Star Wars - Space Control and Domination

Article by Philip Webber from SGR Newsletter 23, July 2001. It is an expanded version of a talk given at "No Star Wars: An International Conference to Keep Space for Peace", Leeds, May 4-6th 2001

Let's remind ourselves where we are. ...

We live on a blue green planet with a layer of atmosphere about 100 km thick (that's the thickness opaque to X rays). If we were living on an apple we'd be in the sheen on the skin, on a cricket ball in the dust on the surface. We are already polluting this fragile environment, the land the seas and the atmosphere - millions are already living in dire poverty or in various nasty regional conflicts. We already have a global nuclear overkill several tens of times over. We already have considerable offensive capability. Possibly the very last thing we need is to spend a few hundred billion on a new version of Star Wars.

As I said, space is only 100 km away. If you could drive there straight up it would only take you an hour - less distance than many travel each day. As I said we also live on a globe, a sphere. It's roughly 13,000 km in diameter. The net result of this and the fact that the earth spins daily, is that any effort to create a so-called missile defence system has to be global. An inter-continental ballistic missile travels about 90 degrees around the curve of the globe to reach its target taking some 25 to 30 minutes doing so.

There are many possible trajectories or paths round the curve of the earth so you need to be able to have ways of stopping missiles in several places. For example, at the re-entry phase you need the Point defence or final layer defence of anti missile missiles. Then, as 30 minutes to disaster doesn't give much time to think, you also need a global surveillance system to see round the curve of the earth to the point at which the missile is launched. This is where the SBIRS high and low come in - that is, Space Based Infra Red (heat) Satellites in orbits of a few 100 km (low) and in 10,000 km high) orbits (4 in geo-synchronous orbits, 2 in elliptical orbits). Another element is new radar arrays and additional signal processing and communications requirements. This is where Menwith Hill (a relaying and signal processing station for SBIRS) and Fylingdales (early warning radar including X band radar with greater target resolution than currently possible) enter the picture.

Global surveillance gives rise to the idea of trying to hit missiles at launch. This in turn means that you need to be able to launch missiles or fire laser weapons from near to the launch site which in turn means a fleet of ships and/or a global array of bases with this quick response capability. A quick response capability is another way of saying pre-emptive strike or hair trigger response, and raises the likelihood of horrible accidents. Something capable of shooting down a missile at launch - and a missile is designed to be robust - could mistakenly (or deliberately?) shoot down anything in the sky, any plane, military or civil.

In the old star wars system, it was envisaged that any quick response or automated anti missile launch system would mean that all civil and military planes would have to be grounded. Quite apart from the risk of inadvertent targeting of aircraft the sheer numbers of objects in the air already stretch air traffic controls to the limit. Adding the need to distinguish launch missiles within five minutes and to disable them creates a currently intractable processing task.

So, the very concept of NMD almost guarantees the need for a grotesque military system with a global array of bases, radar, ships, lasers, satellites and so on. Almost a licence to print money once the concept is supported. This is the US "Pork Barrel": big money for big supporters of Bush's election campaign.

Ironically, SGR pointed out that whilst Bush was trashing the idea of climate change as anything we should concern ourselves about because of "doubts", he was happy to accept an election result far less certain than the reality of climate change.

But I digress. So, what is needed apart from a global system? One vital ability is to actually see where the missiles ARE. And even more importantly to be able to HIT one. Previously the proponents of Star Wars advocated using nuclear warheads to wipe out incoming nukes. Whilst this would undoubtedly work this is rather like fishing with dynamite. You run the severe risk of blowing up your own boat, destroying the ecosystem - and of course stun an impressive number of fish which can then be literally picked up (if you have any remaining limbs). (My source is some one eyed / one armed fishermen in a little bar on the Greek island of Zakynthos some years ago).

So, using a nuke to destroy a nuke is not a good idea. So, what about blowing up a conventional bomb near enough to it? Well, this doesn't work with any reliability as a warhead is designed to re-enter from space glowing red hot as it arrives at several times the speed of sound. It is tough and it isn't particularly bothered by nearby explosions. Also the experience of the US / Israelis trying to hit Scud Missiles is not particularly encouraging. Whilst the tracking system worked quite well the Scud didn't. They tended to break up in flight confusing the Patriot missile system.

So, the answer is not just to nearly hit a bullet, it is to hit a bullet with another bullet. And if that wasn't hard enough the bullet may have disguised itself inside a balloon until the last minute and is accompanied by other objects looking just like warheads (decoys) but not. Hence, the NMD assumes that 4 anti missiles will be needed to have a reasonable chance of hitting one incoming warhead.

This is why the cost of defence is vastly greater than the cost of more offence. The factor might be as large as 10:1 too, so it will generally be easier to build or buy more offence than to build a defence.

And against who and what is all this thought and planning devoted?

Even Bush's system envisages only the capability to stop a few tens of missiles. So, who could that possibly mean?

The only country which has the technical capability right now to hit the US with a "few tens" of missiles is China. North Korea has renounced nukes and in any case doesn't have the rockets with enough range. India and Pakistan only have regional capability as does Israel. The rather obvious thing for China to do is to deploy double the number of missile warheads plus some additional decoys to negate the NMD capability.

The US talk of wanting to defend against a "rogue state". The only rogue state I can see from this analysis with any real nuclear capability is the US itself. Along with force projection presumably we also have psychological projection - seeing ones own attributes "projected" in others. A dangerous way for a dominant state already heavily armed to take decisions.

The other concept to knock on the head at this stage is the idea of defence. Richard M Nixon (tricky dicky) himself put it rather well when he said "If you have a shield it is easier to use the sword". The US military already has a considerable sword. NMD would add a modest shield to this capability. The overall US stance is one of considerable offensive capability.

The other states with the capability to hit the US are France and the UK. We already could swamp NMD. Additionally, submarine launched weapons can be launched with depressed trajectories. This doesn't mean sad, depressed missiles somehow gruffly climbing out the of submarine rather like Marvin the paranoid android - although we might feel that the whole thing is a sorry travesty - it means trajectories which deliberately do not go into space (or very briefly) by being depressed in the sense of being lower, which makes the job of an anti-missile missile that much harder, as they are designed to hit their targets in space at high altitude.

This does rather beg the question as to what else NMD or BMD won't protect against. This is another rather alarming list:

  • SLBMs with depressed trajectories (as above)
  • Bombers
  • Cruise weapons (and who has all of those??)
  • A terrorist bomb (assembled in the US)
  • A terrorist weapon in a ship or a car
  • Biological and chemical weapons (these are not deployed on ICBMs)

So, NMD cannot protect against most nuclear states (except China) and it cannot protect against some very feasible terrorist and cheap military threats (i.e. chemical or biological weapons).

So what on earth (or space) is it for?

The only answer which makes any sense to me is "Bush's corporate sponsors".

Bush scraped into office through a corrupt electoral process and funded by multi-million donations from the arms industry (Boeing, Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, etc.) as well as people like Microsoft et al.

This is very well documented and is the subject of another presentation.

NMD is payback time. It is as simple as that. NMD also panders to an isolationist, global dominance and technical fix model of the world which is strongly held by the US administration and many US politicians and citizens. We can see a consistent picture. Rather than reduce energy consumption already standing several times per head than any other country in the globe, the US plan to drill for more oil, to burn more carbon, to "buy" their way out the problem. To increase their consumption! In the course of doing this they are literally taking the rest of us as environmental and military hostages. Without our permission and against our advice and the advice of their own scientists they are polluting our planet, damaging our common space, and planning to control all military movements around the globe.

Perhaps our best approach here in Europe might be to really focus on denying the US military access to our local bases such as Menwith Hill and Fylingdales - not forgetting the base in East Anglia - and the other local stations needed for NMD. Another state with strong anti-military and anti-nuclear leanings is Denmark who are technically in charge of Greenland which contains the Thule military base and warning station.

As SGR we can point out the technical superiority of offence (i.e. the ICBM) against anti-missiles (in value for money terms). We can point out how spending this type of money on military destabilisation is an aberration in a world which needs investment in so many things to foster greater security, equality and fairer shares of the world environment and resources.

All these approaches taken together are important and can have a real impact. We are taking our own global approach to combat this rogue state the USA. And the other presentations at this meeting give us a flavour of the immense implications of what is going on for our world, our environment, and the future.

SCHEMATIC OVERVIEW OF "MISSILE DEFENCE": XBR X-Band Radar; UEWR Upgraded Early Warning Radar; GBI Ground Based Interceptor; SBIRS LOW and HIGH Space-Based Infra Red System in low earth orbit and high (geostationary) orbit; BMC3 Battle Management, Command, Control and Communications [drawing by Patrick Nicholson]

(A larger version of this diagram is available.

References and further reading

Some Internet Resources on Missile Defence
Ballistic Missile Defence Organisation
Now the Missile Defence Agency (Feb 2004)
British American Security Information Council
Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases
Federation of American Scientists
Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space
International Security Information Service
Space-Based Infra Red System
(link non-functional - Feb 2004)
Union of Concerned Scientists
US Space Command
(link non-functional - Feb 2004)
Yorkshire CND