Is putting weapons in space a good idea?

Is putting weapons in space a good idea?
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In early July, UPI reported that the Defense Innovation Unit of the Pentagon announced a call for ideas for a small, autonomous military space station. The Department of Defense (DoD) 2020 budget now being debated in Congress includes $112 million for research into putting missile defense assets in space, possibly using neutral particle beam or laser technology.

Some experts think this is the only way to strike offensive missiles in the early stages of launch when they are most vulnerable. It's also one way to reverse the adverse cost ratio inherent in defending against missiles as opposed to producing more, significantly less expensive, offensive missiles to overwhelm the interceptors. The U.S. did similar research in the late 1980s and concluded doing so was beyond the technology available at the time. But technology has evolved, and if it is proven that putting a cost effective and technologically sound system in space to defend against Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles is feasible, then Congress and the administration must consider the consequences for strategic stability. 

Some might think the 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits something like this. The U.S. is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits placing nuclear weapons or any weapons of mass destruction in space and bans military activities on celestial bodies such as the moon. But the treaty is not a total ban on conducting military activities in outer space nor does it prohibit placing weapons in outer space that are not weapons of mass destruction.

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If the U.S. does deploy weapons in space, it would be the first country to do so. It’s long been a controversial idea and not popular among arms control proponents because the deployment of interceptors in space would likely be a disaster for strategic stability. To ensure the credibility of their nuclear deterrents, Russia, China and others could be expected to respond by deploying additional and new types of long-range ballistic missiles, as well as missiles employing non-ballistic trajectories that are harder to hit. Russia and China would also strive to improve their ability to destroy U.S. space based interceptors which would greatly increase the threat to the full array of U.S. space based assets. Intelligence, communications, surveillance, targeting and navigation capabilities already based in space, upon which DoD is totally dependent for command and control of military operations, would be at significant risk. As a consequence, putting weapons in space could become a classic case of trying to solve one problem while creating another, much worse problem.

Make no mistake, deploying weapons in space would cross a threshold that cannot be walked back. Given the implications for strategic stability and the likelihood that such a decision would encourage an expensive arms race in space in which any advantage gained would likely be temporary, such a decision should be weighed with the utmost caution. 

Colonel (retired) John Fairlamb, PhD, served the U.S. Army for 45 years as a commissioned officer and Department of the Army Civilian in a variety of Joint Service positions formulating and implementing national security strategies and policies. From 2005 to 2014, he was the political-military affairs advisor to the Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command.