Military ‘Spy’ Satellites in Space Enhance Stability Without Weaponizing the Skies

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<i> William H. Kincade is a senior associate in technology and security policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. </i>

Except for the element of human tragedy, the explosion of a Titan launch vehicle last month--the second consecutive Titan loss--was as devastating to our space program as the loss of the Challenger shuttle. Last weekend’s destruction of an out-of-control Delta rocket carrying a weather satellite--the first Delta loss since 1977--only deepened the dark cloud of questions hovering over the future of U.S. activities in space. We now have no reliable means of launching military or civilian payloads, and two years or more may pass before the Defense Department and NASA launch programs return to normal.

The lost time cannot, practically speaking, be made up. But the delay can be used to advantage, to review our thinking about the purposes and methods of exploiting space and to clarify the different choices involved in its militarization and “weaponization.” This is especially crucial in view of the controversy surrounding tests of anti-satellite weapons and President Reagan’s proposal for space-based missile defenses. Both have generated more partisan warfare than thoughtful analysis of space options.

The military uses for space are: communication and data links; intelligence collection and monitoring of early-warning indicators and arms-control agreements; gathering meteorological data; navigation; locating and identifying tactical or strategic targets; and providing a medium for space-based or space-oriented weapons.


The first five of these functions, and perhaps some of the sixth, can be accomplished with satellites, which reveals in part why the Pentagon is content with unmanned space rockets and has resisted involvement in the far more costly and risky shuttle program.

The effective militarization of space began in 1960 when the U.S. Navy successfully orbited its Transit satellite to update the navigation systems of missile submarines, and the Air Force obtained film from the first photo-reconnaissance satellite, Discoverer 13.

Much more advanced reconnaissance satellites now monitor the territory of each superpower. This helps to ensure that neither will overcome its deep inhibitions against the use of nuclear weapons, owing to an erroneous belief that the other is preparing an attack. Indeed, satellite monitoring has very likely given the nuclear balance of terror its basic stability.

Satellites aid strategic predictability, which facilitates planning and saves money, and their arms-control utility is well known. Other satellites provide life-saving weather and navigation information to the military. Satellites also permit improved command control and crisis management by political and military leaders.

True, satellites also allow greater missile accuracy and better target information for nuclear or conventional conflict. Still, it cannot be assumed that the world would be a safer place without them. Up to now, the militarization of space has been a net benefit for peace.

Condemning the militarization of space thus misses the more vital question: the weaponization of space. Can military programs continue to recognize, in the langauge of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, “the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes?” Or will benign military activity above our planet inevitably lead to a U.S.-Soviet rivalry in space weapons that will nullify the stability of a weapons balance on Earth?


It is likely to be a long time before the means exist to carry out the technically formidable vision of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Yet developmental programs in the near and middle term could set unwanted precedents. Both the United States and the Soviet Union are pursuing anti-satellite technology, as well as methods to defend satellites against attack. Further off, but still nearer to realization than “Star Wars,” is the American aerospace plane, a trans-atmospheric vehicle that the Pentagon is touting as a missile-chaser.

The triple blow of the Challenger, Titan and Delta accidents has drawn attention to serious technical and institutional problems in our space program. This provides an unprecedented opportunity to raise questions of utmost gravity about the policy underlying that program. It no longer suffices to be “for” or “against” the militarization of space; that has been accomplished. What we must do is draw the line between benign military activity and extraterrestrial warfare.