'Star Wars' Could Sabotage Us in Space

Kurt Gottfried is a professor of physics at Cornell University and a director of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Two incompatible trends now dominate our space program: ever greater dependence on military satellites, and the Strategic Defense Initiative, which would create weapons that inevitably threaten satellites.

If the past is any guide, the Soviets are bound to copy us. The upshot could be two strategic forces ideally suited to the swift destruction of the opponent's orbiting eyes and ears. In a severe crisis the fear that sight and hearing might be lost without notice would be an inducement to strike first--a hazard that much of our government has simply ignored. But SDI is a key card in the Geneva poker game. The negotiations should therefore compel us to formulate a sensible military space policy.

Satellites have long been essential to intelligence gathering, for warning of Soviet missile launches and for military communications. A large constellation of Navstar global positioning system satellites is now being deployed. It will allow U.S. forces, from infantry platoons to missile submarines, to navigate with amazing precision in any weather, anywhere. Soon we shall orbit Milstar satellites for encrypted, jamproof, worldwide data and voice communications that would not even be disrupted by the violence done to the atmosphere by nuclear explosions. Such satellites do not come cheap. The Milstar complex is likely to cost about $10 billion, but it is critical to the ongoing effort to erect a robust command system, and thereby to strengthen deterrence.

Much larger sums are to be spent by SDI to develop missile interceptors. But any weapon that can attack a missile as it flies through space can pose a threat to satellites. Indeed, satellites are more vulnerable. In contrast to missiles, satellites are constantly on a known path and can be attacked repeatedly.

The threat to any satellite depends on the potency of the interceptor and on whether the satellite is equipped to withstand or evade that particular type of attack. Against a speed-of-light weapon such as a laser, evasion is not possible. Even Milstar, at a height of 22,000 miles, would be struck in one-eighth of a second by a laser on the ground or in low orbit. In short, the satellite's protection must be properly matched to the threat.

That may not turn out to be the case with Navstar and Milstar. Both are protected against some forms of attack and are intended to be essential links in the U.S. command system until the turn of the century. But both were designed before SDI was born. Many Navstar satellites already are in orbit and cannot be retrofitted by the space shuttle.

Thus, should Soviet developments in missile defense attain the objectives of SDI, vital parts of our command system might become exposed to disruption in seconds, compared with the 20 to 30 minutes that submarine- and land-based missiles now need to destroy command centers.

The evolution of space weapons must be constrained to avoid such an outcome. That is also the opinion of Gen. Charles Gabriel, Air Force chief of staff, who told Congress: "I would like to be able to agree with the Soviets that we not have any anti-satellite weapons if we could verify it properly. Because we are an open society, we need our space capabilities more than they do."

The agreement that Gabriel desires would have to include limits on weapon tests in space. But could we monitor compliance with such a treaty? A strategic defense must have an automated system to track and identify thousands of missiles and decoys in minutes. If that is feasible, it is surely possible to monitor sporadic Soviet space shots and analyze them at leisure with the help of human intelligence. Indeed, we already watch Soviet space activities with a network of telescopes and radars accurate enough to see an object the size of a football at a height of 22,000 miles. Some sensors being developed by SDI would bolster that surveillance capability.

The essential ingredients of a sound space policy thus become evident: There should be an agreement that would ban space tests of anti-satellite weapons, and the SDI program should give the highest priority to sensor development while research on space weapons conforms fully with the ABM treaty. Research into missile defense would continue. Should that research be successful, the entire strategic edifice, including the treaties, would then require reexamination--but only then.

Such a policy would meet our urgent need to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

It would allow us to exploit the Soviet Union's apparent interest in deep cuts in offensive nuclear forces--an interest that is certain to evaporate if we move full steam ahead toward missile defense.

It would protect us against the danger that the exceedingly difficult "Star Wars" quest would fail to yield a viable missile defense but would instead generate Soviet weapons that threaten our vital space command system.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World