Making war less attractive: space self-defense zones

AS US arms control negotiators in Geneva again attempt to reduce American and Soviet arsenals, it's time to consider a new arms control idea -- space self-defense zones -- that would make war less attractive both in space and on earth. It's no secret that both the United States and the Soviet Union have scores of satellites deployed in space that are critical for military surveillance, warning, communication, navigation, weather prediction, and mapping.

It's also no secret that there is a tremendous military incentive to attack these satellites. Consider: If the Soviets destroyed enough of US reconnaissance, com-munication, and navigation satellites, they not only could blind us to a missile strike, but deprive US ground and naval forces of the communication and control capabilities needed to counter conventional attacks.

Unfortunately, US satellites are vulnerable. Although Americans have no antisatellite weapons (ASATs) deployed yet, the Soviets have a rocket-launched ASAT that can attack US low-orbiting satellites, and it could be improved to attack ones in higher orbits. The Soviets have also tested ground-based lasers that could blind US satellites, and they have threatened to deploy space mines -- explosive satellites that could maneuver near US satellites and be commanded to destroy them without warning.

Two efforts have been suggested to check this threat. The first, now under way, is to make US satellites harder to find, more difficult to harm, more numerous and, if attacked, able to evade and shoot back.

Although helpful, this approach is unlikely to be sufficient unless the satellites have enough warning of an attack. Such warning might be feasible against current Soviet rocket-launched ASATs that announce their departure with a missile launch and take more than an hour to reach their target. But with space mines or space-based lasers, the attack would be virtually instantaneous.

The second way to check this threat is to ban ASAT testing. The supposed appeal of such a test ban, its supporters argue, is that if testing is prohibited, deployment can be prevented. If one prevents deployment, space vulnerability is no longer a problem.

This approach, however, is most presumptive.

Verifying what's an ASAT is virtually impossible. Almost anything that penetrates space -- missiles, satellites, space stations, shuttles, ground-based lasers and jammers -- can be used to degrade or destroy US satellites. There is little sense in offering something that on its face cannot and probably never will be verified.

An ASAT test ban would curtail US development not only of ASATs, but also of shoot-back satellite defenses critical to assure US space assets a modicum of survivability. Developing these defenses requires much more overt testing than is needed for ASATS, because unlike ASATs, they do not know where their target is well in advance.

The end result of an ASAT ban would be increased uncertainty concerning US satellites' vulnerability. The United States would be unable to ascertain Soviet ASAT deployments, and US satellites would be denied a defensive capacity in case of attack. Thus, the worst of all worlds -- no defenses, no verification, and greater instability and uncertainty.

There is a better way to check the threat posed to satellites -- space self-defense zones -- which would allow defenses, enhance verification, and significantly reduce the incentive for either side to attack the other's satellites. What the zones would do is simple: Keep one side's satellites far enough apart from the other's to make an instantaneous surprise attack by either side virtually impossible. Both sides would be permitted an equal number of zones within which they would have exclusive rights to position their satellites permanently, and to inspect, expel, or otherwise render harmless intruders if they exceed an agreed upon, safe number.

Both sides could perfect defenses for their satellites within their zones as an additional safeguard, and ASATs would also be permitted (on the basis that what one cannot verify, one can hardly prohibit). With space self-defense zones, the utility of ASATs would be greatly reduced, since, by the time they reached their target, they will have given the other side clear warning of an attack. At best they might succeed in destroying one or two satellites quickly, but that would hardly accomplish much. Only by destroying many satellites simultaneously could either side hope to eliminate a country's ability to execute a specific military mission.

The zones' sizes would vary for different satellite orbits since some are more densely populated than others. But they would be large enough to be quite useful.

Some zones could be in geosynchronous orbit (22,000 miles above the earth), where the most critical civilian and military satellites are. In this 170,000-mile orbit, it would be relatively easy to create a sizable number of large sectors -- say 36 zones, each one 4,600 miles across, with 12 each for the US and the USSR, and another 12 neutral zones. Given the zones' size, a space-based ASAT missile would require minutes to reach the other side's satellites, and current lasers, even if space-based, would be out of lethal range.

With the possible development later of very powerful space-based lasers, it might be necessary to create larger zones at geosynchronous orbits and above.

For the moment, only a basic agreement on space self-defense zones needs to be proposed. If the Soviets are uninterested in such a scheme, it will increase the US burden to develop its own satellite defenses unilaterally. It will also suggest just how much space arms limitations the US can expect from the Soviets -- and in a way that an ASAT ban, which would only favor them, would not.

Certainly, space self-defense zones belong on the US arms control agenda. If agreement can be reached on this approach, US security would be enhanced, as would the Soviet Union's. It's an arms control idea that should be pursued.

Sen. Dan Quayle (R) of Indiana, serves on the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic and Theater Nuclear Forces.

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