Air University Review, May-June 1982

Beam Weapons in Space

a reality we must confront

Major Steven E. Cady

In a report entitled The Effects of Nuclear War (1979) , the Office of Technology Assessment summarized estimates made by various agencies of the federal government. According to these estimates, a nuclear attack on the Untied states would result in 70 million to 160 million fatalities within the first 30 days following the attack. Millions more would die later as a consequence of radiation sickness, insufficent medical care, exposure to cold, food shortages, and major epidemics. The magnitude of the devastation inflicted on the United States would render it questionable whether the nation "would ever recover its position as an organized, industrial, and powerful country."1

These and similar estimates make minimizing the likelihood of a nuclear attack on the United States a national priority of the first order--perhaps the most important single national concern. Of the three theoretically possible courses of action for minimizing that probability, only one is both practical and acceptable to Americans. A failure to resist aggression would lead to eventual military, political, and economic domination of the United States by the Soviet Union, with permanent loss of the freedoms so cherished by Americans. A preemptive attack against the Soviet Union, though an almost unimaginable violation of America’s national spirit and ideals, might have succeeded in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Today, with the Russian giant in a position at least of military parity vis--vis the United States, such an attack would provoke an immediate nuclear counterattack on America, probably equally as destructive as a Soviet first strike.

The only feasible alternative remaining is a policy calculated to deter any would-be aggressor from attacking the United States: that policy symbolized by the motto of the Strategic Air Command, "Peace . . . . is our Profession." Strategic deterrence requires a recognized American capability to inflict unacceptable retaliatory casualties and destruction on any aggressor— including the Soviet Union—combined with a manifest will to use the nation’s power, if need be, to visit such punishment on an adversary.

So-called experts, both within and without the American defense community, have often said that the United States possesses sufficient nuclear power to kill the entire population of the Soviet Union—or even of the whole world—many times over. The nation’s deterrent power derived from its nuclear and other military arsenals is, however, probably much lower than most American military personnel assume it to be. Two separate sets of circumstances reinforce each other to justify this conclusion.

First, the United States relies heavily on its putative ability to obtain advance warning of an impending Soviet attack—as a substitute for taking additional necessary steps to assure its survival in case such an attack materializes. However, the customary low-alert status of Soviet forces, a change in which the United States could detect and which helps explain its confidence, could change permanently at any time. Furthermore, history shows that nations are often surprised by their enemies for a variety of reasons: (1) signals of an approaching crisis tend to remain unrecognized amid competing and contradictory signals; (2) aggressors practice deliberate deception to mislead the nations they intend to attack; (3) bureaucratic pressures promote the interpretation of incoming information in such a way as to confirm established policies and theories; and (4) there is a tendency for a nation’s political and military leaders to believe that their adversaries share their conceptual framework when, in fact, they do not.2

Second, many responsible American leaders, including Department of Defense officials, have—as already indicated—come to accept the myth of an overkill capability on the part of the United States. This myth maintains that the United States has more nuclear power than needed to destroy the entire population of the Soviet Union. Belief in the myth fosters a dangerous complacency. Actually, however, (1) much of the Soviet Union’s population is widely dispersed in rural areas, so that such population is almost immune to nuclear attack; (2) after absorbing a Soviet first strike, the number of weapons available to the United States with which to retaliate in a counterstrike would be much smaller than before the strike; (3) the nation’s plans for an optimal counterattack would be disrupted by the destruction resulting from the Soviet first strike; and (4) America’s present retaliatory plans call for the destruction of economic, political, and military targets, not of the Soviet Union’s civilian population as such.3

From these considerations, it follows that the Soviet perception of America’s deterrent capability is likely to be much less favorable than that of the leaders of the United States. To this fact must be added the possibility or even probability that the Soviet conceptual framework does not make nuclear war in pursuit of national goals as unthinkable as it is by American standards: Soviet leaders may well be willing to sustain greater population and property losses in the quest for victory than their American counterparts. Moreover, the possibility can never be eliminated entirely that the Soviet Union will, at some future time, make an irrational decision to attack the United States, as a consequence of fear, misinformation, overconfidence, or even some accident. Prudence, therefore, mandates the conclusion that the existing situation is incompatible with the greatest possible present and future security of the United States. The situation is not maximally conducive to America’s survival as a nation.

The Soviet Challenge

American achievements such as the first landing on the moon by astronauts in July 1969 and the first launching and return of a reusable space shuttle in April 1981 illustrate the awesome potential of American science and technology. However, that potential is being challenged by the Soviet Union, a determined opponent convinced that its national destiny is superior to that of the United States, intensely dedicated to realizing its own purposes, and skeptical of the strength of the corresponding American dedication.

As Lieutenant General Jerome F. O’Malley has pointed out, it was or is the Soviet Union, not the United States, that:

• orbited the first earth satellite of any kind.

• orbited the first manned earth satellite.

• orbited the first manned space station.

• landed the first man-made object on the moon.

• launched the first woman into space.

• developed the first nonnuclear antisatellite (ASAT).

• orbited the first unmanned ferry and space station resupply vehicle.

• has accumulated the most man-hours in space.

• has orbited the longest-duration continuously manned space system.

• has the only operational ASAT.4

Although the United States spends more each year on eating out, alcohol, and tobacco than it does on national defense,5 the Soviet Union spends as much money as it considers necessary on military preparedness. Former Soviet Premier Aleksei N. Kosygin once remarked, "We don’t have any contradictions in the Soviet Union between appropriations for space research and the needs of the population."6 As a consequence, the United States is no longer the strongest nation in the world on land, at sea, or in the air.7 Comparing the American and Soviet military efforts, the late General George S. Brown, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted that, "in terms of space weapons capability, they [the Soviets] are ahead and are likely to continue in the lead for the next several years."8

These specifics support the general considerations presented earlier, justifying the conclusion that the deterrent power of American strategic forces is insufficient today; it no longer minimizes the probability of a nuclear attack on the United States. Restoring the effectiveness of the deterrent is, therefore, a matter of the greatest possible national importance and urgency.

New Space Technologies

During the first two decades of the space age, both American and Soviet military capabilities in space were limited almost entirely to passive functions such as gathering weather information, facilitating long-distance communication, assisting accurate navigation on and below the earth’s surface, and conducting surveillance operations. One purpose of the latter was, and remains, providing the earliest possible warning of a ballistic missile attack actually launched by an enemy nation.

Continued advances in space technology now permit contemplating the possible use of space for "active" military functions. Spacecraft such as these could be developed:

• Bombardment satellites carrying nuclear weapons directed at enemy earth targets on radio command from ground stations

• Space shuttles capable of snatching enemy satellites out of orbit

• Space shuttles used to mine the orbital paths of enemy satellites, with those satellites exploding when they hit the mines

• Hunter-killer satellites capable of pulling up next to enemy satellites and exploding, destroying the enemy satellites as well as themselves

• Satellites firing laser beams across thousands of miles to destroy enemy satellites, or ground-based enemy missiles immediately after their launch, or selected enemy targets on earth

• Similar satellites firing particle beams— beams of electrons, protons, ions, or neutrons— with the same destructive purposes and effects.

These last two possibilities, involving so-called beam weapons or directed-energy weapons placed aboard satellites, offer a remarkable potential for restoring America’s deterrent power. A weapon system capable of destroying all or a high percentage of the missiles launched against the United States in a future war would almost certainly dissuade the Soviet Union from initiating an attack certain to trigger devastating retaliation.

A Question of Legality

Does the United States have the right to loft directed-energy weapons into orbit?

Such weapons could probably be used against enemy targets on earth. It can, therefore, be argued that they would violate one of the provisions of the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (also known as the Treaty on Outer Space). Article IV of the Treaty, to which both the United States and the Soviet Union are signatories, states in part that the "parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction. . . or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner."9 Whether beam weapons aboard satellites would violate the cited provision of the Treaty on Outer Space is a question outside the scope of this article. If, however, the United States perceived placing directed-energy weapons in orbit as essential to its security, it would (under Article XVI) have the option of withdrawing from the Treaty on one year’s notice to all other signatories.

More to the point is the fact that, throughout history, great nations wishing to remain great have interpreted principles of law in a manner consistent with their own needs and interests. A preoccupation with the niceties of law would be appropriate in a utopian world. In the real world, which includes adversaries acting entirely on the basis of self-interest, such preoccupation has always been the road to disaster. The United States cannot afford to go down that road—its responsibility is not merely to itself but to all of the free world. The nation is accountable to history and to humanity.

Questions of Practicality

Despite the apparent attractiveness of a beam-weapon system for restoring U.S. deterrent power, serious arguments have been raised, questioning the practicality of such a system. Seven such arguments merit consideration.

Directed-energy weapons are not yet feasible and may never become feasible. This first argument has been leveled against almost every new weapon and other important inventions by those lacking the vision to look to the future and the courage to advance into it boldly. The automobile and airplane were also decried as impractical, or their importance sadly underestimated, in the years immediately following their invention. A recent Defense Department study has reportedly concluded that there are compelling reasons for initiating an accelerated laser-weapon program:

—Laser-weapon technology now being developed makes existing arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons dangerously vulnerable.

—A constellation of space laser systems would be capable of checkmating a massive intercontinental ballistic missile attack.

—Such systems could also deal effectively with high-altitude aircraft, hostile satellites, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

—The systems could perform ancillary military functions, such as interdicting enemy airlift operations, suppressing airborne air defense radar, and destroying aircraft sent up to intercept a friendly bomber penetration.10

A more specific version of this first argument points out that the speed of light at which directed-energy weapons function is not enough to make them working weapon systems. It is necessary to determine that the target to be attacked is there; to track the target, keeping the beam on it long enough to stop it or destroy it; and to know when the target has been stopped so that the beam can be switched to another target.

While coping with these problems is a technologically difficult undertaking, there is no particular reason to believe that the problems are insoluble. The sooner the United States begins full-scale work on beam weapons, the sooner it will have a functioning directed-energy system in space.

Laser-weapon technology is in its infancy, so it is necessary to wait for significant design improvements before committing large sums of money to the new weapon system. The fallacy of this second argument is that significant technological advances in laser-beam and particle-beam weapons will be continuous for many years to come. A nation that keeps waiting for the most propitious moment to plunge into the actual development of a new weapon system is going to be preempted by its adversary. As with any other new weapon system, the time is now.

It would be too easy to nullify a space beam-weapon system. The proposed satellites could be countered by means of decoys, electronic jamming, and/or a proliferation of missiles. Furthermore, an expensive laser station in space would itself become the first target of an enemy nation planning an attack. However, it is difficult to see why an extensive system of directed-energy weapons in space would not be able to destroy missiles or satellites sent to attack it. Such an attack would also prompt an immediate nuclear first strike against the attacking nation. As for the general argument, it is in the nature of war for each new weapon to produce countermeasures, against which other countermeasures are developed, and so on in a never-ending cycle. In any adversarial relationship, one side cannot afford to stand still while the other moves ahead, developing and deploying new weapons. In November 1980, the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space concluded that the Soviet Union is expending between three and five times as much money on high-energy laser technology as the United States.11 We cannot afford to fall farther behind.

The proposed new weapon systems are too expensive. Estimates of the amount needed to make the new systems both operational and effective range from $10 billion to $500 billion. That cost must be measured against the value of America’s survival as a free nation. If survival has a greater value, then the money needed for the new weapon systems must be appropriated. Greater efforts can be made to reduce waste and duplication in other defense expenditures, to reduce outlays on less important weapon systems, to decrease government expenditures in the social welfare sector, and to increase federal taxes. Americans should be willing to make some sacrifices—even considerable sacrifices—for the sake of survival.

The Soviet Union would not permit the United States to install a directed-energy weapon system in space. Any laser satellite, for instance, would be attacked while it was still being assembled in orbit. The possibility must also be entertained that the Soviet Union might launch a ballistic missile attack against the United States in desperation before the new American weapon system made its missiles useless. Since the Soviet Union may well be ahead of the United States in developing such a system, the United States would be establishing parity only by also developing a system. Moreover, other options would be available to the Soviet Union, including a hardening of its strategic systems to make them less vulnerable to beam weapons. Most important, perhaps, the record of the Soviet Union in its foreign and military policy has never been one of rashness: it has avoided or drawn back from confrontations with the United States, as in Cuba and Vietnam, to prevent igniting a nuclear holocaust. It is reasonable to assume that the Soviets would act with similar prudence if the United States opted for directed-energy weapons. The overriding consideration is the certainty that if the United States does not, the Soviet Union will.

Existing weapon treaties may be expanded in coming years specifically to include space-borne directed-energy weapons. Such an expansion, if it materialized, would make the new weapon systems obsolete and the large financial investment in them a loss. However, if these systems provided the United States with a deterrent power needed, affording it a measure of security that it seeks but does not now have, there would be no logical reason for the nation to become a signatory to any agreement outlawing beam weapons in space. Nations do not willingly dispense with what they regard as essentials.

If both the United States and the Soviet Union establish full-fledged beam-weapon systems in space, these systems will cancel one another. What of it? The long-term result will be a kind of mutual invulnerability. The United States would certainly not want to forgo immunity to nuclear attack simply because its chief adversary was similarly immune. The consequence of such an invulnerability might be a shift of strategic emphasis to low-flying cruise missiles or to other weapons against which directed-energy weapons would be largely ineffective. Furthermore, it is likely that, in the years to come, China and other nations will develop significant nuclear capabilities, and the United States needs to protect itself against possible adversaries other than the Soviet Union.

Major General George Keegan, former intelligence chief of the United States Air Force, reports that the Soviet Union has already tested the first particle-beam weapon and the world’s largest laser weapon at Sary-Shagan, Kazakhstan (in west-central Asia). The Soviets are, therefore, on their way to an unacceptable superiority over the United States, which "has no choice but to begin an urgent national crash program surpassing anything since the Manhattan Project."12

If General Keegan is correct, then there is, indeed, not a moment to be lost: the United States is under a categorical imperative to go all out for a beam-weapon system in space. There are knowledgeable individuals—physicist Bernard T. Feld, editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, for instance—who dismiss Keegan’s warnings as alarmist and unfounded. Yet, with national survival possibly at stake, it is safest to err on the side of conservatism and adopt an alarmist rather than a complacent attitude. As a rule, the United States has had a tendency to underestimate its potential adversaries: Germany and Japan before World War II; Communist China in the postwar years generally, and in the Korean War in particular; Hanoi in the Vietnam War; and the Soviet Union in its scientific, technological, and military progress over the past 30 years. Against this background of habitually discounting the strength, know-how, and hostile intentions of its potential adversaries, the only sensible course that the United States can follow today is to assume that General Keegan’s facts are essentially correct, and embark on the crash program he advocates.

William N. Jackomis, former Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) negotiator and member of the Defense Nuclear Agency, recently observed that "the Soviets understand military power. They have been increasing their presence throughout the world, and the only way to put that in check is to have a very, very strong military position."13 To achieve that position, the United States must urgently maximize its deterrent power. Developing an adequate space laser or particle-beam weapon system should help achieve that objective.

There is a certain historic inevitability about man’s exploration of space. What he can do, he eventually will do. Beam weapons can and will be built. The laws of physics do not prohibit them; the constraints of technology and economics make them difficult to develop but certainly not impossible.

Longtime newspaper columnist Stewart Alsop once wrote that:

. . . man will use the fourth dimension of space as he has used the earth, the sea, the air—to assert his power, to make his will prevail, perhaps to make war on other men. Because this is so, we cannot afford to fall behind in the race for space.14

The decision concerning the development and deployment of directed-energy weapons in space must be made in the light of that truism.


Major Cady’s article received Honorable Mention in the first annual Ira C. Eaker Essay Competition.


1 . "Science and the Citizen: War without Winners," Scientific American, May 1981, pp. 86-99.

2. Roger D. Speed, Strategic Deterrence in the 1980s (Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 1979), pp. 20-22.

3. Ibid., pp. 23-27.

4. Lieutenant General J. F. O’Malley, "The Air Force in the Space Era," address presented at the Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, 1 November 1980, Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, January 1981, p. 4.

5. Robert J. Hermann, "Salute to Space Division," address presented at the Air Force Association National Convention, Washington, D.C., 16 September 1980, Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, November 1980, p. 15.

6. Walter A. McDougall, "The Scramble for Space," Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1980, p. 81.

7. Lieutenant General Richard C. Henry, "Making Use of Space Hardware," address presented at the Beverly Hills Rotary Club, Beverly Hills, California, 18 August 1980, Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, October 1980, p. 31.

8. Major General William R. Yost, "The Air Force in Space," address presented at combined meeting of the Dunedin and Tampa, Florida, Air Force Association Chapters at Dunedin, Florida, 28 February 1980, Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, June 1980, p. 21.

9. Trevor N. Dupuy and Gay M. Hammerman, editors, A Documentary History of Arms Control and Disarmament (New York and London: R. R. Bowker Company, 1973), pp. 531-32.

10. Clarence A. Robinson, Jr., "Laser Technology Demonstration," Aviation Week & Space Technology, February 16, 1981, pp. 16-17.

11. Monte Davis, "Is There a Laser Gap?" Discover: The Newsmagazine of Science, March 1981, pp. 65-66.

12. Ibid., p. 66.

13. Warren Boroson and David P. Snyder, "The First Nuclear War," Next: A Look into the Future, September/October 1980, p. 36.

14. Stewart Alsop, " Outer Space: The Next Battlefield ?" Saturday Evening Post, July 28, 1962, p. 19


Major Steven E. Cady (BA., Texas Lutheran College; M.S., University of Southern California) is Deputy Chief, Regular and Reserve General Officer Division, General Officer Matters, Hq USAF. He has served in the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as executive officer and electronic warfare officer at Loring AFB, Maine. Major Cady has published articles in the Review and other military journals and won Honorable Mention in the first Ira C. Eaker Essay Competition.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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