Satellite Proliferation


The latest issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has an interesting (and, sadly, not-online) article by Jeffrey T. Richelson about the growing number of nations trying to join the “space reconnaissance club” by launching their own spy satellites. Until the 1990s, only the United States, Russia, and, to some extent, China had serious spy satellites—that is, with resolutions of 1 meter or less. But now Israel, Japan, and France have all launched their own, and more countries, such as Germany, Italy, Pakistan, India, South Africa, and Iran will likely follow soon enough.

Each country has its own reasons for wanting space reconnaissance programs. France doesn’t want to rely on the United States for its information, and, at a bare minimum, hopes that having its own satellites will “keep the Americans honest,” as one French defense analyst says, in situations similar to, say, the Iraq war. Israel, for its part, has learned that different CIA directors have different ideas about how much information to share with their ally, so it has now launched several of its own satellites to keep track of Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. (None of these satellites, of course, even come close to seeing as much as the United States can.)

Japan’s two (only two!) spy satellites, meanwhile, which were launched after North Korea fired a Taepodong missile over Japan in 1998, are making the neighbors nervous. That’s another issue in itself. More interestingly, Richelson lays out the case for why the proliferation of spy satellites may actually make the world a safer place:

[T]he worldwide constellation of spy satellites makes the task of a nation seeking to hide certain activities—whether it is China moving troops or missiles to locations near Taiwan, Iran constructing a nuclear facility, or Pakistan preparing for a missile or nuclear test—far more difficult than in the past…. The transparency that the proliferation of reconnaissance satellites was expected to bring is far closer to a reality than it was a decade ago. Such transparency can serve to increase stability by reducing the chance of a successful surprise attack as well as by providing reassurance in tense times to adversaries who would prefer to avoid war…

Indeed, the widespared proliferation of space reconnaissance capabilities has opened the door to a series of innovative proposals. Gaurav Rajen, a visiting scholar at Sandia National Laboratories, has suggested that India and Pakistan engage in cooperative remote sensing projects as a way to reduce political tensions and minimize the risk of misperceptions during times of crisis. The South China Morning Post reports that surveillance satellites could help to avoid conflict over the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by China, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines: “Structures built on the reefs by any of the rival claimants could be discovered early during the construction process.”…

And so on. It seems, though, that the United States, at the very least, would prefer not to see this sort of proliferation of spy satellites—hence the constant talk about “Space Control” and “militarizing space” and the like. The reasoning probably goes something like this: if a country like Pakistan fell into the hands of radical Islamists, it could, theoretically, use its satellites to direct terrorist attacks on the United States. And it’s no doubt possible to imagine situations where increased transparency would increase, rather than decrease, the chances of conflict.

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