By Jeffrey Hawn
Mankind’s interest in exploration is inevitably accompanied by his ability to spread destruction. In 1903, the Wright brothers became the first men to fly. In 1914, eleven years later, men dueled each other in paper and wood airplanes armed with machine guns over the Western Front. Between 1939-1945, aluminum and steel aircraft rained death and destruction on the cities of Europe and Asia, culminating in the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It speaks to reason then that when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to fly beyond the atmosphere in 1962, war would soon follow him to the stars. In many ways this has and hasn’t happened, while the technology of the space program is intransigently linked to the development of ballistic missiles.
While there has been some military utilization of space such as spy satellites and the Global Positioning System, the world has been spared orbiting nuclear weapons thanks to an agreement drawn up in 1967. The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies to use its full name, commonly called the Outer Space Treaty, has defined Earth’s orbit and anything beyond, as the greatest neutral zone in human history. Among the treaty’s provisions is a ban on the placement of Weapons of Mass Destruction, or WMDs, in orbit, on the moon or any other celestial body. Nations are likewise forbidden to construct fortifications or place troops on any celestial body. However, the treaty does not ban the placement or use of conventional weapons in space. This is a legal caveat that is a legacy of the Cold War era, which could be leading to big trouble.
Launching a rocket is expensive. Even using the nominally reusable space shuttle, it still cost on average about $10,000 to place one pound in orbit. United Launch Alliance, the primary provider of all US military launches, estimates a single launch from its Atlas or Delta series rocket costs $225 million. During the Cold War when launch costs were even higher, one can assume that both the US and Soviet Union decided not to pursue space militarization because it was not economically feasible.
However, that is changing. Today, private corporations, most notably SpaceX, are able to reduce launch costs to $2,000-$3,000 a pound. This is a significant reduction in cost. What is more, SpaceX has demonstrated a systematic way to design and build a functioning rocket. It would likely take a nation-state very little effort to replicate SpaceX’s work if it devoted its resources to such a project. While SpaceX should be commended for helping to further humanity’s journey to the stars, the ease at which a private company can put things in orbit begs the question, who else can and will put something into orbit and what?
While thankfully, no terrorist organization possesses the will or capacity to invest in orbital weaponry, several nations do posses both the technical expertise and the desire to gain a strategic edge. Two that come to mind that already have a limited space program are North Korea and Iran. In 2005, Iran succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit, and North Korea has been working hard to develop a rocket capable of reaching the US mainland.
Both nations have been accused of developing their rocket technology as an appendage to their nuclear programs. Yet, if they are able to secure reliable access to orbit, nuclear weapons may prove to be unnecessary. There are a host of potential space-based weapon systems ranging from conventional missiles to laser armed satellites. Most of these systems have never left the drawing board, and are still years away from practicality. However, one system stands out as being both feasible and effective using today’s technology.
Kinetic energy weapons, popularly called ‘Rods from the Gods’ are one weapons system that these states could consider as an alternative to the more traditional nuclear warhead, especially as anti-missile technology continues to evolve and improve with each passing year. Kinetic energy weapons, while less destructive than nuclear warheads, can theoretically cause significant damage especially if fired in a cluster. The kinetic warhead is basically a tungsten rod that is dropped from orbit toward a target. The rod’s narrow body makes it possible for it to re-enter the atmosphere and accelerate to significant velocities. Upon impact, the warhead releases a significant energy yield. A nine-ton rod would release a yield of about eleven tons of TNT. For comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was equivalent to fifteen tons.
Kinetic energy weapons have a major advantage over nuclear weapons, the first being cost. A theoretical nine-ton rod can be boosted to orbit using SpaceX’s technology for about $54 million. The Union of Concern Scientists put the cost of launching a single nuclear missile at about $200 million. So for the cost of a United Launch Alliance launch, four such rods could be placed in orbit, and once on station, left there for years. Nuclear missiles are most vulnerable to interception during their launch phase. Having a weapons system prepositioned in orbit, eliminates this vulnerability. Kinetic energy weapons are also entirely legal under the current Outer Space Treaty; having never been classified as a WMD.
Alternatively, if Iran and North Korea want to go the nuclear route, a warhead being detonated in orbit is far more effective than a strike on a population center, especially in our digital age when the Electromagnetic Pulse burst from the device would achieve maximum effectiveness. Kinetic weapons and nukes in orbit sounds far fetched, but both such weapons systems are entirely possible with today’s technology. If SpaceX can guide a rocket onto a barge in the Atlantic, what is to prevent a nation state from guiding a tungsten rod the size of a telephone poll into the oval office?
While the threat from small nations remains thankfully theoretical, the three leading nations in Space power, the US, Russia, and China, are all aware that space superiority could be a deciding factor in any future conflict, and are taking steps to assure their own dominance. China has tested numerous anti-satellite missiles and has been up-scaling its scientific space program, which could allow it to easily place space-based weapon systems in orbit when they are developed at some future period.
Additionally, Russia has an entire branch of its military dedicated to space warfare, though this mostly focuses on missile defense and satellite control. It’s not a stretch to upgrade this infrastructure with additional assets. Meanwhile, the United States is investing heavily in systems that could have a military purpose. The US Air force is flying the X-37 spacecraft, a drone shuttle with a mission that is a closely guarded secret. Also, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has begun development of a single stage ground to space shuttle, which could loft military hardware at a record rate and perhaps even intercept hostile assets.
The notion of war in space has long been a staple of science fiction, but the reality is very different than what is seen on the silver screen. In the near future, any conflict that involves orbit would be short and brutal. Orbital weapon systems could devastate huge areas and debris could hamper future commercial and scientific flights beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The simple math of it does not bode well. As launch costs continue to shrink and the technology to build a reliable rocket becomes more readily available, a host of actors will begin looking to space to gain a strategic edge.
The United States and its Allies should continue and expand their own investment in that field, and the Outer Space Treaty should be revisited either to outright ban all weapon systems, or to set up a permanent secretariat through the UN to allow open dialogue between space fairing nations on these issues. If history is any guide, men will die in combat while in space, just in the last century men died in combat in the air by the thousands, and Earth will suffer from weapons flung at it from orbit just as cities burned from aerial barrages. Mankind owes it to itself to delay the day that it takes war to space for as long as possible.