Securing the High Frontier

Space Force strives to define—and justify—its status as the vulnerability of America’s satellite infrastructure becomes more apparent

Image Credit: Janiecbros/Getty Images

In September, the US Space Force began accepting the first of an expected 2,400 officers and enlisted personnel into its ranks. These former airmen (the Space Force is trying to figure out just what to call its uniformed people), mostly with space and space systems operations specialties, joined a small cadre of Space Force personnel tasked with organizing the new armed service.

President Trump signed the Space Force into existence in December 2019 with an executive order. This action essentially transformed the Air Force Space Command into the military’s sixth branch. The Air Force has assigned approximately 16,000 uniformed and civilian personnel to provide the initial staffing for the organization. Many of these people are expected to join the Space Force officially in the next year or so.

Now that a US space force exists and has been funded (as Eddie Izzard might say, it has a flag), the big question is, why? And why now?

Branching Out

The last time the United States created a new branch of the armed forces—the US Air Force in 1947—it was also formed from an existing component, the US Army Air Forces. At that time, however, the land-based air forces of the United States had recently concluded a global war in which they conducted largely independent air campaigns against the Axis. In fact, air planners typically resented calls by Allied leaders to divert aircraft from strategic bombing campaigns to support invasions of North Africa and Europe.

For all intents and purposes, the US Army Air Forces were already operating as a separate armed service with their own training regimes, acquisitions processes, and even traditions that shared little or nothing with the ground pounders. Furthermore, the advent of air-delivered nuclear weapons and the nascent challenge posed by the Soviet Union made the creation of an organization dedicated to defending friendly airspace and penetrating that of an enemy urgent and necessary.

The Air Force Space Command was itself created in 1982 (renamed as such in 1985) to consolidate the Air Force ‘s diverse defense-oriented space activities, such as launching military satellites; warning of ballistic missile launches; and monitoring objects in Earth’s orbit. The space command was also charged with providing space-based weather, navigation, communications, and intelligence valuable to US and allied forces in the field. While these functions had all rested with different commands and organizations, centralizing them under AF Space Command made sense in an era of heightened tensions and a resurgent arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Moreover, the command had the responsibility of refining and integrating these capabilities as well as developing new doctrines for increasing the effectiveness of military forces via space-based technologies.

It should be noted that the Department of Defense (DOD) formed its US Space Command in August 2019 as a warfighting organization on par with its Indo-Pacific Command, Central Command, Cyber Command, etc. These and the other “combatant commands” (11 in all) provide command and control for military forces in their geographic region or domain of specialty, while each of the six armed services—now including the US Space Force—organizes, trains, and equips its respective forces. Also, the US Navy and Army have their own commands for handling various space-related activities. At the moment, the DOD is still working out how many of these organizations and activities will ultimately fall under the purview of the Space Force.

Absent the crucible of the Second World War or the specter of a third, the fledgling Space Force justifies its existence as an independent organization going forward on the importance of space to the strategic and economic well-being of the nation. The service’s website explains this slightly nebulous raison d’être this way:

Space systems are woven into the fabric of our way of life. Space affects almost every part of our daily lives and is fundamental to our economic system. For example, satellites not only power the GPS technology that we use daily, but allow us to surf the web and call our friends, enable first responders to communicate with each other in times of crisis, time-stamp transactions in the world financial market, and even allow us to use credit cards at gas pumps.

Thus, the United States depends on services provided via satellites for virtually everything, creating yawning vulnerabilities that savvy enemies—both state and nonstate actors—can and will exploit to their advantage and our detriment, even downfall. Some national security experts say cyberattacks on US satellites are already commonplace. Physical threats exist and are expected to proliferate. Nevertheless, one of the key challenges facing the Space Force is explaining how it intends to keep the so-called space domain safe for the American way of life and why it specifically is needed to do this.

Stalking the High Frontier

The unquestionable importance of satellites to military forces and civil society highlights their growing vulnerability. Modern civilization has come to rely on satellites for nearly all activities under the sun and stars precisely because their utility is matched by their reliability. Individual satellites might be subject to the vagaries of space weather, misfortune, or electromechanical failure, but a well-designed and maintained constellation of satellites could continue vital functions virtually without interruption even if one or more units of that system failed.

This was true—at least until recently—because satellites were so hard for potential enemies to get at. Their very remoteness and relatively small size as targets protected them. By and large, satellites are grouped into three types of orbits. Low-Earth orbit (LEO—hundreds of miles to about 1,200 miles) is home to Earth observation satellites (including many spy satellites), certain voice and data communications satellites, many scientific satellites, and the International Space Station(ISS). At the other end is geosynchronous orbit (GEO—about 22,000 miles), where many broadcast media communications satellites are found. The region in between is medium-Earth orbit (MEO), where constellations of navigation satellites, such as GPS, Galileo, and GLONASS, are deployed at around 12,000 to 15,000 miles. There are many variations and exceptions to these general descriptions. Again, until fairly recently, it was quite expensive to get payloads into orbit and even more expensive to get something up there to destroy them.

A modern nation’s reliance on satellites—indeed, their indispensability—creates all the incentive needed for rivals to spend lavishly to develop ways to interfere with their operation or eliminate them. The Unites States, China, Russia, and India all have conducted destructive tests of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons on test targets or obsolescent friendly satellites in LEO by hitting them with direct-ascent missiles launched from the ground, aircraft, or ships. Such tests, particularly those involving actual satellites as targets, tend to produce dangerous space debris that could threaten other satellites or the International Space Station. China and India in particular received intense international criticism for the carelessness of their tests and the resulting hazards.

An intriguing class of potential ASAT weapons, called on-orbit systems, are satellites themselves. These are boosted into the same orbit as their targets and then maneuvered into position near them, where they can do damage through contact or even deploying their own weapons. The advent of on-orbit ASATs would introduce tremendous complexities into the space domain because many companies are eyeing the refueling, servicing, and even upgrading of existing satellites with similar vehicles as a growth business. In February of this year, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman used its Mission Extension Vehicle-1 to dock with an Intelsat communications satellite in a parking orbit above GEO. The difference between an on-orbit satellite servicing vehicle and a satellite interceptor may merely be one of payload or intent.

US officials and independent national security analysts have alleged that both China and Russia have been conducting tests for years of on-orbit systems that may have what are termed “counterspace” applications. In July, the US Space Command said Russia had used an on-orbit vehicle in a manner inconsistent with its stated role as a satellite inspection system.

“The Russian satellite system used to conduct this on-orbit weapons test is the same satellite system that we raised concerns about earlier this year, when Russia maneuvered near a US government satellite,” said Gen. John W. Raymond, then commander of US Space Command and currently US Space Force chief of space operations (the new branch’s highest-ranking officer). Raymond added that the activities were “consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold US and allied space assets at risk.”

Unsurprisingly, the DOD is even more concerned by the threat posed by China’s burgeoning counterspace capabilities. In its latest annual report to Congress on the status of China’s military, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) said that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is energetically seeking to use space-based assets to improve its own capabilities while developing counterspace capabilities to deny an enemy the use of its own assets:

The PLA continues to acquire and develop a range of counterspace capabilities and related technologies, including kinetic-kill missiles, ground-based lasers, and orbiting space robots, as well as expanding space surveillance capabilities, which can monitor objects in space within their field of view and enable counterspace actions. . . . Moreover, China has demonstrated sophisticated, potentially damaging on-orbit behavior with space-based technologies. China has an operational ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) missile intended to target low-Earth orbit satellites, and China probably intends to pursue additional ASAT weapons capable of destroying satellites up to geosynchronous Earth orbit. China is employing more sophisticated satellite operations and is probably testing dual-use technologies in space that could be applied to counterspace missions.

The DIA report also identified electronic warfare (EW) and directed-energy weapons as emerging counterspace threats. While militaries have long used EW jammers to degrade enemy communications and navigational receivers on a local basis, the advent of such systems to jam satellite transmitters themselves represents a relatively new capability. In March, the US Space Force took possession of an upgraded Counter Communications System (CCS), a deployable EW system first fielded in 2002 that is capable of “reversibly” jamming communications satellites in geostationary orbit. Because the system does not damage the target satellite, it doesn’t produce space debris. Also, with this system the military can prevent an enemy from using a commercial or third-party satellite that the United States might prefer not to destroy.

The Space Force says the CCS represents its first offensive weapons system, and adversaries are likely fielding similar systems. Defense analysts, including the Secure World Foundation and the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), say a number of countries are also reportedly pursuing directed-energy microwave and laser systems for counterspace applications that could inflict irreversible damage on satellites.

Preparing the Battlefield

If the threats to the space domain are widely appreciated—if not expressly well-documented in the public domain—a blueprint for what the US is prepared to do about its reliance on space and the ensuing vulnerabilities is not yet clear. In the foreword of the CSIS’s Space Threat Assessment 2019, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) wrote, “The risk of a space Pearl Harbor is growing every day. Yet this war would not last for years. Rather, it would be over the day it started.” He added that the Pentagon had not appreciably addressed the “existential threat” the loss of America’s satellite infrastructure would precipitate, at least as of the publication of the report in April 2019.

Later that year, the congressman applauded the creation of the Space Force, which he described as a bipartisan effort arising out of the House Armed Services Committee’s advocacy for a “Space Corps,” separate from the Air Force. The Air Force, he said, had been neglecting its space mission. Now that the Space Force exists as a separate service within the Department of the Air Force (much as the Marine Corps is a separate service under the Department of the Navy), what is likely to change?

From a funding perspective, not much—at least in the short term. According to an analysis by Defense360, a project of the CSIS, the US defense budget for FY 2021 includes $15.3 billion for the Space Force transferred from the Air Force budget, with an additional $111 million for personnel and facilities. The Space Force’s main acquisition programs for FY 2021 and the coming years include modernized space-based infrared missile warning satellites, new rockets from United Launch Alliance and SpaceX, a modernized GPS III constellation, and a number of communications and command-and-control systems. Arguably, the Air Force could just as easily have continued handling these programs.

Advocates say the benefits of the new armed service will arise with its focus on space as a battlefield on par with land, sea, and air. There is no argument that space, like cyberspace, is one of those domains where US military strategists find themselves pressed by the ingenuity of enemies, perhaps unexpectedly. In June, the Space Force published its first doctrine of space warfare, defining “spacepower” as a separate and distinct form of military power.

While such “capstone” documents can be expected to be updated over time, this one quotes Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz on the need to control the battlefield. It contains allusions to orbital mechanics and space dynamics in general, without getting too specific about the kinds of systems that will be required to master this battlefield. At the same time, the capstone does hint that the Space Force is encouraging its people to—dare I say it?—boldly go and seek out new, innovative solutions to problems, and to field them rapidly by partnering with private industry.

In August, Space News hosted a webinar featuring two officers from US Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. These officers described how the service intends to improve its situational awareness of what is going on in orbit and the survivability of military space-based capabilities by taking advantage of recent advances in small commercial satellites. A multitude of sensors should make it more difficult for an enemy to sneak up and disable America’s satellite infrastructure in a “Pearl Harbor” strike.

The sixth armed service has yet to present any information about going on offense, except in a nondestructive way with its CCS jammer. If you are going to quote Clausewitz, you should be prepared to discuss what you might be able to do to the enemy’s space-based infrastructure rather than just playing defense. Of course, there are security, diplomatic, and legal reasons why such cards should remain close to the vest.

In addition to assuming responsibility for protecting America’s space-based infrastructure and providing space support for terrestrial forces, the Space Force is looking to future developments beyond Earth’s orbit. On Sept. 21, the Space Force signed a memorandum of understanding with NASA stating that the service will extend its area of responsibility into so-called cislunar space and beyond as public and private space activities expand outward. The agreement reads, in part:

As NASA’s human presence extends beyond lSS to the lunar surface, cislunar, and interplanetary destinations, and as USSF [US Space Force] organizes, trains, and equips to provide the resources necessary to protect and defend vital US interests in and beyond Earth-orbit, new collaborations will be key to operating safely and securely on these distant frontiers.

The Space Force sees a role for itself akin to the US Navy, serving to protect the nation’s interests across a vast domain. In the short term, the agreement with NASA focuses primarily on improving monitoring and surveillance of cislunar space, primarily as a guard against asteroids that might strike the Earth. However, the service says it intends to be able to provide protection, rescue, and other support for activities in the solar system. While ambitious and forward-looking, there is currently no realistic blueprint for achieving these capabilities. However, it can be expected that resources and planning would grow with future need.

At the moment, the question of whether the country really needs a separate armed service in space remains open. The Space Force has not embarked on new missions that were not already being handled by other services and organizations. At the same time, the threat to US space infrastructure from potentially hostile powers is demonstrable. There does seem to be a Golden Age of public and private space exploration and exploitation before us. And the more important space becomes, the more it will worth fighting over.

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