US doesn't need orbital battlefleet - pundit
1900s style space-dreadnought arms race would be Bad
A heavyweight Washington thinktank has issued a report which says that it makes no sense for the USA to build an enormous, horribly beweaponed space battle fleet in the immediate future.
Normally, one might say "duh, thanks for the tip", or similar, but in fact there are a fair number of people in and around the US capital who think that powerful American space forces would be a good idea. Quite apart from the obvious threat from aliens - flagged up last month by Presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani - there are other issues.
Firstly, the ability to build intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) - which travel mostly through space on their way to their targets - is expected to spread around the globe in coming decades. Some in the Pentagon believe they need detection satellites at a minimum to deal with this threat, and perhaps space-based raygun cannons or interceptor "kill vehicles" too.
Secondly, there's a strong push in Washington behind the idea that the USA should be able to intervene militarily anywhere on the face of the globe within a matter of hours, or even just minutes. America can do this already, actually, but today the only guaranteed, quick, anywhere-at-all option is a nuclear bomb. Various radical plans are circulating within the US defence department to use suborbital space transportation of some kind to deliver less devastating payloads. This might be as simple as putting a conventional bomb or bombs in an ICBM instead of the nukes. Alternatively it might be as complicated as firing some US Marines round the world on a rocket of some kind. (Options for getting them back again remain unclear at present.) There is also a scheme to shoot off a one-shot robot spyplane rather than going straight to the nuke, ordinary bomb or spaceborne suicide squad.
It's occasionally argued that this type of thing would be easier if the stuff was already up in space, so that you wouldn't have to fire it up there. That's another school of why-we-need-space-forces thought. (It's also the main military justification for hypersonic plane projects.)
Then we get onto more realistic stuff. It is a fact that the US has a lot of very important space infrastructure in orbit already. Examples include the Global Positioning System (GPS) nav-sats - also used by the rest of the world - much of the US military's comms backbone, swarms of secret spy satellites etc. etc. What with the inscrutable Chinese commies having recently demonstrated that they can shoot down satellites, various hopeful people in the Pentagon are predicting beautiful capital-intensive future satellite wars, which would of course require loads of kinetic-intercept or raygun hardware in space.
The new report, Arming the Heavens: A Preliminary Assessment of the Potential Cost and Cost-Effectiveness of Space-Based Weapons, from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, assesses all these things.
"Space has been militarized for many years," writes the author, Steven M. Kosiak. But "it has not, at least as far as can be determined from unclassified sources, been weaponized... satellites have been used to provide intelligence, targeting and other support to terrestrial-based forces and weapons."
That sounds pretty fair, though the Cold War Russian ASAT programme came quite close to being a space weapon. It would normally circle the Earth twice before intercepting and blowing up its target satellite. (The Russkie ASAT was only ever used in tests against Soviet-owned targets, and seems to have been binned in the early '80s.)
Kosiak goes on to say that:
Some analysts believe that the weaponization of space is inevitable and that the United States can and should move rapidly to acquire and field a range of space-based weapons. Others argue that the United States has more to lose than any other country if space is weaponized... sparking or accelerating an arms race in space that the United States should... be seeking to avert or, at least, delay as long as possible.
Old Blighty faced a similar debate in its own days as sole superpower, when the all-big-gun dreadnought battleships were on the drawing boards at the turn of the 20th century. Should Britain build the new battlewagons, thus triggering a dreadnought arms race - and so wipe out its painfully-accrued global dominance in older types of warship?
Had he been around, Kosiak might have advised against the Royal Navy's decision to get into dreadnoughts - certainly if his conclusions on the desirability of a US space battlefleet are anything to go by.
In almost every instance, Arming the Heavens comes down against space-based kit to do each of the given jobs, suggesting either that the task isn't necessary, isn't doable or that terrestrial gear could do it more cheaply. The only space kit which gets a qualified thumbs-up is cheap decoy satellites among which useful American comms, nav and spy birds could hide from enemy sat-kill strikes. The full text of the report is available here (128-page pdf) for those interested.
It looks as though jobs in the future US Space Navy* may remain hard to come by for a while, based on Kosiak's analysis. Very right and proper, no doubt, but still mildly depressing for the science fiction buffs among us. ®
*Past and present-day astronauts/cosmonauts usually have to spend a long time aboard cramped orbital structures such as Mir and the ISS in order to make their launch costs worthwhile. Assuming that any large human presence was required by the US space forces of the future, their lifestyle would probably be far more like being in the navy than being in the air force. On the other hand, if the people spent their time mainly at ground stations, a better name might be US Space Force/Aerospace Force etc.