Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Antisatellite Systems

Systems designed to intercept and destroy orbiting satellites. As concepts for the military use of space emerged after World War II, the requirements for antisatellite (ASAT) capabilities quickly developed as part of the planning process. As with the air medium, military commanders believed that a significant advantage would come to the country that could deny the use of space to other countries and protect one's own ability to operate in that environment.

The move toward military space weapons was countered by arguments that space should be left open for all nations to use for peaceful purposes. The peaceful use of space was acceptable to many military strategists as it potentially created a sanctuary where countries could perform critical functions such as reconnaissance, early warning, and communications without engaging in a military confrontation. However, as space capabilities evolved, both the United States and the Soviet Union established limited ASAT capabilities and explored the development of systems that would allow dominance in space should a war occur.

During the early years of the space age, the U.S. Air Force proposed a satellite interceptor (SAINT) system that would approach and inspect enemy satellites and could be quickly converted for use as an attack weapon. SAINT was halted before reaching operational capability, as was the military manned space system—the Dyna-Soar spaceplane—that incorporated a satellite inspection and neutralization mission. The Soviets later concluded that the U.S. Space Shuttle also had an inherent antisatellite capability. The U.S. Air Force also tested two air-launched ASAT missiles in 1959 and developed a functional land-based ASAT system, Program 437, using a Thor missile with a nuclear warhead. This system was operational on Johnston Island in the Pacific during 1964–1972, with a residual capability that lasted until 1975. The U.S. Army also developed a nuclear-armed ASAT based on the Nike-Zeus antiballistic missile (ABM) system, which was briefly operational at Kwajalein Atoll in the mid-1960s. The American systems were a response to the perceived threat from a Soviet orbital bombardment capability. Program 437 was phased out for a variety of reasons, including high costs, questions concerning its effectiveness, and issues associated with the use of nuclear weapons in space.

The Soviet military also developed limited ASAT capabilities in the 1960s, frequently commenting on the concept in military publications and testing conventionally armed land-based systems beginning in 1967 and continuing during the 1970s. The ABM system around Moscow also provided a limited ASAT capability against low Earth orbit satellites. In the mid-1960s, the Soviet military also established a branch in the National Air Defense forces for antispace programs, designated by the abbreviation PKO. Soviet military writing and test activities indicated an interest in using other approaches to ASAT operations, including directed energy weapons such as lasers and radio-electronic combat. The United States responded to continued Soviet ASAT activities in the late 1970s by developing an air-launched ASAT system that could attack low Earth orbiting satellites and that was successfully tested in 1985. Press reports indicated that the Soviet military was developing a similar air-launched capability in the late 1980s, but the system apparently was never tested, in part because of a unilateral Soviet moratorium on ASAT testing and deployment. The U.S. Congress responded to the Soviet moratorium and limited funding for the F-15-launched ASAT system, resulting in the end of the test program.

Arms control negotiations related to the development of ASAT capabilities emerged in the 1950s and continued through the end of the Cold War, with specific U.S.-Soviet ASAT-focused discussions from the late 1970s through the 1980s, although they had limited effects. Technological and cost issues were major limiting factors to aggressive ASAT deployment, as was the practical negative impact on both sides of destructive antisatellite operations, including orbital debris fields and degradation of friendly as well as enemy systems. Although the United States and the Soviet Union benefited from the sanctuary concept that allowed uninhibited use of space platforms for important combat support functions, both feared a breakout by the other side and sought at least limited ASAT capabilities to deter escalation in the space arena. Both sides also sought a hedge against the possibility that the adversary might be seeking a potential edge in an initial or transitional phase of a future conflict by using an ASAT system.

The first formal restriction affecting ASAT development was the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), which outlawed nuclear explosions in space. In 1967, the Outer Space Treaty restricted the deployment of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in space. ASAT operations were also legally restricted by agreements associated with the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and related treaties, especially those elements pledging no interference with National Technical Means, meaning reconnaissance and surveillance satellites. The potential link between antisatellite and anti-missile capabilities also made the 1972 ABM Treaty a constraining factor in ASAT development, especially if a space-based system was involved. The Strategic Defense Initiative of President Ronald Reagan's administration generated significant political debate over this point, as the proposed system incorporated space-based components that could function in both the ABM and ASAT roles. The core concepts behind ASAT operations—protecting space resources and denying access to an opponent—remained key policy concerns after the Cold War.

Jerome V. Martin


Further Reading
Johnson, Nicholas L. Soviet Military Strategy in Space. London: Jane's Publishing, 1987.; Nye, Joseph S., Jr., and James A. Schear, eds. Seeking Stability in Space: Anti-Satellite Weapons and the Evolving Space Regime. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987.; Peebles, Curtis. High Frontier: The U.S. Air Force and Military Space Program. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997.; Scott, Harriet Fast, and William F. Scott. The Armed Forces of the U.S.S.R. 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2002.; Stares, Paul B. Space and National Security. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1987.
 

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