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Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced
Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a new priority for his department - protection of America's satellites. As if to underline the importance of the task, he demanded in early February that Congress allocate 10.7 billion dollars for the purpose in 2009.

Russia has voiced similar concerns. Air Force Commander Col.-Gen. Alexander Zelin told a conference at the Academy of Military Sciences in mid-January that the biggest threats to Russia in the 21st century come from air and space.

This concern about space raises several questions. First, why do satellites require protection? Second, does defense of space equate to the militarization of space? Third, how can sophisticated and expensive space hardware be protected from unwanted interference?

Today satellites do require protection. To understand why, we have to understand how warfare has changed.

Recent conflicts have shown that the ideas that dominated military thinking in the 20th century have become desperately obsolete. In the wars of today, and the future, the objective is to deal surgical strikes against an enemy's sensitive facilities, rather than seize its territory. Massive use of ground troops and armor is already a thing of the past. The role of strategic aviation is similarly decreasing. In strategic arms, the emphasis is shifting from the classic nuclear triad to high precision weapons of different basing modes.

This kind of precision warfare has only been made possible by orbital support vehicles - satellite-based reconnaissance, warning, forecasting and targeting systems.

Much has been done in recent years for the development of "smart" weapons - guided bombs and missiles that are highly accurate over hundreds of miles. Military analysts say that by 2010 the leading military powers will have 30,000-50,000 such weapons between them, and by 2020 some 70,000-90,000. It is hard to imagine how many satellites will be required to support such a vast arsenal, but without them, the cruise missiles capable of hitting a mosquito at a hundred miles will be absolutely useless.

Thus, hundreds of seemingly harmless "passive" space systems, which themselves are not designed to attack anything, are a crucial component of high precision weapons, the main armaments of the 21st century.

But this very strength makes space systems the Achilles heel of the modern army. Disabling its satellites would effectively cripple the US military - and they are almost completely undefended.

Hence Robert Gates' demand for funds. As other nations follow America'a lead, and rush to protect their satellites from attack, we will see the development of a new arms race. Does this make the militarization of space inevitable? If we are talking about the deployment of attack weapons capable of independently destroying targets in space, the air and on the ground, the answer is "yes". But this doesn't necessarily mean that space will be turned into a gun turret with the whole planet in sight.

Weapons carrying satellites are a nightmare that has so far been avoided, and I believe may still be avoided. It is not at all necessary to put combat stations into orbit, or arm reconnaissance and weather satellites. Satellites can be reliably protected by ground-based systems that Russia is currently developing.

In early February 2007, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov set his defense department the task of developing an integrated system of air, space and missile defense. The air defense concern Almaz-Antei has been named the main developer of the project.

Ivanov said that the project is "very serious, expensive, and unique in the use of innovation technology." A timetable has been set for its implementation within the arms program up to 2015. The ministries and departments involved in the project have been ordered to draft a comprehensive program for the development of a unified system of air defense missiles.

This will include a mobile system of air and space defense currently being developed by Almaz. Ivanov said that "it will consist of combat, information and other systems that would simultaneously guarantee three types of defense - air, space, and missile defense."

Considering the need to ensure close cooperation between the air and space forces in using the unified air and space defense systems, the commander of the Air Force has proposed that all aerospace forces should be unified under the Air Force Chief Command.

How the United States will choose to protect its more than five hundred satellites is an open question. But it would be better for everyone if, following Russian example, such defense systems are launched from predictable ground sites, rather than space.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.


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