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Space and Security

An Interview with Michael Heller

Michael Heller is a Research Assistant at The Henry L. Stimson Center. He joined the Stimson Center in November 2003 and currently works on the Space Security Project and the Security for a New Century program. A graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder with honors in International Affairs, Mr. Heller also completed a portion of his undergraduate study at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, where he focused on political and economic aspects of the European Union.

What do you think about the Bush Administration's position toward militarization of space, as a citizen of the United States?

Currently, the Bush Administration's position on the militarization of space is consistent with its general view toward arms control issues. It does not want the United States to be constrained by any type of agreements or treaties. It wants the flexibility to be able to pursue space weapons, ballistic missile defense, including space-based interceptors, and things like that. As a US citizen, I think that although it is top priority to keep the US secure and guard against any potential threats, it is also important to engage the international community and discuss these issues in certain media, such as the conferences on disarmament in Geneva, in order to see exactly what we need to guard against. Through these conferences, we can discuss whether pursuing space weapons will antagonize further and create an arms race in space, and whether there are other types of measures to pursue instead of weapons in space. Over the last 50 years, there has never been an act of warfare in space. There have been intermittent tests of anti-satellite weapons in space during the Cold War, but both the US and the Soviet Union refrained from taking actual acts of war into space. So, it is possible that there is not a need to weaponize, and that instead countries can hedge against threats in space to protect space assets through less aggressive actions. So, as a US citizen, I think the Bush Administration has not yet engaged the international community and the American public enough in addressing this issue, and has used a very unilateral strategy.

How do you feel about other nations' programs to develop space-based defense systems to counter the US programs? Are these programs reasonable, or should they be restricted to prevent an arms race in space? What kinds of international treaties are necessary?

Currently, as far as any public knowledge goes, other nations are not interested in developing space weapons. China and Russia, our peer competitors in space, might be researching space weapons, but have strongly expressed the need to keep space free of weapons. Right now, the United States is far superior in its technology, and currently would be the only country to lead the way toward space weaponization. I think that if it seems like international cooperation in space is what our peer competitors are looking for, then if the United States decides not to pursue a weapons program in space, I think other countries will follow suit. I think other countries would prefer to avoid an arms race in space. While saying that, there are certain necessities that should go along with keeping the US from deploying or using weapons in space. If the US is not going to deploy space weapons, it should look for international cooperation in terms of independent verification, just to make sure that other countries, like China and Russia, are not weaponizing space. There should be confidence-building measures, such as notification of launches, which could help ensure that space will remain free, for peaceful uses. So, the essence of my argument is that if the US does not weaponize space, it is very unlikely that another country will take the initiative to weaponize space.

How should the US take initiative to prevent other countries from developing space-based weapons, as a member of the UN and international community?

The US should work to overcome the current impasse at the Conference on Disarmament, and engage itself in discussing ways to prevent weapons in space. This is something the US has not done under the Bush Administration--exploring different ideas on cooperation in space, exploring ways to ensure that other countries do not build weapons programs in space, and basically discussing a code of conduct in space. At the Conference on Disarmament, the US should discuss a framework for a treaty prohibiting weapons in space, basically engaging the international community. The US could also work with countries individually, such as working with China and Russia, our two closest competitors in space, to discuss prohibitions of weapons in space and confidence-building measures to encourage cooperation in space.

What is the relationship between civil and military space development projects? Do they collaborate closely and share crucial information? Does the government promote cooperation, and if so, how?

I believe currently, the budget for space programs is about 60 percent for civil and 40 percent for military. But it is difficult to distinguish between civil and military space programs, because a lot of the research and development for one can be applied to the other. So there is a close relationship. For example, GPS (Global Positioning Satellites) is used for both civil and military purposes, so the research and development has dual applications. For a country like China, there is a lot of gray area between whether the budget is being used for military or civil space projects. Almost all major space programs in China that are civil have some military component. So civil and military space projects are very interrelated.

Do you feel it is beneficial or detrimental for the private aerospace industry to supply technology used in space-based defense?

No. I am opposed to it--I do not see the feasibility of an effective, cost-efficient ballistic missile defense system in space when considering current technological and financial constraints. But I think the private component to supporting military space activities in research and development is crucial. It cannot all fall under public programs. Private enterprise creates the best technology. Public does not--the Soviets showed that. For instance, Lockheed Martin, which is a private company, is bidding for government contracts, and I do not see any problem with that as long as the demand comes from true need, and not the DC lobby. But ballistic missile defense is currently not a viable deterrence strategy, or a viable strategy to promote peaceful uses of space.

Private companies are just making money?

No, I would not say just making money--some people truly believe that ballistic missile defense could make the United States safer and the world more secure. So, it is a combination--there is that level of business competition to get these contracts, but it is also a political and moral decision to pursue ballistic missile defense.

In 2001, the Pentagon stated that it will test a "space bomber," under production by NASA and Lockheed Martin, which is capable of destroying targets on the other side of the globe within 30 minutes. As an anti-militarization of space organization, how would you appeal to the aerospace industry for restraint of space-based weapons and other non-space weapons?

There is a difference between militarization of space and weaponization of space. Space is already militarized, meaning that it is used for intelligence gathering, for reconnaissance, to coordinate troops, etc. But space is not yet weaponized--there are not weapons in space. I am against weaponization of space. But militarization of space, in a lot of ways, actually helps promote the peaceful use of space because military components in space, such as satellite reconnaissance, verify treaties that prevent the buildup of nuclear arms. So we are not anti-militarization of space; we are anti-weaponization.

So, since you are anti-weaponization of space, how would you appeal to the aerospace industry for restraint of space-based weapons?

I feel that it is not going to be up to the private aerospace industries to exercise restraint. It is more up to Washington policy makers to decide these government contracts. With these policy decisions, it is a free market determining these contracts. I cannot see it being feasible for a Lockheed Martin or a Boeing to turn down a contract based on moral decisions, unless it was extremely undebatable as being an evil subject. On the other hand, ballistic missile defense is a debatable subject, depending on which camp you are in, and if you are speaking to a more conservative person or a person who truly thinks weaponization of space is going to help the world. It is all about perspective. So, these contracts are more of a political decision than an industry decision.

In the near future, the US Air Force is planning to deploy the Counter Surveillance and Reconnaissance System (CSRS) by 2010, which jams imagery satellite signals from the ground. Do you think such kinds of reconnaissance satellites are necessary to prevent an arms race in outer space?

Some of the newest developments in space-based infra-red systems are actually peace-building tools, where they increase situational awareness in space. Situational awareness is important because it allows the United States to detect what is going on in space, whether it is orbital degree, which tells the US whether it is hazardous to launch vehicles, or international space station activity. So the idea of increased surveillance is good in my opinion, because this transparency allows the US to detect threats to US space-based assets. We hope that in time, instead of having weapons already deployed in space, the US could possibly use some of its capabilities on Earth to prevent threats of attacks on its satellites. So increased reconnaissance is a good thing, in my opinion.

But the idea of jamming imagery, since it is a counter-measure of surveillance, is a slippery slope. Cutting off the communication, including imagery communication, is already banned by the International Telecommunications Union during peace time. So during peace time, these acts would constitute a space weapon. In war, by practical nature, a lot of these counter measures or jamming systems have already been used. During the Second Gulf War, Saddam Hussein tried to jam the US GPS, our satellite communication, but he was not successful. But having such tools already deployed in space is probably not a good idea. It rides on that slippery slope toward weaponization, if not constituting a space weapon. Having deployed the capability may lead to its use.

The increased reconnaissance is positive. It takes guesswork out of the "Prisoner's Dilemma." It helps us know what other people are doing, so we do not have to build up in response. But these counter measures--jamming constitutes weapons. Maybe these are not weapons in the traditional sense, such as carrying munitions or kinetic kill weapons. But if you have a satellite jamming communications, another country could do something to counteract that measure, and could send up weapons to detonate nearby and short out the satellite that is jamming. It could also have negative consequences because if a nuclear weapon is used, the fallout radiation and electromagnetic pulse could hurt other satellites that were not the targets.

Do you think the 1967 Outer Space Treaty needs to be revised? (The treaty does not prohibit placement of anti-satellite weapons and development of radio-electronic jamming devices in space.) If so, what kinds of treaties ware feasible, and what would you propose? What would be the outcome of the modification for the US, Russia and China, in particular?

The 1967 Treaty needs to be updated. It needs to not just preclude the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space; it should also prohibit anti-satellite weapons, because anti-satellite weapons, which are weapons that are either sent from Earth to space, or within space, to take out a satellite. It also needs to include weapons that are place in space to attack Earth. I would say there should be a ban on space weapons, and space weapons would be anything that would disrupt, damage or destroy space-based assets or any target. This includes a shot from space to Earth, from Earth to space, or within space. They need to clarify this language--it should not just be a ban on nuclear weapons, which is what the Outer Space Treaty is. It needs to also ban conventional weapons and jamming. There needs to be a clear and concise treaty banning weapons in space. Russia and China had some good ideas in their proposal, and the missing component is the United States, which is the major player right now in this area. Unfortunately, the current administration does not want to be constrained by any treaties. That is why the US withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty--for more flexibility, fewer constraints. That is the mantra of this administration.

How do you think countries can maintain a balance in development of outer space between national security, economic development, and international responsibility? How can they do this while still promoting stability in the world?

There are a couple of components: economic development, scientific development and breakthroughs, civil development, and any other international cooperation in these three areas. These three areas are all peaceful entities and further integrate the world, promoting not just peaceful actions in space, but peaceful actions on Earth. If we have a commercial agreement with China for satellite television or something along those lines, there is less likelihood that China is going to try to destroy one of our satellites, because it is against its own interests if China uses these satellites for its televisions or cell phones. All of these areas of cooperation contribute to peace. As far as maintaining security, the GPS system and Galileo [which will be used by European nations and China, and is comparable to the US GPS] are going to contain or already have separate security components. So I guess the Mcode in GPS is a kind of military component, although we might use it to coordinate joint NATO operations. This security can still be maintained for the United States because it is on a different bandwidth of radio frequency, so other countries cannot access it without permission. It is almost the same thing as having a separate satellite, because while it is still part of the hardware, the software components are different, so you can have secure lines and still have a commercial side to a satellite. Hence they are separate entities, almost two satellites just separated by different bandwidths of radio frequency.

To get to the quick essence of your question, increased international cooperation in space contributes to security in space. So as the civil, technology, scientific and economic developments move forward, there would be less reason for these countries that are within the system to move forward with developing weapons and challenging security in space. All these countries are ready to move forward, except the US is not at this point.

What is the ideal and effective role the UN should play to maintain the power balance among countries to deter an arms race in outer space?

There is a theory that international governmental organizations are only as strong as its components (governments) want it to be. If we have one component, let's say the United States, that is willing to move forward on something, such as Iraq or weaponization of space, then the UN is severely weakened, if not a non-consideration. But the United Nations is important, because it has so many different organizations and components, that although it does not have an enforcement agency, and it is only as strong as its components, it can still be an advocate for international cooperation. So although it is sometimes marginalized, it must continue to keep calling for international cooperation, raising international awareness, and engaging governments and international organizations, and hope this continued drive toward international cooperation will eventually come through. It is just a matter of patience and not giving up. The UN has so many crucial components in the areas of international development, economic agreements, peaceful deliberation, other conflict resolutions to a certain extent, and peace operations in recent years. If all of these areas are crucial enough, then a country that really wants to engage in the UN will be willing to make sacrifices for these other benefits. Essentially, the US has the capability right now to lay down the law in space under the auspices of the United Nations, so that a hundred or even a million years from now, if someone else is in power, at least the US was able to lay down these rules to set a precedent. We are missing an opportunity to do that.

Russia and China are asking the UN disarmament commission to begin a series of negotiations on an international ban on weapons in space. The US is refusing to participate in those discussions. Why is the US taking this position not to attend the discussions?

There is an issue brief by Michael Krepon [Founding President of the Henry L. Stimson Center] on our web site--it is called "A Short-Handed Strategy Against Terrorism and Proliferation." In it, he not only advocates that the United States lead the way toward cutting off the development of nuclear materials and preventing weapons in weapons in space; he also discussed that at the UN conference in disarmament, there is a current impasse—a deadlock—where the United States wants to freeze the development of nuclear weapons materials with a fissile material "cutoff" treaty. China has said it is not going to deliberate on this cutoff treaty until the US starts discussing space weapons at the conference. Recently, the newly appointed US ambassador, at the conference on disarmament, said she did not have any ideas on how to get the conference out of its current impasse. In other words, they are not willing to even talk about space weapons in order to start discussing this other non-proliferation agreement. So, now the ban on space weapons is having repercussions against proliferation and international cooperation. So the US is not only refusing to take part in space weapons discussions; it is willing to sacrifice one of its key initiatives in order to avoid discussing space weapons.

In the long term, what do you foresee for the movement of the world toward outer space? Do you think that weaponization of space will be pushed further? What do you feel are the most important political and economic effects of weaponization of space? What would you do to constrain the space arms race, and how would you educate the next generation to prevent it?

Hopefully, movements toward outer space will be international economic, commercial, and technological cooperation, which is what has happened in the last 50 years. Space is one of the issues that is international—it affects every country—because according to the Outer Space Treaty, no one can claim sovereignty in space. It is available to all nations. Hopefully, it will be an area of increased international cooperation. But the United States has outlaid certain measures for space weapons for the next 10 years. They are not debris-creating, like munitions weapons that will create debris by exploding other satellites in space, because the debris from one satellite getting blown up will run into another satellite and create more debris. The United States is trying to avoid that, because it will damage our reconnaissance satellites, our commercial satellites, our international space stations—all of those things. The movement toward space weapons will be toward non-debris-creating counter measures. This administration, or if there is a new administration in November, after the election—hopefully they will hold back on creating these space weapons, and keep their research and development within labs. This way, we will have the capability for space weapons, but will never test them outside of labs, and will keep the sanctity of outer space strictly for cooperation. There will be increased situational awareness in space, increased reconnaissance, infrared systems, increased radar, which will be positive and help us to detect asteroids or other non-man-made materials that are threatening communication satellites. Maybe there will be measures that protect satellites, such as hardening them against radiation or against other natural or man-made developments, or hardening them against lasers if somebody decides to use a laser against a satellite. Or the satellites could be made more mobile, so that if there is a threat made to a commercial satellite, it can be moved. The current satellites are just out there in orbit—they are not fully mobile. So, hopefully, we will move toward cooperation, and away from weaponization, because we are not weaponized, but use practical ways to keep weapons out of space, without compromising international security or compromising, from an American standpoint, the security of the United States.

The economic effects of weapons in space could be devastating. There are a couple of instances, in Colorado Springs, where the timing of one of the satellites was off by a couple seconds—some detail like that, it was just a simple mistake—and it caused a large number of credit cards to no longer work, because they were no longer be coordinated with satellite information. There was also a similar instance with cell phones, where around 800,000 people could not use their cell phones for a while. So maybe the US will not use weapons that create debris, but other countries that have less to lose by creating space debris—because they do not have commercial satellites themselves, or they just want to hurt the United States to get rid of our jamming capabilities in space—may shoot or deploy weapons that create debris. This debris creation can take out all of our commercial satellites, increasing insurance for sending up satellites, and essentially if there was some type of nuclear detonation in space, it could short out some of the major components that run the global system. We are already extremely dependent on satellites for communication—US soldiers and militaries across the world rely on a global positioning system for coordinating battlefield activities. If orbital debris is compounded and is flying through space and takes out our satellites, you throw them back a hundred years economically, in a civil sense, and so forth. It is completely tied in, space weapons and economic consideration. They are not exclusive.

People do not know about space weapons. I have seen personally, from my own experiences, that people of my age just have ideas of space weapons being similar to things people associate with Star Wars or science fiction. Our generation, the next policy makers, need to become award that space is crucial-- that these space launches that are not "interesting" any more, ever since the first couple where everything was televised and everyone was excited—it is crucial and integral to the modern world and how it works. Awareness of how important space is commercially and scientifically to the world, and how the weapons in space could seriously threaten us.

I recommend reading the US Air Force (USAF) Flight Transformation Report, which was just released in February and updated in November. The USAF is the executive agent for military space, overseeing all the military space activities. The report talks bout all planned space weapons programs, in public documents, that show budgets, programs to deploy weapons, and science fiction stuff within the next 10-15 years. In the next five years, we will probably get increased space-based surveillance and reconnaissance, but in the next 10 or 15 years, they are looking at developing the ability to apply force from space.

As an employee at the Stimson Center, how would you educate young people--the next generation—about this issue?

We are currently working on our web site—I am working with Michael Krepon on laying out our strategy calling for space assurance, where we are basically ensuring that not only will space be maintained for cooperation and peaceful uses, but also ensuring that it will maintained for international security, so that space assets will not become susceptible to unwarranted or unforeseen attacks--for example, as Donald Rumsfeld said, a "Space Pearl Harbor." So we are advocating this idea of space assurance on our website, and we are going to be laying it out the rules of the road for responsible space-faring nations--nations that are in space and want to continue the cooperation and peaceful uses of space. We are doing it through the web--I think the internet can be a great medium to get it off the back burner of American politics. The US gets so focused on one area, they fail to see what is coming up next. I think Europe has a lot more awareness about this than the US. I think we also need to get it out of the academic community—it is a very academic issue and is prevalent among think tanks and policy makers, but I heard very little about space weapons when I was a kid, other than in movies.

Submitted by:
Tomomasa Nagano, spring 2004 intern