1970s, and have been recently been subject to PR-based paralysis - they don't want the US to look "provocative" and "cause" a space arms race. Well, the race is already on, but we don't know where the other runners are. We have to assume that they're running right toward our weakest spot - satellite dependence.

5/18/2005 9:48 AM  
Blogger madawaskan said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5/18/2005 10:42 AM  
Blogger madawaskan said...

Here is something that is obvious to most Conservatives and those concerned with human rights...

The Chinese are not going to give a damn about what some international law
lawyer thinks.

And the EU-arms embargo? Whatever Jacques Chirac "pretender to the EU throne" wants...

5/18/2005 10:44 AM  
Anonymous RightWingNutter said...

Given that our military comm sats and GPS will be targets (on the order of sitting ducks) in any future conflict with a national opponent, we had better have a capability to launch new ones fast. Perhaps those old Minuteman missle silos could be reloaded with satelite launchers for military infrastructure?

Pre-launching "stealth" satellites that would be difficult to detect until activated is another possibility.

Regardless of how it's done, we had better be able to quickly replace critical equipment casualties in orbit the same way we replace damaged Humvee's and trucks down here.

5/18/2005 10:53 AM  
Anonymous Neo said...

WMD in space .. go look up the X-17.

Officially an "X plane," the X-17 launched, at least twice, and detonated an atomic device above the Pacific Ocean. Much of the origins of "EMP" research are attributed to this flights.

5/18/2005 11:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last summer there was an attack on a US communications satellite that was broadcasting VOA into areas of the middle east in Farsei. Iran was the target of the broadcasts. A facility in Cuba was pointed out as the culprit. Battles in space have already begun.

5/18/2005 11:34 AM  
Anonymous Neo said...

Also, although I don't know if it was ever launched, there were attempts to lanuch a Thor, equiped with an atomic device, off the deck of an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific. The Thor's engine exploded on the flight deck, but the atomic device did not detonate, luckily.

5/18/2005 11:36 AM  
Blogger gt said...

Weapons? No weapons here. These microwave beams, giant lasers, kinetic energy devices, nuclear wessels? Tools. Tools of mass acceleration.
Reviewing the literature, there's the man-kzin wars, and the moon is a harsh mistress.

5/18/2005 11:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jamming satellites is considered an act of war. We likely have the capability (and don't do it for that reason), and we've got people smart enough to design jamming resistant systems (smarter then theirs, so long as we stop training theirs so well). Militarily we are not 'powerless' to stop such actions. Simpler commercial satellites may have a problem, but I don't think we're really worried about Joe Bob in Florida losing reception on 3 out of 12 of his favorite golf channels...

If someone starts shooting down satellites, we would bring the hammer down and the UN wouldn't mutter a peep because that would be an obvious, agressive act of war. Not to mention potentially destabalizing everyone else's satellites and making an even bigger mess out of near orbit space.

But this is about a space-based weapons platform. We may not need it, but we need to know we can make such a system capable if need be. Maybe sell it as a global defense system against giant asteroids...

5/18/2005 1:22 PM  
Anonymous Robin Burk said...

Almost 40 years after the first Moon landing the action is still all in low orbit.

That's not correct, actually.

The GPS constellation of satellites are in orbit at a height of 20,200 km (12,552 mi). That's not geosynchronous (22,241 mi) but it's higher than is usually meant by the term 'low orbit'.

Commercial communications satellites often are in Low Earth Orbit. The Milstar communications constellation used by DOD are not.

5/18/2005 2:08 PM  
Blogger Mike Lorrey said...

The US has tested more than just an F-15 launched ASAT missile. They've tested several other kinetic kill vehicles (as have the Soviets) and directed energy weapons. They also test launched the Gemini B capsule and a mock-up Manned Orbiting Laboratory. If deployed it would have done what we now do with LaCrosse and other advanced unmanned spy satellites, but would have been capable of being weapons platforms. The Soviets did deploy at least one Soyuz space station with a machine gun emplacement. The US Navy's "Blue Gemini" program was intended to be a human controlled multi-warhead ASAT vehicle. (See Mark Wade's Space Encyclopedia and http://www.deepcold.com).

As we enter the Second Baroque Period, it is pollyannish to assume that space exploration will happen without a military presence by any nation capable of fielding one. The original age of exploration was accompanied and followed by global contests for territory, markets, and control of the seas.

5/18/2005 5:25 PM  
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