Chair Force Engineer

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Million Little Pieces

Taylor Dinerman takes note in the most recent The Space Review that anti-satellite systems of the future will probably try to avoid creating debris which will harm other satellites. While Mr. Dinerman is fond of talking about wrapping a targeted satellite with an airbag, there are plenty of simpler systems that can neutralize enemy satellites.

In the Russian co-orbital anti-satellite scheme of the 60's and 70's, the ASAT would enter an orbit bringing it close to its target, which would then be destroyed by a blast of shrapnel. While the US and China opted for a kinetic kill scheme which creates lots of debris, the Russian system could be refined into a non-debris-producing anti-satellite system. What if the ASAT had a tank of an opaque spray paint instead of a shrapnel warhead? The ASAT could paint over the target's solar arrays, leading to a slow death. Then the ASAT would be free to engage another target in the same orbit. This idea has been around for over 40 years. Perhaps somebody has thought of an effective counter-measure, which is why we don't hear much about it anymore.

As for the scenario where a country's recon sats are destroyed prior to an enemy attack by air, land or sea, there are plenty of alternatives to the kinetic-kill or co-orbital ASAT. Perhaps the most effective, at least for disabling imagery satellites, is a ground-based laser which would destroy the recon satellite's optics. The laser would be less vulnerable to decoys than a kinetic-kill vehicle, too. After all, you could get multiple laser shots but only one shot with an interceptor. The recon sat example is a good illustration of an ASAT's usefulness, though. Because they orbit lower than GPS or communications satellites, it requires far less velocity for a kinetic-kill vehicle to reach them. The effect on wartime strategy would also be felt immediately.

While these scenarios should not be viewed as advocacy for or against them, it illustrates that warfare on "the high frontier" is not a thing of fiction, that it represents a real military challenge, and that it would be naive to believe that treaties alone can stop this scenario from playing out. The armed forces of the major world powers, especially the United States, rely on space assets to an unprecedented degree. And for the most part, they have been untouchable militarily--until now. We mustn't think that America can maintain this cushy status-quo forever.