Michael KreponWhat is a Space Weapon?

Many have tried to define a space weapon, myself included. None of us have come up with a satisfactory definition, which is one on many reasons why a treaty banning space weapons is not in the cards.

After the Bush administration disposed of the ABM Treaty, the Chinese and Russian governments dipped into the old Soviet playbook and tabled a draft “Treaty on the Prevention of the Deployment of Weapons in Outer Space.” Here’s their language defining space weapons:

The term ‘weapon in outer space’ means any device placed in outer space, based on any physical principle, which has been specially produced or converted to destroy, damage or disrupt the normal functioning of objects in outer space, on the Earth or in the Earth’s atmosphere, or to eliminate a population or components of the biosphere which are important to human existence or inflict damage on them;

A weapon shall be considered to have been ‘placed’ in outer space if it orbits the Earth at least once, or follows a section of such an orbit before leaving this orbit, or is permanently located somewhere in outer space.

Please note that this definition does not capture ground-based ASATs. The Russian and Chinese draft treaty is problematic in many other respects, as well. For example, unless there are common understandings on whether a multi-purpose device has been “specially produced or converted” so as to qualify as a space weapon, the proposed ban has no practical effect.

Philip Baines, a Canadian diplomat with uncommon technical expertise has proposed another definition of a space weapon:

a device based on any physical principle, specially designed or modified, to injure or to kill a person, irreparably damage or destroy an object, or render any place unusable.

In Phil’s view, form follows function. For example, “a satellite that is designed to be a weapon will also look like a weapon, and a satellite that is designed to be benign will look benign.” But satellite payload inspections, first proposed back in the Eisenhower administration, remain beyond the pale. And it may be far-fetched to assume common understandings on the form and function of non-inspected space-spaced objects. Nor can states rely on externally observable differences to distinguish satisfactorily between, say, a missile defense interceptor and a ground-based ASAT. As with the draft Russian and Chinese treaty text, Phil’s definition lends itself to disagreements over what “specially designed or modified” really means.

Theresa Hitchens, long a stalwart promoter of space security, now at UNIDIR, has defined space weapons this way:

destructive systems that operate in outer space after having been launched directly from Earth or parked in orbit.

Theresa’s definition has the benefit of concreteness, but it may still be too limiting: Is a “system” that doesn’t destroy a satellite but renders it nonfunctional a space weapon or not? And how do we deal with a device or weapon system with multiple potential purposes, such as an interceptor missile that can be used for ballistic missile defense as well as for ASAT purposes? An inclusive definition of a space weapon would foreclose essential military capabilities, while a limiting definition would allow many kinds of latent ASAT systems to run free.

In my view, we’re barking up the wrong tree in trying to define space weapons. How nations act in space matters far more than how they define space weapons. A treaty banning space weapons remains a distant goal. There are other ways, far more realizable, to strengthen norms for responsible space-faring nations – including the norm of not using satellites for target practice.

Over the past two decades, Iraq, Iran and Libya have tried to interfere with satellites. Is this a practice that responsible space-faring nations wish to emulate? The European Union has endorsed the Stimson Center’s proposed norm of “no harmful interference” against space objects. Yes, this invites a debate over the definition of “no harmful interference.” But reaching a reasonable conclusion on this subject is far easier than trying to define a space weapon.

The Obama administration has still not cleared its throat on this or related subjects. It took almost sixteen months for the Reagan administration to come up with a negotiating proposal for strategic arms reductions. It is taking even longer for Team Obama to propose a space diplomacy initiative.

Update | 11:27 am Jeffrey adds: Such definitional difficulties are precisely why I have argued for a “ban [on] the testing deployment and use of kinetic energy ASATs (KE ASAT ban), which destroy their target satellite by slamming into it, creating significant amounts of space debris.” I will be making the same pitch again in Geneva this month.

Comments

  1. Mike (History)

    In my opinion, this is a goal that will never be reached, in the same spirit that derails regular arms control talks. Don’t forget the largely ignored Space Preservation Treaty (regarding space-based weapons) and the 4-times proposed Space Preservation Act.

    Important to the argument is the notion that one does not need space assets or space technology in order to comply with the broad definition of having a space weapon. This significantly complicates the issue. Further, consider that US Doctrine (AFDD 2.2 and JP 3-14) list ground stations and nodes and data links as space assets, so do things like jamming and ground site attack constitute the use of space weapons too?

    Administratively, Team Obama has shown little to no initiative in addressing problems even close to this, even if there was a concise definition. I suspect the problem of space weapons will remain ill-addressed far, far into the future.

  2. yousaf

    While one may be able to include ~10% of the hard “obvious” space-weapons in a ban, it will never address the majority of hardware that can be used in nasty ways. Thus, it will never be the complete answer to space security.

    I would love to see a ban on select hardware (“space weapons”), but I do not think it is the most effective way to launch negotiations on space security: 1) because even if it were enacted it would not ensure space security and 2) It amounts to picking an unnecessary and untimely fight with highly entrenched interests of the missile defense industry and others.

    I do not see the situation as an either/or between a ban and rules but my feeling continues to be that it would be better to start from widely applicable rules that are both more effective at obtaining space security and less contentious in negotiations.

    Rules are more important than “bans” on select hardware, but (ideally) both could be instituted.

  3. Allen Thomson (History)

    And there’s the question of what’s a vital space component of a weapon system. Spy satellites are used to find targets and do bomb damage assessment. GPS satellites are used to guide JDAM bombs onto those targets. Are space weapons only the destructive components of space-based systems, or does the term include vital space-based components of other weapons systems?

    BTW, there’s a reason that a lot of TK clearances are to be found in the vicinity of Omaha, Nebraska.

  4. Bertrand Bechet (History)

    A comprehensive new space security treaty will probably as you say not be reached in a near future, but limited agreements are feasible. They’re also desirable, especially for the U.S. which has so many assets to protect in space … the U.S. has everything to lose not to internationally protect space objects. Satellites are both vulnerable and of strategic importance (early warning satellites, etc.), so the Obama team should start to talk seriously in Geneva with Russia and China to take the first steps for a renewed space security framework.

  5. yousaf

    Jeffrey, as a pragmatic matter how would one address e.g. the SM3 missile in your proposed KE-ASAT ban?

    Would the US be able to continue to develop and test SM3-type weaponry?

  6. Mark Gubrud

    Michael: I believe that you have in the past tried to define the term “space weapon” but have since given up, as anyone with your intelligence and knowledge of the subject, who is unable to compose a reasonable definition, clearly isn’t trying (and usually is trying to argue that such a definition is unobtainable).

    A space weapon, as the term has been used in common parlance among those concerned with the matter for many years, is either of the following:

    * A weapon, of any type, for interference with satellites (or any objects in orbit, or stationed elsewhere in outer space).

    * Any weapon of any type which is stationed in outer space or prepared for stationing in outer space.

    “Stationed in outer space” may be defined as following an orbital trajectory or outside or exiting the Earth system.

    That solves the definition problem. Let’s separate definition from all the other problems associated with a space weapons treaty, such as verification, compliance, enforcement, and just getting everyone to agree. Those problems may be formidable, but they are not definition problems.

    The Chinese/Russian “prevention of placement” treaty is not a comprehensive space weapons treaty, since it does not address ASATs. On that we can all agree, so why use it as a strawman to argue that a comprehensive space weapons treaty “is not in the cards”?

    While it “may be far-fetched to assume common understandings on the form and function of non-inspected space-spaced [sic] objects,” nations may simply pledge (under binding treaty) not to deploy weapons in space, and be asked then to respond to inquiries about evidence that the form (as observed by technical means) of particular space objects suggests their possible weapons intent or capability. An expert organization comparable to the IAEA could be set up to collect and assess such evidence. Since the NPT provides an example, in the case of a technology (nuclear) where there is as much ambiguity and dual-purpose overlap as there is in space, I don’t know what is so far-fetched about such a suggestion.

    Observable differences often cannot distinguish between an ASAT and many types of ground-based “missile defense” interceptors because there is often no such distinction to be made. However, since we know that strategic missile defense, far from being an “essential” military capability, is rather a futile and foolish boondoggle, it is to be hoped that nations will eventually abandon such folly and agree to a ban on all such weapons. Until then, we may at least require nations developing, testing and deploying “missile defense” systems, while pledged to a space weapons ban, to declare that their weapons are not intended to be used as ASATs, and to argue in support of such a declaration that any ASAT threat posed by the weapons is limited. In particular, such weapons should not be capable of reaching above low Earth orbit, and should be limited in number and location as well.

    Is a “system” that doesn’t destroy a satellite but renders it nonfunctional a space weapon? Yes, Michael, if it it acts on the satellite in such a way as to render it nonfunctional, or if it acts in space (e.g. orbiting shades blocking the view), it is a space weapon. Next question.

    An agreement to ban intentional harmful interference with satellites is desirable in itself, but if at the same time nations continue to develop and deploy weapons that are clearly intended and optimized for that mission, we will be allowing a dangerous arms race to run unchecked. Such a suggestion is like saying there’s no need for nuclear arms control, if we can just get everyone to pledge never to use the weapons. If nations continue to deploy ever larger numbers of the latest nuclear missiles, anti-missiles, and every other type of weapon and gear for fighting a nuclear war, how much comfort would you take in a no-nuclear-holocaust treaty?

    Mike; Jamming is interference with a satellite if the jamming signal is directed at the satellite, to interfere with its receivers. Local jamming of a downlink signal, to interfere with ground-based equipment trying to receive a satellite signal, is interferece with the use of a space system, but is not interference with the satellite itself. Similarly, killing a person with a GPS receiver in his hand might be a bad thing, but it would not violate an ASAT ban.

    Yousaf: The way to avoid leaving loopholes in a list of “select hardware” is not to make such a list the core of a space weapons treaty. Instead, a broad declared ban, under a definition such as the one proposed above, should be the core. Any enumeration of types of space weapons covered under such a ban would then be secondary, and would be subject to argument and interpretation, as with every other arms control agreement that has ever been concluded.

    Allen: Spy satellites and GPS provide signals which can be used to guide weapons. They are not in themselves weapons. To ensure that this is understood, a space weapons ban should explicitly allow such uses of satellites while banning any interferece with the satellites so used. This provision would be very favorable to US security interests, as part of the grand bargain in which the US military would give up its ambitions to “control space.”

    Jeffrey, please do answer Yousaf’s question about SM-3 and other KE/HTK BMD systems. In my view, by pretending to solve the space weapons problem, while implicitly allowing all other types of ASAT (which is to say, all the types which any major players intend to test and might consider using in the future), yet still allowing nations to deploy potent ASAT-capable HTK systems, a KE ASAT ban would really do more harm than good.

  7. John Schilling (History)

    I do not believe it will be possible to prevent war in space, in the event of actual warfare between two spacefaring powers. As Allen points out, satellites are a vital link in the chain that ends with e.g. a JDAM on target. When the people on the receiving end of the JDAM ask their staff whether there’s anything they can do to make the satellites go away, the answer will almost certainly be “maybe…”, even if it’s only a hasty wartime kludge. And at least one side, will then start making satellites go away.

    A treaty that merely encourages people to cross their fingers while saying, “gosh, that never even occurred to us – of course we won’t do that”, while making contingency plans to do exactly that, doesn’t seem terribly useful.

    Where there is room for improvement, is in the peacetime rules of engagement. It really ought to be clarified that taking shots at someone else’s satellites, even with soft-kill weapons, is an act of war and will be treated as such. Verification could be troublesome, but that’s always the case in this sort of diplomacy and it’s no excuse for not trying. And as Jeffrey suggests, live-fire testing of hard-kill ASATs ought to be frowned upon as well.

  8. Mark Gubrud

    John, since all spacefaring powers capable of physical attacks on satellites are also nuclear powers, in the event of actual warfare between such powers much worse things than satellite attacks are likely to occur.

    The purposes of arms control include the limitation of risks of unintended initiation and escalation of war, as well as the ultimate damage done (especially in the case of wars likely to play out in much shorter times than new weapons production can occur). Another very important purpose for space arms control is to arrest the emerging space arms race and prevent it from breaking out into deployments of destabilizing weapons which would generate extreme pressures for preemption in a crisis.

    While it is always impossible to ensure that there are absolutely no infringements on the terms of a treaty, massive violations in the form of weapons deployments unambiguously intended for space warfare will be impossible to hide. It is much better to limit the threat so that prudent defensive measures can be taken to mitigate remaining vulnerabilities, than to allow the arms race to rage uncontrolled and deliver us to the brink of catastrophe.

  9. Allen Thomson (History)

    An interesting view on ASAT from 1976 is contained in

    http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76ve03/d137

    I can imagine a somewhat similar memorandum being written in China in the past few years using the substitution s/Soviet/US/g .

  10. yousaf

    Mark, your definition would have significant loopholes — just to cite one, microsatellites.

    In fact, much of space hardware may be used in a dual-use manner.

    The way to obtain space security — and to get all stakeholder in one room — is to start with discussion of rules of operation in space.

  11. Mark Gubrud

    Yousaf: Where is the “loophole” in a pledge not to develop, test, produce, stockpile, deploy, transfer or use any space weapons? There is no loophole, there is only possible ambiguity in and room for debate as to whether a given system violates such a pledge – and if so, how seriously.

    I called allowing exatmospheric HTK BMD systems a loophole – more like a hole you could drive a monster truck through – because one perennial pitch for a KE ASAT test ban is that it is a fine example of rigorously verifiable arms control, which is sheer pretense if testing, deployment and transfer of ASAT-capable HTK BMD systems is allowed to continue on an unlimited (and, if current plans for SM-3 Block II proceed, massive) scale.

    In contrast, there is no “loophole” in a no-weapons pledge. It is either being honored or it is not, and if one nation thinks another nation may not be honoring its pledge, they may present the evidence to that effect and challenge the possible offender to explain what is going on.

    So, let’s say a nation develops and tests a microsatellite capable of autonomously maneuvering to another satellite, grappling hold of it, cutting away a side panel and performing surgery. Another nation says, Whoa, is this a robotic weapon for interfering with others’ satellites? The first nation says, No, we want this to refuel and repair our own birds. That answer might be credible if, say, only a few of these critters are produced, if they are driven by, say, electric ion engines which require weeks or months to complete orbital maneuvers, if they are not stealthy, and so on. But if they are deployed in the dozens, kept in reserve and not put to use, if they have obvious stealth characteristics, if they are equipped with powerful, fast-maneuvering engines, etc., then the claims of innocence will be much less credible.

    In case a nation that is party to a no-weapons treaty proceeds to massively violate it, the treaty will probably collapse. That is what is meant to happen in such a case, and then everyone will have to deal with the consequences of a breakout and race to develop and deploy potent space weapons by all nations capable of doing so. That would be bad, but not worse than the same thing happening, probably much sooner (and probably quite soon) in the absence of an agreement that it should not be allowed to happen and that space weapons should be banned.

    Talking about rules of operation in space is fine, but one rule, the most important rule, that we must obtain global agreement to, is that there should be no weapons in space and no weapons for attacking space objects stationed in outer space. Absent such an agreement, such weapons are going to be developed, tested, and deployed, and then any agreement never to actually use them is going to be about as valuable as an agreement never to use nuclear weapons would be if, meanwhile, a nuclear arms race rages unabated.

  12. Jim Oberg (History)

    Considering the force-multiplier effect of US space-based systems, any military leadership in China or Russia or anywhere contemplating a confrontation with the US, who is NOT actively developing methods to interfere in the function of US space-based systems (even just to the degree of short-term attacks on US leadership confidence in such systems), isn’t doing its job and deserves to be fired. And any US military space organization that isn’t devoted to making its space based assets LESS attractive targets to interference — hardening, hiding, multiplicity, camouflaging, dispersal, etc — also needs to wind up unemployed.

    The only whole-employment beneficiaries of the grailish search for the holy definition of ‘space weaponry’ are lawyers and diplomats. However often they wind up deservedly embarrassed with circular, pretzelized, loophole filled phraseology, they still seem to get the chance to try again and again and again.

    The Russian and Chinese approach deserves its own skit on SNL: “Sign a treaty banning space weapons. It’ll make you feel secure. We’ll later work out a way to tell what they really are, and how you guys can find out if we have any, and what you could do if you did. But trust us.” [cue canned laughter]

    And the handguns keep being carried to (and from) the ISS, I point out, grinning.

    Re the old ‘one full orbit’ proposal — does that mean, after fifty years, we’re going to rescind Yuri Gagarin’s status as ‘the first man in orbit’?

    The sincere fascination with this question is justifiable, but a little more ‘sense of the absurd’ might help with perspective and creativity. Just trying to be helpful.

  13. MK (History)

    Jim:
    A code of conduct doesn’t prevent misconduct. But without rules, there are no rule breakers. Do you believe appropriate responses — whatever they might be — are more likely in the absence of rules of the road for responsible space-faring nations?

  14. yousaf

    Mark,
    what you are expressing is a mixture of bans on hardware and rules. The important part in what you have expressed as supporting are the rules, not the bans on hardware, btw.

    What I am saying is that if you want to get the stakeholders involved around a table within the next 40 years you will likely need to start with the discussion of the rules, as these almost all rational people can begin to agree on.

    Talking of bans from the outset will ensure that important stakeholders do not come to your party. This has been the case for the last 40 plus years.

    A dose of pragmatism would go a long way towards initiating discussions on space security. Talking on bans is unhelpful on getting discussion started, whether or not it makes any sense to you.

    Agreed w/ MK’s response to Oberg: we choose to make murder illegal, even though some people will still murder.

  15. Allen Thomson (History)

    > Considering the force-multiplier effect of US space-based systems, any military leadership in China or Russia or anywhere contemplating a confrontation with the US, who is NOT actively developing methods to interfere in the function of US space-based systems (even just to the degree of short-term attacks on US leadership confidence in such systems), isn’t doing its job and deserves to be fired.

    Exactly so. I will commit the solecism of citing something from fourteen years ago:

    http://www.fas.org/spp/military/program/asat/at_960610.htm

    > And any US military space organization that isn’t devoted to making its space based assets LESS attractive targets to interference — hardening, hiding, multiplicity, camouflaging, dispersal, etc — also needs to wind up unemployed.

    There would be a huge number of houses on the market in the DC area if that happened.

  16. Mark Gubrud

    Jim: I see that you, too, are not interested in developing reasonable suggestions about how a space weapons ban could work, but only in attacking strawmen such as the Russian-Chinese proposal to ban weapons “placed in outer space” while allowing ground-based ASATs, or your own “one full orbit,” which I would have said is obviously not a good criterion since it would allow shooting down a space launch on the first pass (“following an orbital trajectory” would work: ballistic missiles don’t, and if they do, they become banned space-based weapons). Handguns on the ISS are another strawman: either include them in the weapons ban, or provide an explicit exception for such arms, which are obviously useful only for maintaining internal order and not for attacking one space vehicle from another.

    These problems are not hard to solve, but one has to be trying.

    I agree with your point about the military value of space-based systems creating a strong incentive to attack them, which is why the rise of extremely dangerous space arms race in the near future is so greatly to be feared. On the other hand, China and Russia do not want to fight a war with the United States, for the obvious reason that it would very likely result in the end of human civilization. That’s why they are also interested in arms control agreements with us which would limit everyone’s military options in order to avoid the creation of an ever more dangerous and unstable military confrontation.

  17. kme

    Mark: Another strong indicator of the military or otherwise intent of a dual-use item (like the “repair microsatellite” discussed above) would be the administrative arrangements around the capability. If it’s controlled by an operational Air Force squadron in the order of battle, then the owner has some explaining to do (The usual “national means of intelligence” don’t tend to have a hard time figuring this kind of thing out).

  18. Robert (History)

    Mark Gubrud said:
    “Handguns on the ISS are another strawman: either include them in the weapons ban, or provide an explicit exception for such arms, which are obviously useful only for maintaining internal order and not for attacking one space vehicle from another.”

    If I do an EVA with that handgun, then I can use it to attack a space vehicle nearby.

    Mark Gubrud said:
    “But if they are deployed in the dozens, kept in reserve and not put to use, if they have obvious stealth characteristics, if they are equipped with powerful, fast-maneuvering engines, etc., then the claims of innocence will be much less credible.”

    This means that any spacecraft with VASIMR or Fusion type engines can be a weapon. And, stealth isn’t possible in space anyway. My opinion is that all spacecraft can be used as weapons. If it has thrusters, then it can be used as a weapon.

    yousaf said:
    “ we choose to make murder illegal, even though some people will still murder.”

    But it’s not the law itself that deters most murders, it’s the threat of reprisal.

    People must not forget that Man is just a predatory animal. Any idea proposed on this type of issue must take that into account.

  19. Mark Gubrud

    Robert,

    Let’s say that there will be no ban on space weapons and that nations will therefore, prudently, develop and deploy them against each other since each other will be doing the same (such is the logic of arms races and the implication of the premise that there will be no space weapons ban).

    In that case, do you think handguns held by astronauts or “VASIMR or Fusion type engines” will be the weapons of choice which will be developed, tested, deployed, stockpiled, and sold to other countries by the United States, China, Russia, and God knows who else in the next few decades?

    As to stealth being impossible in space, there are a number of measures you would take today to reduce your signature in space, the most important being miniaturization. Stealth is never perfect, however, and its employment is ultimately detectable and recognizable.

    Man may be a “predatory animal” but that is not a good argument against arms control as a (perhaps ultimately futile) attempt to prevent our self-destruction.

  20. Allen Thomson (History)

    > Stealth is never perfect, however, and its employment is ultimately detectable and recognizable.

    True. Short-term stealth against sensors with known characteristics in known locations should be quite feasible. Long-term, all-aspect, all-phenomenology stealth is a much dicier proposition. I would not, for example, be inclined to try to stealthify a large spysat intended to operate in LEO for years on end. (Which is what the NRO apparently tried to do on at least one occasion — and got caught.)

  21. Robert (History)

    Mark Gubrud said:
    “Let’s say that there will be no ban on space weapons and that nations will therefore, prudently, develop and deploy them against each other since each other will be doing the same (such is the logic of arms races and the implication of the premise that there will be no space weapons ban).”

    It’s already been done. As for arms races, there will always be arms races. Have you looked at the evolution of life?

    Mark Gubrud said:

    “In that case, do you think handguns held by astronauts or “VASIMR or Fusion type engines” will be the weapons of choice which will be developed, tested, deployed, stockpiled, and sold to other countries by the United States, China, Russia, and God knows who else in the next few decades?”

    Any object that can change its orbit can be used as a weapon. The higher its specific impulse and delta-v, the more effective it will be (I chose VASIMR and fusion-rockets as an example of propulsion that can have moderate to high thrust with high specific impulse. Features that will also be quite useful to any proposed interplanetary manned spacecraft).

    Mark Gubrud said:
    “As to stealth being impossible in space, there are a number of measures you would take today to reduce your signature in space, the most important being miniaturization.”

    Miniaturization will also result in far superior sensors and computers that analyze the data. Also, in order for the spacecraft to blend into the cosmic background, it will have to refrigerate its surface to 3-4K. Try doing that in space while firing thrusters and/or lasers.

    Mark Gubrud:
    “Man may be a “predatory animal” but that is not a good argument against arms control as a (perhaps ultimately futile) attempt to prevent our self-destruction.”

    It is a good argument against any solution presented that doesn’t factor into account that humans are a predatory species. Arms control treaties are just pieces of paper if they’re without any threat of reprisal. That means, a universal ban on space weapons will fail since humans have the instinct to cheat on others outside their “monkeysphere” (Dunbar’s Number). Such bans have already failed in the past and will fail in the future. “Reprisal” is the key word when it comes to deterring predators. And you can’t hide if you’re fighting in space.

  22. Mark Gubrud

    Robert:

    >>It’s already been done.<<

    That is a ridiculously simple statement to make as if it summarizes the state of space weapons development, let alone production and deployment. No, it hasn’t been done; at least, most of what we hope to avoid with space arms control hasn’t been done yet. Most of the basic technologies have been developed and tested, yes. But only some weapons have been developed and very few put into operational status, mostly by the United States.

    >>As for arms races, there will always be arms races. Have you looked at the evolution of life?<<

    Ummm, yes I have looked at the evolution of life, and it provides little comfort to see how species have experienced catastrophe and gone extinct. I am left seeing no reason to expect a guarantee of humanity surviving its encounter with nuclear-age technology.

    >>Any object that can change its orbit can be used as a weapon. The higher its specific impulse and delta-v, the more effective it will be<<

    Again, simplistic statements. The first one is categorically false. Lots of satellites up there can change their orbits, slightly, and most are still attached to the engines that iserted them into orbit. Very few, if any, have any capability to be used as weapons. Furthermore, weapons spacecraft would be distinguishable from ordinary spacecraft by many observable features, such as speed, stealth, the presence of sensors and autonomous proximity maneuver capabilities, or other characteristics. Why would weapons not be engineered for maximum stealthiness, in order to quietly prepare a surprise space strike over many years? First, because such a strategy would be idiotic and suicidal, almost certain to be detected before maturation and to fail in the unlikely case the strike preparations go undetected and the strike is executed. That’s “fail” as in “massive nuclear destruction and the likely end of civilization.” Second, because weapons optimized for long-term stealth would be compromised as weapons. The most effective weapons, as with all kinds of things, will be ones optimized as weapons, capable of fast, sure, effective disablement of opposing forces, not things that can be hidden in space for years as weather satellites. The technical criteria that would make a space weapon effective are so many that I can’t really respond to your statement about “specific impulse and delta-v” except to say that while in some cases these criteria do distinguish effective from ineffective weapons, and can be used to discriminate weapons from nonweapons systems (given a plausible account of the nonweapons purposes of the nonweapons systems), in other cases these measures are irrelevant or of much less importance than other aspects of technical performance.

    >>in order for the spacecraft to blend into the cosmic background, it will have to refrigerate its surface to 3-4K. Try doing that in space while firing thrusters and/or lasers.<<

    Yes, there are important limitations on what you can do and remain stealthy. However, for now it is not necessary to get quite so cold to defeat the relevant sensor systems.

    >>Arms control treaties are just pieces of paper if they’re without any threat of reprisal.<<

    Treaties will likely be ineffective if they ban things that nations want to do but there are no consequences if they do them anyway, either because it can go undetected or because they do it and nobody does or can do anything. In the case of space weapons, it isn’t clear that any nation wants to do it, or has any reason to do it, although some people in many nations want to do it, and some entrenched interests in a number of nations have reasons to want to do it. As for consequences, if you live in a world with a space weapons ban, the worst consequence of violating the space weapons ban is that everybody knows you do it and so they violate it too, and the ban collapses and then you live in a world with an uncontrolled space arms race and probably not for very long, unless you all figure out how to get the space weapons ban up and working again. Because that is a world of hairtrigger “strategic” confrontation in space and on Earth between nuclear-armed nations, a world we prayed through the 20th Century to escape and the rejuvenation of which we now in the 21st Century stand perilously at the threshold of.

    In the world we should hope to build, there would be no reason to “cheat” on a space weapons treaty because there would be nothing to be gained by “cheating,” except to reap the whirlwind. In fact, that is already the world we live in, enforced on us by our knowing the laws of physics. No wonder you must resort to insulting human intelligence in general to argue that we can’t think our way out of a Cold War shoebox.

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