Space is now a threat-based national security domain. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty that proscribed the militarization of space is history, becoming all but moot when the Chinese in 2007 launched a rocket to an altitude of almost 550 miles, intercepting and destroying one of its non-working satellites. Other nations have shown intent to pursue aggressive extraterrestrial military activities as well. Consequently, President Trump was right: we need a Space Force.
The Secure World Foundation, in its April 2020 report Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment, looked at the current and emerging space-based military capabilities of China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. The report’s findings and conclusions are not comforting. China, for example, is actively engaged in an anti-satellite program that targets both Low Earth Orbit satellites as well as Medium Earth Orbit and deep space positioned satellites. So far, these programs are experimental and developmental, but it is clear that the Chinese are intent on an operational capability. The report warns that the Chinese have used their jamming capability to render GPS satellites inaccurate and unreliable.
Though the Russians have some direct attack capabilities for satellites in test phases, they don’t appear to be ready. What seems to be the focus of the Russians is the application of counterspace capability in integrating electronic warfare for tactical field operations. Russia’s efforts would include interfering with an adversary’s satellite communications and positioning capability. Russia continues to develop legacy programs in the area of aircraft-carrying laser systems to target optical sensors on U.S. and allies’ reconnaissance satellites.
The March 2020 release of Space Threat Assessment 2020 from the Center for Strategic and International Studies explained that Iran’s counterspace programs are in their infancy. However, an increased emphasis on the development of launch vehicles for satellites, as well as ballistic missiles, gives compelling evidence of Iran’s intention to compete in the space domain. What should concern the U.S. is, though early in its military space capability, Iran’s palpable antipathy toward America could motivate the Iranian leadership to accelerate its space programs. Iran’s cyber-attacks targeted foreign governments and public infrastructure facilities as well as those systems depending on satellite communications. Iran attacked U.S. banks and the satellite communication industry in 2012 with a costly “denial-of-service” strike.
North Korea, though early in development and fielding of satellites and launch systems, is extremely aggressive in its pursuit of operational space-based systems and has aspirations for even more significant achievements like a moon landing by 2026. North Korea has placed two satellites in orbit, not a trivial accomplishment. A rocket can carry a satellite or a warhead – it’s just a matter of what’s on top. Lessons from ballistic missile development transfer well to satellite launch vehicles.
Even India has gotten into the anti-satellite business. In late March, India launched a Low Earth Orbit satellite then destroyed it with a missile.
Consequently, the U.S. Space Force (USSF) is fulfilling its purpose of developing space-based capabilities and coordinating the efforts of the other Military Departments and relevant civilian agencies. This integrated, combined, and focused organization gives the U.S. a formidable capability to train, organize, and equip, which translates to a greater ability to deter other nations from taking hostile actions in space. Recently, the Space Force as an organization launched its first satellite – an Advanced Extremely High-Frequency communications satellite to maintain secure voice and data transmissions.
Additionally, the USSF heralded the initial operational capability of the “Space Fence,” a radar tracking facility located in the Marshal Islands that provides current detections and tracking of objects in orbit. The system dramatically enhances the U.S. capability to catalog and track both military and civilian objects. That means we can characterize objects in orbit and determine whether or not they are a threat.
Would a U.S. Space Force have happened eventually to deal with an emerging threat? Probably. However, the danger of a space-born attack from a near-peer or other adversaries is here now. Thankfully, so is the Space Force.
Read more from Dave Patterson.
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