US Should Forego Space Weapons...For Now

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The folks over at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments released a new report late last week on the U.S. efforts to develop space-based weaponry.

The long and the short of it is that Steve Kosiak, their principle budget analyst and author of the report, believes at this point space-based missile defense and space-based anti-satellite systems are too expensive for their relative effectiveness.

A constellation of space-based weapons designed to defend the United States against an attack with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) would be extremely costly to acquire and support. Moreover, at least based on the technology likely to be available over the next twenty years, such a system would probably not prove to be a cost-effective investment, especially when measured against the cost to a potential adversary of defeating such a system.

Second, while space-based weapons intended to strike terrestrial-based targets could, in some cases, cost substantially less to acquire and support than space-based ballistic missile defense systems, such weapons would likely prove more costlyand, in some instances, far more costlythan comparably effective terrestrial-based alternatives.

Third, while space-based ASAT weapons would also generally be less costly to acquire and support than space-based ballistic missile defense systems, there does not appear to be a compelling need, on either cost or effectiveness grounds, to acquire a dedicated space-based ASAT capabilityin part, because the US military already possesses or is acquiring a range of terrestrial-based weapons with significant inherent ASAT capabilities.

Fourth, space-based defensive (bodyguard) satellites would, to a great extent, be indistinguishable from space-based ASAT weapons. Thus, such systems would likely have similar costs. In addition, their deployment would presumably have similar implications for sparking or accelerating an arms race in space. These weapons would also be incapable of protecting against some of the ASAT threats most likely to emerge in coming years. A more effective and cost-effective approach might be to rely on a range of passive countermeasures. Strengthening US space surveillance and tracking capabilities could also offer an important means of improving the security of US satellites.

Fifth, although space-based weapons designed to strike terrestrial-based targets, conduct ASAT attacks, or intercept enemy ASAT weapons appear to be neither necessary, nor, generally, as cost effective as terrestrial-based alternatives, in a few instancesunlike space-based ballistic missile defense systemsthey appear to be relatively affordable and may even represent cost-effective options. In these cases, non-budgetary considerations, such the perceived strategic importance of the capability and the potential arms race implications of moving ahead with such a system, will have to play the dominant role in shaping programmatic and policy choices.

What he does advocate is some mix of decoy satellites, high-altitude drones that mimic satellite capabilities and the rejiggering of ground-based ICBM interceptors to an ASAT role.

Ultimately ... the most cost-effective means of protecting US satellite capabilities may be to rely on a range of passive countermeasures, such as decoys, and terrestrial-based alternatives, such unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). ... Strengthening US space surveillance and tracking capabilities offers an important means of improving the security of US satellites.

I tend to believe that space weapons will be increasingly important given the U.S. reliance on satellites for everything from navigation to communications. But I like the idea that the U.S. can exploit vulnerabilities in anti-satellite weaponry and weaknesses without breaking the bank, countering one countrys propaganda win with a quiet so what?

-- Christian

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