With all the heavy breathing and sky-is-falling chatter about weapons in orbit lately nice lead editorial, New York Times! -- it's refreshing to see a sober, realistic view of what "space war" would really look like. Most of the action, it turns out, takes place on the ground."Ground-based RF [radio frequency] jammers and laser "dazzlers" might pose a more immediate threat to satellites than deployments of systems formally defined as space weapons," says EE Times.
"Dazzling" is defined as temporary interference with a satellite's optical sensors, as opposed to permanent damage of a satellite's components. At a conference here last week on space military policy, David Wright and Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said that existing U.S. ground lasers such as the Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser at White Sands, N.M., and the Starfire Optical Range, near Albuquerque already could accomplish some dazzling, if not damaging, missions. Wright and Grego co-authored [An American Academy of Arts and Sciences] study, "The Physics of Space Security," with UCS colleague Lisbeth Gronlund.The problem with laser dazzling and blinding, Grego said, is that they are not necessarily temporary. Given the distance from ground to orbit, by the time the power output is high enough to overwhelm a large section of optical sensors, the central peak of the laser power would be sufficient to damage portions of the sensor permanently, making the assault more likely to be considered an act of aggressionPeter Hays, a former National Defense University teacher and author of "United States Military Space: Into the Twenty-First Century," said that the military would always prefer jamming, spoofing (scrambling positioning code) or otherwise electronically disabling satellites to destroying them, since the resultant debris fields would pose a threat to all orbiting satellites, not just targeted ones. "There is a preference in the military to rely on reversible effects first," he saidIn their study, Wright, Grego and Gronlund acknowledge the push to use space for both anti-satellite and anti-missile missions. But Wright said at the conference that space makes a poor staging environment for deploying weapons to attack ground, sea or air targets. It is also less than optimal, he said, as a staging environment for anti-ballistic-missile platforms and weapons platforms that would deny the use of space to others.While he conceded that some in the military believe the United States should deploy space-based weapons as soon as possible to avoid a "space Pearl Harbor," Wright argued that no lasting military advantage would be gained by being first to weaponize space.THERE'S MORE: "A small segment of the Air Force space leadership has always been in favor of unrealistic space weaponry, but is rarely able to convince anybody at higher levels that it is necessary," notes Dwayne Day in a strong Space Review essay.
General Tommy Power wrote that in 1962 in a secret telex explaining why the Air Force needed a manned spacecraft propelled into orbit by nuclear bombs exploded underneath itfighting its way into space the whole time. Power was in charge of Strategic Air Command, and the Orion space battleship was obviously not approved, either by his bosses on the Air Staff or the Secretary of Defense. However, that kind of overheated warrior rhetoric has always existed in the US Air Force when it comes to space programsUnfortunately, a lot of people outside of this community fall for the rhetoric with regularity. The press reports these speeches and the occasional wild study as if they represent real Pentagon plans. Conservatives believe that if an Air Force general states the need for an anti-satellite weapon or an expensive piece of hardware it must be vital. Moreover, so-called peace and justice groups claim that the sky is falling and that we are about to enter the era of space militarization. The gulf between rhetoric and reality is filled with a lot of clueless people.AND MORE: The biggest danger to American satellites might come from junk -- 100,000 - 200,000 "small, untracked pieces of man-made debris" in orbit today. (Thanks RC for the tip.)