(photo credit: Northrop Grumman Artwork)
On January 11, China shot down its own defunct satellite, claiming it was cleaning up "space pollution." Israel is not the only country, however, to suspect China might have been demonstrating more than its environmental awareness.
On January 22 The New York Times reported that US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph had called the Chinese action "a wake-up call" and noted that "a small number of states are pursuing capabilities to exploit our vulnerabilities."
And on Wednesday, Air Force chief Maj.-Gen. Elazar Shkedy warned that Israel is facing a possible threat to its space-based assets over the coming decade, and that we must start preparing now to meet this threat. Speaking to the second Annual International Space Conference in Herzliya, Shkedy said: "Battle in space is on our agenda whether we like it or not. ... Israel needs to make sure it is not cut off from its space assets during a time of conflict."
Gen. [res] Prof. Itzak Ben-Israel, who heads the Israel Space Agency, said that satellites are critical for the targeting of JDAM "bunker-busting" guided missiles. Israel has just purchased $100 million worth of these missiles. Other officials note that modern warfare, not to mention civilian communications and many other functions, has become extremely dependent on satellites.
How, then, can satellites be defended? They cannot be armored, because every gram counts when launching into space. For the same reason, it is not likely to be cost effective to provide satellites with their own defense systems. The only real way to defend satellites is with a comprehensive anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense system.
As it happens, the United States has been talking about such such a system for over two decades. Three American presidents - Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush - have committed to building it. Their domestic opponents have fought tooth and nail against the "militarization of space."
Now the Bush administration is reportedly poised to ask Congress to fund the development of "orbital battle stations," each of which will be able to shoot down ballistic missiles with 40 or 50 infra-red guided projectiles the size of a loaf of bread.
Such a system is necessary not just to defend satellites, but millions of people. As Prof. Everett Dolman of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base says, space based systems are "the only viable option for global defense against the most likely threats, such as an attack by Iran against Israel or by Pakistan against India."
Dolman points out that the technology to shoot down missiles from space "has been available to the US for at least two decades. Indeed, should the US dedicate itself to a fast track development and deployment of several dozen networked anti-missile satellites, it could have a baseline capability in place within two years."
This would obviously be a very welcome development. Iran already has missiles that can reach Israel, which could be armed with chemical or biological weapons even if Iran is still incapable of building a nuclear warhead. The Arrow missile, while better than nothing, is not as effective as a boost-phase defense that would shoot down missiles as they are launched from an aggressor state.
Moreover, the missile threat is growing, not going away.
In 1972, eight countries had long-range ballistic missiles. Today, 20 countries do. If any clarification were necessary, the recent war in Lebanon showcased the missile as the "equalizer" for rogue states and their terrorist proxies. And while ABM systems may be of limited use against short-range missiles, it is the long-range missiles that pose a possible existential threat.
In this context, we hope administration opponents in Congress will abandon their anachronistic opposition to space-based defense systems. The option of "demilitarizing" space does not exist. The choice is between leaving the populations of free nations exposed to missile attack, or taking advantage of the best technologies available to meet that threat.