Satellite wars are coming next

Armies like the IDF must rethink their dependence on satellite technologies.

DART satellite 298.88 (photo credit: AP Photo/HO, NASA)
DART satellite 298.88
(photo credit: AP Photo/HO, NASA)
China's successful test of a ballistic anti-satellite missile last month by blowing up one of its own weather satellites without prior warning, and Iran's recent announcement that it has developed a similar long-range ballistic missile, are two strong indications that the time has come for decision-makers in the West to sit up and pay attention to a new dimension of global strategic concern. The vulnerability of satellite systems that orbit the earth's surface to action by hostile states is no longer a matter of science fiction. The message conveyed by the two countries' overt display of anti-satellite missile capabilities has double ramifications: not only can military reconnaissance and command systems that are controlled by satellite now be potentially targeted; but much of the day-to-day functioning of civilian life in the communications-dependent developed world is at risk, as well. The China-Iran messages, couched in technical issues, are in fact highly political ones. Concern for the escalation of this phenomenon has pushed several countries with advanced satellite programs - the US, Australia, Canada, Britain, South Korea and Japan - to lodge formal diplomatic protests in the wake of the Chinese test. A senior Taiwan official called it "an aggressive act by the Chinese side." Yet some military and intelligence officials have called for a much stronger international response, given the issues at stake. In early February, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, reported to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Chinese capability is "very worrying" and deserves very close attention." The commander of the US Air Force Space Command, which spearheads that country's space defense program, recently stated that there is a need for better intelligence in this area due to the increasing danger of attacks on satellites. TO UNDERSTAND the strategic issues raised by China and Iran's anti-satellite missile initiatives, and their relevance to Israel's national security policy, some technical and legal points first need to be clarified. Satellites are "mirrors in the sky" that are launched by rockets into earth orbit. They receive signals from the Earth's surface and relay them to receiving stations at other points on the ground or to other satellites. Satellite signals receive and transmit every conceivable type of information: telephone conversations, monitoring of truck fleets, Internet traffic, operational data for military weapons systems in combat, television and radio broadcasting, weather data, emergency communications from ships at sea, communications to astronauts - practically any type of 21st-century human communication imaginable. Although satellite systems have become ubiquitous as a basic part of the modern nation-state's technological infrastructure, they are a relatively recent invention, and a product of the Cold War. Sputnik 1 was launched by the Soviets in October 1957 and Syncom 2 by the US in 1963. But development of satellite technologies has been rapid and has produced exponential benefits in so many fields of human endeavor that there are presently about 1,400 registered satellite networks in orbit around the globe. The commercial value of satellite communications today may be conservatively estimated in the billions of dollars. FOR BOTH military and civilian-use satellites to be able to operate as effectively as they do, and principally to ensure that uplink and downlink signals will be received without interference, a system of international law and regulation has evolved over the years under the aegis of the International Telecommunication Union. Briefly, the ITU is responsible for administering a global system of satellite registration and coordination that is implemented by the organization's 191 member states, with ITU facilitation, on behalf of the satellites launched by their own governments or by private firms located within state territory. The ITU provides a master register of orbiting satellites, including the radio frequencies utilized for accessing these satellites and their orbital "parking spaces": both may be utilized by the registering state only for the 10-to-15-year life span of the satellite or satellite system. Under normal ITU practice, satellites that become outdated (as China claimed its now-destroyed weather satellite had become) are either moved to a "back lot" orbital position from which they can operate at minimal levels and eventually disintegrate as they fall towards the earth's surface; or they are boosted into space, out of the earth's gravitational pull, to become space debris. Old satellites are never blown apart in the way that China has acted, since the resulting bits and pieces are liable to cause interference with other satellite signals, if not direct damage to other satellites. In the context of the Cold War the US and the Soviet Union did in fact experiment with such anti-satellite missiles, but stopped their deployment because of these risks. Although ITU satellite regulations appear purely technical, the normative base underlying these rules directly reflects members' interests. For this reason, the satellite game is still very much a game conducted by states, and deeply dependent upon inter-state cooperation. For instance, a major debate played out during the 1970s and '80s within the ITU between developed and developing nations around the issue of access to the most lucrative satellite orbits. The initial regime was based on a "first come - first served" approach, allotting prime orbital slots to the elite club of the fewer than 10 states already possessing satellite launch technology (including Israel, which launched Ofek 1 in 1988), but developing countries demanded equitable access. The eventual compromise was embodied in an amendment to the ITU Constitution, establishing that radio frequencies and satellite orbits are limited natural resources which must be equitably utilized by all, "taking into account the special needs of the developing countries." In addition to the normative ITU system, a number of widely adopted treaties, as well as several General Assembly resolutions, testify to the primacy that countries have given to the principles of non-militarization of space and satellite systems. The earliest of the treaties, the 1967 so-called "Outer Space Treaty" (ratified by Israel in 1977) established the three basic principles of exemption of space and celestial bodies from claims of national sovereignty, their utilization exclusively for the peaceful benefit of humankind, and the prohibition on initiating military activity in space. Notwithstanding these particular norms of interstate cooperation, nations are at the end of the day governed by general international law in all of their sovereign activities, whether on the Earth's surface, in its atmosphere or in space. Although signatories to the Outer Space Treaty are prohibited from placing in orbit "any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction" they are in fact permitted by the Treaty to act under Article 51 of the Charter if they are convinced that the self-defense doctrine is applicable. THUS, THE Chinese and Iranian anti-satellite provocations raise familiar political and military issues in a new, troubling context. Although their present missile capabilities can only target relatively low-orbiting satellites, potential threats by hostile states to satellites in all orbital ranges put global interdependency at eventual risk. It is not difficult to imagine future attacks on satellite-based international banking systems, Internet hubs, or emergency communications systems. Armies that have come to depend upon highly sophisticated satellite communications for military reconnaissance and operations, as do those of the US and Israel, must rethink their dependence on these technologies. US satellite policy trends on the one hand, and growing regional strategic threats on the other, pose a dilemma for Israeli decision-makers. How might Israel best respond to the apparently inevitable threat to both its military satellite operations and its civilian and commercial satellite activities by a hostile state such as Iran? So far, Israel's chief ally and one of the chief supporters of its satellite and space program, the US, has taken a unilateral approach in this area. In 2002, the US rejected a treaty proposal spearheaded by China and Russia to specifically ban the use of all weapons in space. It has spurned UN-based efforts to promote international cooperation in the implementation of satellite programs, as the only country voting against a 2006 General Assembly resolution to place "transparency and confidence-building measures" for such programs on the GA agenda (Israel was the sole abstainer in that vote). Moreover, President Bush authorized a space policy position in August 2006 that stated US opposition to "the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit US access to or use of space." In the meantime, the US is moving ahead with budgeting and development of the "son of Star Wars" missile defense system and Congress wants to create a new National Space Intelligence Center, the better to monitor potential threats. Indeed, China and Iran's specific message to the US this past month may be that, if the US continues to opt out of international cooperation in this context, anything goes. THREE OPTIONS, and perhaps a fourth, are available to Israeli decision-makers. First, Israel might enhance both offensive and defensive national satellite capabilities within the parameters of existing ITU law and general international law doctrine of self-defense. Second, it may work through diplomatic and legal channels to buttress efforts at expanding and enforcing the existing ITU and treaty framework, counter to present US priorities. Third, it might huddle well under the continually-developing US satellite defense umbrella. And the fourth option? All of the above. The writer is an attorney, formerly of the legal bureau of the Ministry of Communications and currently on leave from the Reut Institute for public policy analysis in Tel Aviv.