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
Laura Ryan
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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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