How the U.S. Is Vulnerable to Terrorism in Space

The possibility of a dangerous space incident is on the rise, says a new report.

Space shuttle Atlantis is seen docked to the International Space Station in July 2011. This was the final mission of the U.S. space shuttle program.
National Journal
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Laura Ryan
April 17, 2014, 12:08 p.m.

Space ter­ror­ism is a grow­ing threat to U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port.

And an at­tack on a U.S. satel­lite — or dam­age to one from an­oth­er coun­try’s debris — could have as­tro­nom­ic­al ef­fects on na­tion­al se­cur­ity, says the re­port from the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions.

The U.S. is more re­li­ant on space than any oth­er na­tion to carry out crit­ic­al na­tion­al se­cur­ity func­tions, such as pre­ci­sion at­tacks on sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ists and im­age ana­lys­is of nuc­le­ar-weapons pro­grams, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

But coun­tries like China, North Korea, and Ir­an are de­vel­op­ing their mil­it­ary space cap­ab­il­it­ies, in­creas­ing the risk of a dan­ger­ous situ­ation for the U.S, says the re­port.

For ex­ample, if one of these hos­tile coun­tries ac­quires ad­vanced space cap­ab­il­it­ies, they could feas­ibly at­tack a U.S. satel­lite to gain an up­per hand in ne­go­ti­ations, hold off po­ten­tial hos­tile acts, or as an act of de­fense, says Micah Zen­ko, the Douglas Dillon fel­low in the Cen­ter for Pre­vent­ive Ac­tion at the CFR and the re­port’s au­thor.

But, ac­cord­ing to Zen­ko’s re­port, ter­ror­ists take a back seat to an­oth­er space threat: ac­ci­dents.

Space is cluttered with trash, like old satel­lites and parts of rock­ets, mak­ing nav­ig­a­tion very tricky. China’s haphaz­ard test­ing of its an­tisatel­lite weapons is mak­ing the mess worse, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, and a ran­dom col­li­sion with Chinese debris could quickly es­cal­ate in­to an crisis between the U.S. and China.

Giv­en the high stakes, the U.S. needs to make haste in de­vel­op­ing its cap­ab­il­it­ies, both tech­nic­al and polit­ic­al, to re­duce the risk of an at­tack or col­li­sion, Zen­ko says, lest it risk ced­ing con­trol of shap­ing glob­al space policy.


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