In 1978, Adm. Stansfield Turner, then the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, said that the “Russians can kill us in space.” Turner was referring to the Soviet Union’s kinetic anti-satellite weapons program. In other words, the Soviet military could shoot down U.S. satellites in orbit with missiles. Today, there are even more sophisticated threats to U.S. and allied space systems, and Washington should decide how to respond.
The United States began viewing space as a contested domain in the early 1960s. Due to the Soviet threat, the Pentagon developed kinetic space weapons programs like the F-15-launched Miniature Homing Vehicle. The space operating environment has changed since the end of the Cold War. There are considerably more spacefaring nations and some of these actors (e.g., China and Russia) have increasingly capable anti-satellite weapons. Additionally, the global economy now depends on the safe use of space.
Washington should not, however, reinvigorate its former kinetic space weapons programs to address the threats to its satellites. The use of kinetic space weapons during a conflict would create an enormous amount of debris that would harm the space systems that the United States needs for precision targeting, early warning, navigation, communications, and other critical functions. Charles Powell has persuasively argued that debris, which can remain in orbit for years, is one of the most serious threats to satellites.