National Security & Defense

Space Warfare: We Must Defend Our Big, Exquisite Satellites

A SBIRS GEO Flight 4 satellite sits atop an Atlas V-411 rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, Fla., January 17, 2018. (Van Ha/Space and Missile Systems Center)
Switching to smaller ‘disaggregated’ satellites would be a big mistake.

Recently, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Stephan Kitay made an obvious point: “Space is now a warfighting domain. We must be prepared to accept the challenge.”

Unfortunately there are few, if any, indications that this administration is doing more than the Obama team did to prepare our armed forces to conduct active combat operations that are directed from space.

For more than two decades, the U.S. government and particularly the leadership at the Defense Department have been terrified of being accused of “weaponizing space.” China and Russia continue to refine their ground weapons that can target the satellites enabling GPS info and military communication. But the U.S. has failed to take even the simplest measures to protect our satellites. Instead our military leaders have dived down a conceptual rabbit hole, full, as Iowahawk might say, “of Red Queens and Mad Hatters.”

The claim that our satellites are protected from attack by our threat to attack the attackers’ homeland, for example, reminds one of the 1950s “massive retaliation” doctrine, whose validity depended on overwhelming U.S. military superiority. Sadly, we no longer have this superiority, so deterrence based on this idea is simply not credible.

During the final years of the Obama administration and now, it seems, during the Trump administration, an unrealistic idea has taken hold: that America’s vital military space systems (satellites as well as their ground control and other support satellites including communications relay satellites) can be protected from anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons by building lots of smaller satellites instead of a few expensive ones. Inside the Defense Department, senior leaders believe that thanks to new technologies, we can build arrays of “networked” or “disaggregated” low-cost satellites that will be difficult for an enemy to target and that will provide the U.S. with the same quality of information and services it gets from its current large satellites.

The decision in the proposed 2019 budget to cancel the seventh and eighth SBIRS (Space Based Infrared System) GEO (Geosynchronous Orbit) early-warning satellites and build a new set of early-warning and information-gathering ones is the first hard evidence that the American military is moving to build “disaggregated” space systems. At first glance, this idea might seem logical. Why not replace one big target with a larger number of smaller targets? Unfortunately, the nature of space warfare, as it exists in 2018, defies this logic.

In Aviation Week‘s December 11, 2017, issue, General John E. Hyten, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, indicated that he’d like to replace a small number of defenseless, big, billion-dollar spacecraft (such as SBIRS) with new defenseless 100- or 200-million-dollar ones. But this would be unwise. While the Defense Department concentrates on protecting U.S. satellites from cyberattacks or from jamming, the deliberate choice not to build “active” protection systems would give our rivals an incentive to “go kinetic,” i.e., to start shooting.

In the near term we could build escort satellites that could orbit near our big ones. These would be equipped with sensors and small defensive anti-anti satellite weapons that could hit enemy ASATs before they could destroy our big, expensive, vital satellites (such as SBIRS).

In the medium term, we could build active protection systems into future large satellites, comparable to the Israeli-developed Trophy active protection systems we are now putting onto our M-1 tanks. In the longer term, directed energy systems, such as high-powered lasers, could be used on both escort satellites and the larger satellites themselves.

One cannot turn a compact sedan into a tank, no matter what the budget hawks or arms-control advocates say. 

If used, these defensive systems will produce space debris, probably just as much as if our large satellites themselves were hit by enemy ASATs. Unfortunately the idea of a “clean” battlefield in space is just as unreal as the idea of a “clean” battlefield on Earth.

In the commercial world, small-satellite technology is improving at a rapid pace. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if the only thing holding back the development of new and cheaper civilian space-based communications arrays is federal regulators’ inability to keep up with the demand for authorizations and licenses. Switching America’s military systems and networks to these kinds of small satellites would be a major mistake. They lack the power needed to overcome enemy jamming, and they would be even more vulnerable to lasers than our current military spacecraft are. Simply put, one cannot turn a compact sedan into a tank, no matter what the budget hawks or arms-control advocates say.

Once we have commercial-satellite swarms that consist of tens of thousands of paperback-book-size spacecraft that combine hardened communications with ultra low cost, then perhaps the Defense Department could take another look. For now, however, America’s military should put its efforts into defending our satellites, and that means using active as well as passive measures, no matter what the political optics may be.

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