Arms Race in Space? U.S. Air Force Quietly Focuses on Space Control

Author data: 
Theresa Hitchens and Jeffrey Lewis
Publication Date: 
September 2003
Description: 

Defense News

Project: 
Re-evaluating Space Security
The Reconsidering the Rules for Space Project
File Name: 
Document Type: 
Articles and Op-Eds

While the U.S. Congress was debating the defense budget this summer, Air Force officials were downplaying their efforts to develop small, orbiting weapons to disrupt or destroy enemy satellites.

In a June 24 meeting with reporters at the Pentagon, Peter Teets, Air Force undersecretary, denied the Air Force was working on radio-frequency or laser jamming microsatellites. A June 30 article in Space News quoted an Air Force spokesman as saying that the service had "dropped" work on such satellites because the "technology was deemed too immature."

Both statements are true, in a narrow sense. Efforts to build attack satellites are currently taking a back seat to ground-based technologies that disrupt enemy space assets and protect our own - what the Air Force calls "space control" and "counterspace operations."

But the shift in research priorities does not mean the Air Force has given up plans to put these weapons in space. The service's "Strategic Master Plan for FY 04 and Beyond" makes it abundantly clear that officials intend to deploy a variety of space weapons eventually. The Master Plan calls for development of "defensive and offensive counterspace" capabilities during the next two decades that will produce "active on-orbit protection" and "space-based counterspace" systems between 2016 and 2028.

And despite its acknowledgement that the technology is not yet ready, the Air Force continues to pursue the development of microsatellite weapons. The service's 2004 budget request gives a program called Advanced Spacecraft Technology $14.4 million to develop and test a microsatellite "to demonstrate ... operations around a non-cooperative resident space object." The program also contains $14.8 million to "develop microsatellite (10-100 kilogram) technologies ... [that] could enable applications such as space protection, [and] counterspace capabilities."

These efforts are part of several microsatellite technology programs, including the Experimental Satellite Series (XSS). Launched Jan. 29, the 28-kilogram XSS-10 successfully demonstrated its ability to move closely around another object to take images. The contract to build its successor, XSS-11, and its more specific sensor payload already has been awarded.