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Our Gamble in Space: The Military Danger

A political scientist primarily concerned with the interactions of scientific progress and public policy, ALTON FRYE has been a close student of the national space program as a scholar, journalist, and government consultant. The article which follows grows out of his recent tenure as Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association.

by Alton Frye

Among the many skirmishes in connection with the Kennedy Administration's budget proposals for fiscal 1964, the debate over the national space program seems likely to grow into a major political battle. The civilian space agency's program, for which the President is asking $5.7 billion (an increase of $2 billion), has come under unprecedented congressional scrutiny. With tax reductions and reform also in the air, this extraordinary spending increase can hardly fail to act as a magnet for the budgetary axes Congress is beginning to hone.

Meanwhile, sentiment is building up on Capitol Hill for a more substantial military space effort. The Republicans have already shown signs of picking up the military space issue as an important weapon against the Administration. The President's request for $1.67 billion for Defense Department space activities, a negligible increase over the current year's expenditure for this purpose, came in the wake of GOP demands for an expanded military space budget. In a striking parallel to Democratic comments during 1960 on the anticipated missile gap, the Republican Advisory Committee on Space and Aeronautics charged that the Kennedy Administration is neglecting the needs of national security by its "niggardly" military space program.
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Return to Flashback: Our Place in Space

This theme has become a familiar one in recent statements of Senator Goldwater and other Republican spokesmen. Such apprehensions are not confined to partisan expressions; similar remarks have come from prominent Democrats in Congress. During the past year one could detect a crescendo of alarm over a possible American lag in military space technology in speeches by Senators Howard Cannon and Thomas Dodd, both members of the Senate Space Committee. Other members of the responsible congressional committees, including Senator Stuart Symington, have also been disturbed by developments in this area.

Congress has always shown a special concern for the military implications of space activities. It was a congressional amendment to the original space legislation proposed by the Eisenhower Administration which made specific provision for space projects in the Department of Defense. Although it seldom appears in the public record, a major factor in congressional support for the rapidly expanding NASA budget has been the common expectation that the civilian space program would provide the basic technology to meet the requirements of national security in this new and uncharted environment.

Recent events have tended to shatter this happy illusion. Highly respected scientists such as Dr. William Baker of the Bell Telephone Laboratories have sought to disabuse congressmen of the notion that the technological fallout from Project Apollo, the manned lunar-landing program, will satisfy military needs in space. In the meantime, Soviet space accomplishments have served to heighten the anxiety of many observers. Britain's Sir Bernard Lovell, commenting on the flights of the twin Soviet cosmonauts last summer, credited the Russians with a clear military superiority in space. Secretary of Defense McNamara has publicly indicated that "the Soviet Union may now have, or soon achieve, the capability to place in orbit bomb-carrying satellites."

As in most aspects of national security, many of the crucial facts are not accessible to the public, but it is possible to learn a good deal about what the United States is doing in this area and to review Soviet reaction to our activities. More important, one can try to assess the implications of the Soviet space program and to make some appraisal of present American policy.


In spite of astute attempts at rhetorical sleight of hand concerning the exclusive use of space for peaceful purposes, it is known that the United States already has a number of military space programs. We have launched experimental satellites designed for military reconnaissance and have explored the feasibility of satellites to provide early warning of an enemy missile attack. We have also tested satellites as navigational beacons to assist submarines, surface ships, and aircraft in determining their precise positions. Work is well advanced on a communications satellite system to help the Department of Defense improve its command and control capabilities. According to data published by the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, the Defense Department budgeted almost $650 million for these and similar projects during fiscal 1962 alone.

There is almost no information about the performance of these systems, but the public record does permit a few deductions. Reconnaissance satellites seem to be especially promising. At the time of the U-2 incident in 1960, the Eisenhower Administration justified its readiness to suspend operations of reconnaissance aircraft by implying that the United States would shortly be obtaining comparable intelligence from satellites. In December, 1962, President Kennedy, in a television review of his first two years in office, left no doubt that he expected the camera to play an invaluable role in the cold war. Observers interpreted his comment as referring to photography from space, as well as to the more familiar aerial reconnaissance which played such a vital role in the Cuban episode.

Progress on other satellite devices appears to be somewhat slower. The experimental early-warning satellite is reported to have been only partially successful. Congressman John H. Kyl recently made known the apparent closing of a ground facility at Ottumwa, Iowa, which was thought to have been part of the developmental system for early-warning satellites. Defense Department spokesmen declined detailed comment on the report but implied that some reorientation was under way in the program and that research would continue on a reduced scale.

A common feature of these and other systems which the Defense Department is thought to be developing is that none of the devices are weapons. The non-weapon character of American military satellites is the basis for our continued insistence that the United States space program is fully compatible with the reservation of space for peaceful purposes.

There appears to be no United States effort to develop a space-based force of bombardment satellites or other weapons. The major goal of American space policy has been to prevent weapons of mass destruction from being placed in orbit, thus opening a vast new realm for the arms competition. Several authoritative Administration figures, especially Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, have gone to considerable lengths to assure the Soviet Union that the United States would refrain from stationing thermonuclear weapons in orbit unless compelled to do so by Russian deployment of bombs in space. Apart from the dangerous acceleration which an American attempt to devise bombardment satellites might impart to the arms race, the Administration has argued strongly that such satellites offer no significant military advantage over existing delivery systems.


In spite of the non-weapon character of American satellite systems and efforts to demonstrate that the United States space program is purely peaceful in nature, the Soviets have maintained a persistent and intense political attack against American activities in space. American reconnaissance satellites came to be widely discussed as the possible successors to the U-2, and in June, 1960, Khrushchev told a Bucharest audience that Russia would "paralyze" other American espionage activities, apparently referring to the so-called "spy in the sky" satellites. Since that time there has been nothing in Soviet behavior to suggest that the Kremlin has grown less sensitive to American reconnaissance efforts. Even the Tiros weather satellites and other civilian programs have called forth Russian condemnation of American espionage and militarism.

At the United Nations the controversy over permissible and impermissible activities in space has come to focus on United States reconnaissance satellites. Western nations have consistently defended space reconnaissance and surveillance activities, while the Soviet bloc has bitterly denounced them as intolerable violations of the sovereign right of secrecy.

Communist representatives have also raised the specter of accidental war by stressing the danger that a false alarm by an early-warning satellite could trigger an American attack. Delegates from the Soviet bloc have further demanded that navigational satellites be used solely to guide merchant vessels and not to assist military ships or planes. Regardless of the American contention that our space program is peaceful and does not threaten any nation, the Russians clearly do not see it that way.

While castigating the United States for its alleged devotion to militarizing outer space, the Soviet Union has persistently sought to convince the world that its own space efforts are purely peaceful and dedicated to the good of all mankind. At the same time, the Russians have very successfully exploited their accomplishments in space to build an image of military might on earth.

Apprehension about the military implications of Soviet activities in space centers essentially in two areas: are the Russians developing an antisatellite capability, and are they working on bombardment satellites? The consistent threats to paralyze United States reconnaissance and surveillance satellites suggest that the Soviets may indeed be seriously engaged in devising a satellite interceptor and that they are very likely to use it. Although Soviet warnings are generally vague, and although the Russians also have expressed interest in frustrating American intelligence efforts by camouflaging potential targets and by constructing sham installations to deceive photography from space, they may prefer direct action against the offending satellites.

The threats gain additional credence from reported Soviet progress in related areas of military technology. In October, 1961, Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, the Russian Defense Minister, claimed that "the problem of destroying rockets in flight has been successfully solved." Some months later Premier Khrushchev boasted that his rocket forces could hit a fly in space. Commenting on this claim recently, President Kennedy seemed to concede that the Russians might be able to hit one fly, but he questioned whether they could counter a whole swarm of flies coming from many directions simultaneously. The implication was that the United States government credits the Soviets with considerable success in destroying discrete targets but doubts that they could meet a full-scale missile barrage.

It seems reasonable to deduce that Soviet progress in anti-missile technology is applicable in several respects to satellite interception, at least in the case of low-altitude targets. Moreover, since there are relatively few satellites and satellite orbits are more predictable than missile trajectories, the task of killing a satellite appears on the surface to be considerably more tractable than that of destroying a flock of incoming warheads.

Some commentators have seen another approach to satellite interception in the near rendezvous of the Vostoks III and IV last summer. The spacecraft are thought to have come within about three miles of one another, a range at which even a relatively simple weapon would probably have been effective. A co-orbital approach to satellite interception would, of course, be extremely expensive, and few authorities believe this to be a likely technique for Soviet anti-satellite operations. The Soviets might, however, want to rendezvous with an American satellite in order to capture the device. Once the satellite was returned to earth, Russian technicians could gain detailed knowledge of American satellite technology and learn how effective the satellites really are. For instance, the Kremlin would no doubt pay dearly to know just what sort of pictures U.S. reconnaissance satellites are capable of obtaining .

At any rate, the unclassified evidence about possible Soviet anti-satellite efforts, though slight, is susceptible of ominous interpretations. The Russians have left no doubt that they find a number of American satellites highly offensive, and they may soon have the technical capability to do something about these annoying devices. But what about the possibility that the Russians will perfect and deploy some sort of bombardment satellite?

The paramount fact is that the Soviets already have placed in orbit several enormous payloads, the Vostok satellites, which seem large enough to serve as space bombers. These vehicles are said to weigh well over 10,000 pounds, and some press reports have cited Russian payloads of up to 14,000 pounds. By comparison, the American Mercury capsules for manned space flight weigh roughly 3000 pounds. In addition, recent months have seen the Soviets explore a variety of new orbits, including some which provide maximum satellite coverage of the United States.

Not only is the awesome size of the Vostoks the subject of much speculation; the satellites have been surrounded by a number of quite explicit Soviet claims of their military significance. In the wake of cosmonaut Titov's flight in Vostok II during August, 1961, Premier Khrushchev said, "We placed Gagarin and Titov in space, and we can replace them with bombs that can be diverted to any place on earth." In the midst of the Cuban crisis of last October, the Soviet Premier pointedly listed spaceships among the "deadly weapons" whose existence made a peaceful solution of the dispute imperative. And Marshal Malinovsky underlined the military implications of Vostoks III and IV when, in a message to the twin cosmonauts he added, "Let our enemies know what techniques and what soldiers our Soviet power disposes of." Most recently, the commander in chief of Soviet strategic rocket forces, Marshal Biryuzov, injected a new degree of explicitness into the crescendo of threats. declaring, "It has now become possible at a command from earth to launch rockets from satellites at any desirable time and at any point in the satellite's trajectory." It is known that the Russians have indeed fired rockets from satellites to launch space probes, but the deliberate ambiguity of the marshal's statement was no doubt intended to suggest that targets on earth could also be reached by such rockets.

Do these declarations mean that the Vostoks are actually prototypes of orbital bombers? Too little is known of the satellites to offer a firm conclusion on that issue, but Western defense experts have generally agreed that space bombers are feasible. The main question has been whether bombardment satellites offer sufficient advantages to justify the great expense of developing and deploying them, particularly when effective and cheaper alternatives are available. In this country the Department of Defense has felt that existing or planned delivery systems are adequate to the nation's strategic needs and that there is no "clear and urgent military requirement" to work on bombardment satellites. This seems a sensible conclusion for a country with overwhelming strategic superiority, but does the situation look the same from the Russian point of view? On our answer to that question hinge some critical decisions which will have a grave influence on the security of the free world.

We are now reasonably confident that, in spite of their early achievements in testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Soviets have not deployed operational missiles as rapidly as the United States. In terms of strategic missiles, the Soviets must concede a long period of inferiority to the West. Since they have no prospect of overtaking the United States in the numbers of deployed missiles, additions to the Russian missile inventory offer only marginal political and strategic advantage.

But a breakthrough into space-based strategic weapons might give the Soviets phenomenal returns on their investment, especially since the basic technology for such a deployment already has been provided by their research on large rockets and space vehicles. The Soviets could count on the novelty of bombardment satellites to shape the popular perception of the strategic balance and to inspire still greater respect for Russian military prowess. In terms of technological and military prestige, space bombers might well appear more attractive to the Kremlin than mere increments to Soviet missile forces. With their keen appreciation of the political utility of novel weapons, the Soviets could view bombardment satellites as promising tools of blackmail, even if they did not fundamentally alter the balance of strategic power.

In military terms alone, the development of orbital bombers might appeal to the Soviets. First of all, warheads de-orbited from satellites could reach their targets so quickly that a defending nation would lose the precious minutes of warning for which the United States has purchased such costly facilities as the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. Still more threatening in this respect would be systems which did not require that warheads be delivered to a specific target on earth. Donald Brennan has suggested that devices of several hundred megatons in yield could be detonated in orbit at altitudes comparable to those at which the Vostoks fly. Depending on weather conditions, such a weapon might set fire to much of a continent, approaching the ultimate in instantaneous devastation.

If the Soviets could bypass BMEWS and other warning systems, soft targets like airfields and naval installations would become even more vulnerable to thermonuclear attack than they are at present. Civil defense efforts would be rendered futile. Among other psychological effects, the Russians could hope that the appearance of bombardment satellites would seriously undermine Western morale. The special political and military advantages of bombardment satellites, even if rather more costly than other forces, could prove decisive to Soviet strategic planners. One factor in the surprisingly slow growth of Russian missile strength may be the progress of Soviet technology toward an operational bombardment satellite.


There is a strong American consensus in support of the basic elements of national space policy. The world will be a much safer place if we can succeed in maintaining space as a sanctuary for purely peaceful activities. But how do we keep the arms race from spreading to this new arena?

Presently the United States hopes to accomplish this noble purpose by a declared policy of abstaining from developing space weapons. While pressing for international agreement on the peaceful use of space, we promise the Soviets that we will refrain from orbiting weapons of mass destruction so long as they do not station such devices in space. At the same time, our emphasis is on unimpeded free access to space for non-weapon satellites, including some to which the Soviets strenuously object. But, sad to say, our dedication to peaceful activities in space, together with our repeated assurances to the Soviets that the United States will never begin a space arms race, may frustrate our search for a satisfactory understanding on permissible activities in space.

By voluntarily and unilaterally forgoing precautionary development of space weapons, especially anti-satellite systems and bombardment satellites, we remove the major incentive for the Soviets to come to terms on an arms-control treaty for space. Since the United States is abstaining from serious research on space weapons anyway, the Russians do not face a threat from that quarter, except insofar as they consider themselves menaced by American reconnaissance and surveillance satellites. So long as there is no inspection agreement and the United States refrains from substantial research on the military uses of space, the Soviets are free to test and possibly to deploy various military space systems at minimum risk.

In negotiations regarding space the United States has already given the Russians the very prize for which we propose to negotiate. The Soviets enjoy adequate security that the United States will not use space for deployment of weapons, while the United States has no comparable guarantees from the Soviets. From Moscow's point of view, there is no need to negotiate in earnest for arms control in space.

This seems to be a recurring pattern in Soviet-American relations. In its eagerness to demonstrate its good faith, the United States has time and again foolishly squandered its diplomatic capital. In Korea a hint of Communist willingness to discuss armistice terms led the United States to suspend its increasingly successful military operations, the principal factor which had brought the Chinese and North Koreans to the armistice table. With the pressure off, the Communists were able to regroup their forces and to drag out the negotiations interminably. In order to promote a nuclear-test-ban treaty, the United States entered into the test moratorium. Since the Western powers were not testing anyway, the Soviets had no need for a formal agreement; instead they were encouraged to prolong the discussions indefinitely while secret research and test preparations wiped out the Western lead in nuclear weapons technology. The United States has yet to comprehend that most painful paradox of the cold war: concessions may sometimes be fatal to the success of negotiations, especially when those concessions involve the substance of the issue at stake.

A vital question for American policy makers in the months ahead is whether we are committing the same mistake in negotiations concerning space. There is no assurance that American restraint in the development of space weapons will evoke similar behavior on the part of the Soviets. Indeed, current political and technical trends make it seem more likely that the Russians will regard space weapons as highly advantageous, both politically and militarily.

It may be that in order to protect American satellites from Soviet anti-satellite operations, which seem only too probable in the case of American reconnaissance satellites, the United States must also possess satellite interceptors with which to threaten reprisals against Soviet satellites. Similarly, should Soviet bombardment satellites materialize as a threat, the United States may urgently need an effective anti-satellite system or possibly bombardment satellites of its own with which to bargain for mutual withdrawal of strategic forces from space. It has even been suggested that some space-based systems might be able to neutralize ground-based missiles. If so, the United States may yet require space-based weapons itself in order to maintain its deterrent posture.

It is a truism that successful negotiation requires a mutuality of interest among the parties. In efforts to achieve preventive arms control in space or elsewhere, the mutuality must reside in a recognition of common danger. The swelling chorus of demands for an increased military space effort by the United States stems not from repudiation of the worthy American goal of a demilitarized space but from a feeling that the potential dangers of military exploitation of space technology are much too one-sided in the present circumstances. A serious and substantial military space program by the United States may be necessary to induce the Soviets to enter into adequately verifiable agreements reserving space for peaceful activities. Only by making sure that the dangers of hostile use of space are mutual can we be confident of ensuring reciprocal restraint in the deployment of space weapons and of preserving a stable strategic balance on earth.

Copyright © 1963 by Alton Frye. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August, 1963; Our Gamble In Space: The Military Danger; Volume 212, No. 2; pages 46-50

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