U.S. and Soviet Anti-Satellite Capabilities: Memo to President Ford from National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, 07/24/1976

President Ford and Brent Scowcroft
President Gerald Ford and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. The U.S. National Archives

Memo Review by Alex Dubin, HKS MPP

The Space Race began in October 1957 when the Soviets shocked the United States by launching Sputnik 1 into orbit. The U.S. soon followed with a satellite of its own, eventually overtaking and beating the Soviets by landing humans on the Moon in 1969. The Space Age, however, was beginning to create a nascent infrastructure of satellites in space, the capabilities of which the U.S. and world were increasingly relying on.

The Situation

            Anti-satellite weapons, or ASATs, were envisioned since nearly the beginning of the Space Age itself, and a natural outcome of Cold War militarization. Ideas for ASATs have taken various forms over time, from missiles to directed-energy weapons.

            In 1967, major powers signed the Outer Space Treaty, which mandated that countries use celestial bodies for peaceful purposes and banned nuclear weapons in space but did not prohibit all military operations in space.[1]

            The Soviet Union suspended testing of its ASAT weapons program in 1971, with a hiatus lasting five years. In 1976, the Soviets resumed testing its ASAT program, alarming U.S. decisionmakers.[2]

            Brent Scowcroft, the National Security Advisor, wrote to President Gerald Ford about Soviet ASATs, including this April 1976 memo in direct response to the second Soviet test after the hiatus.[3] This memo urges the President to “reexamine our posture in space and the vulnerability of our space assets,” and that an NSDM is being written “to rectify the policy problem”.

            That July, President Ford issued National Security Decision Memorandum 333, ordering that U.S. satellites and space infrastructure should be provided “a balanced level of survivability commensurate with mission needs against a range of possible threats, including non-nuclear co-orbital interceptor attacks, possible electronic interference, and possible laser attacks.”[4]

The Memo

        Scowcroft wrote another memo to President Ford, dated July 24, 1976, this time on American ASAT capability.

        He begins with a one-sentence paragraph describing how in approving the NSDM on making U.S. satellites more resilient against Soviet ASATs, Ford had asked for further information on U.S. ASAT capabilities. He then sums up in another concise sentence that “the U.S. has not had an operational anti-satellite capability for several years and, under current plans, will not for some time in the future.”

            Scowcroft goes on to describe limited U.S. testing, delineating between nuclear ASAT testing, which was ended in 1974, and non-nuclear ASAT testing, which has received “some limited R&D” but “little emphasis in the past.” He writes that the Pentagon plans more funding, with testing and limited operations into the mid-1980s.

            Scowcroft then writes that the NSC technical consultants panel, which was writing a report at the time, had submitted another Interim Report on U.S. ASAT capabilities. The panel writes about the importance of U.S. space assets to national security interests, and that “the U.S. should not allow the Soviets an exclusive sanctuary in space. The U.S. should acquire the option of selectively neutralizing militarily important Soviet space capabilities.”

            On the second page, Scowcroft writes that U.S. ASAT capabilities have not received much attention because “there is no national policy to develop an anti-satellite capability.” He then lists three reasons as to why there is no policy: the Soviet testing hiatus, that U.S. ASATs would violate the “spirit if not the letter” of SALT arms control protections, and that it wouldn’t be in the U.S. national interest to start an ASAT arms race “since we are more dependent on intelligence from space sources and would have more to lose.”

            Finally, Scowcroft concludes by stating that the resumption in Soviet tests has changed these realities, and that the panel should have a Final Report by September.

Memo Review

            This memo is designed to provide its audience, President Ford, with information he specifically asked for – what is going on with U.S. ASAT capability?

            Scowcroft does a masterful job at providing the critical information in this memo upfront for the President – one sentence on why I am writing to you and one sentence on what is the answer you’re looking for.

            Scowcroft briefly but effectively provides some immediate context that helps frame the poor state of U.S. ASAT capabilities. He does not mince words – we’ve done some testing, it’s been halted, and while DOD wants to boost funding, any solution is many years away. Essentially, we don’t have the capabilities you asked about, and we won’t for a while. This memo is compelling – in a bad way for U.S. national security, but in a good way for memo writing.

            Scowcroft brings credibility to his memo by integrating the NSC technical panel so seamlessly. He lets the panel of consultants do the talking for him on what U.S. options are for ASAT capabilities.

            So far, there’s one missing piece here: Why do we not have an ASAT capability? Because there’s no U.S. policy? But why? In a clear bullet point format, Scowcroft lists the three reasons why there isn’t one. On the first reason, that the Soviets weren’t pursuing ASATs, he puts in paratheses “now seen as incorrect,” which makes the change in security situation even more explicit to the President.

            Scowcroft’s conclusion integrates clear next steps for Ford – digest this information, wait for the final expert consultants panel report, and our national security enterprise will be hard at work continuing to understand how the Soviet resumption in ASAT testing impacts our reasons for lacking our own capabilities.

Aftermath

            It’s no surprise that Scowcroft’s memo is excellent – he went on to design the modern National Security Council, a foundational structure which remains in place to this day.[5]

            In terms of ASAT capabilities, the U.S. eventually announced a new weapon—the Air-Launched Miniature Vehicle (ALMV), but its testing was banned by Congress in 1985.[6] President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, was aimed at bringing down ICBMs with lasers, not satellites—but could have potential applications. The Soviets declared a “unilateral moratorium on ASAT weapons tests” after SDI was announced.[7]

            The U.S. expressed interest in capabilities over the years, but the end of the Cold War removed an imminent threat to U.S. satellites.

            Today, however, the U.S. and the world are far more reliant on the telecommunications capabilities of satellites, and the reemergence of great power competition and new players in space have raised the national security implications of ASAT capabilities and satellite protection enormously. China’s 2007 ASAT test was a watershed. More recently, India tested an ASAT weapon in 2019[8] and Russia again in 2021.[9]

            The other major issue today with ASAT weapons is space debris, the accumulation of defunct satellites or other objects in orbit. Collisions with space debris can destroy satellites and space stations, and ASAT tests create a massive amount of it. The worry is that collisions will create more debris, which will lead to more frequent collisions and more debris—a spiraling effect called the Kessler Syndrome which could make low-Earth orbit unusable.[10]

            As for U.S. ASAT capabilities, in April 2022, the U.S. announced a “voluntary moratorium on the destructive testing of direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile systems”.[11] Hopefully, other nations will follow our example, given the dangers of ASAT weapons and space debris. But if other countries continue to develop capabilities while we do not, perhaps another future President will be asking his or her National Security Advisor for another memo on this same question.

[1] https://www.lawfareblog.com/placement-weapons-outer-space-dichotomy-between-word-and-deed