Space, The Final (Military) Frontier
The Sino-American struggle for 21st-century dominance is complex and involves a wide range of intertwined political, economic, and military threats and opportunities. Inevitably, space will become a major theatre of operation is this struggle, eclipsing the role it played in the Cold War.
Gingrich notes that NASA, as well as America’s. Legacy space companies “continue to fumble around while protecting their prized projects. Meanwhile, China is aggressively seeking to overcome the United States as the dominant space-faring nation.”
It should come as no surprise to students of China’s Mercantilist trade strategy that it is investing heavily in its launch capabilities while trying to kill international competition with exorbitant subsidies and noncompetitive financing plans. And it’s even working on a space-based solar power system which could revolutionize clean energy.
Obviously, the United States is home to a host of enterprising entrepreneurs who are seeking to lead in space. Blue Origin, SpaceX and others are making rapid advancements that are lowering the cost of launch. We also have companies like Solaren working on space-based solar power and other important breakthroughs. But the big question is whether these companies will be able to compete against a slew of state-sponsored Chinese businesses that aren’t concerned with making a profit.
As of 2019, aside from certain military applications, we’ll discuss shortly, the U.S. still has a significant advantage in terms of capabilities and current assets in space. But, across a broad range of targets, the Chinese Communist Party is currently working at a much faster clip than we are.
This is why Administration proposals to develop the moon and Mars are so important. Leadership in space is a vital American interest.
To date, the United States has largely mastered low-earth orbit (or LEO) as well as Geo-synchronous Earth Orbit (or GEO). That is where most of our satellites and the International Space Station reside. But the country that masters “cislunar orbit” (the area of space between Earth and the moon) will have the new high-ground – in both a security and economic sense.
Economically, that country will be able to set the rules for future space commerce. Militarily, that country could have the ability to directly target, cripple, or destroy important space-based assets (such as communications, GPS and missile detection systems) located in LEO or GEO.
From cislunar space, that country could potentially do the same to terrestrial targets on Earth – without any meaningful resistance. This is perhaps the biggest strategic reason it’s important that America leads in the future of space.
At a more tactical level, the United States is already struggling to maintain its military advantage in space.
According to Steve Isakowitz, CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, a government-funded think-tank that serves as the military’s leading adviser on space, “We are now approaching a point where the U.S. can no longer afford to take its dominance for granted. That supremacy in space has enabled us to have the world’s greatest war-fighting capability ... whether it is our soldiers on the field, our drones that fly overhead, our bombers that travel around the world, or the intelligence we collect” In an interview with Politico Isakowitz said, “More and more every day, we become more dependent on[space]. And our adversaries know that.”
Experts insist that until recently, the Pentagon was not close to ready for the aggressive Chinese challenge because of years of underinvestment while the military focused on a host of threats on Earth. In fact, as recently as early 2018, experts argued that Russia and China were years ahead of the United States in developing the means to destroy or disable satellites that the U.S. military depends on for everything from gathering intelligence to guiding precision bombs, missiles and drones.
But now the U.S. is trying to catch up. It’s pouring billions more dollars into hardening its defenses against anti-satellite weapons, training troops to operate in the event their space lifeline is cut, and honing ways to retaliate against a new form of combat that experts warn could affect millions of people, causing untold collateral damage and quickly spread to battlefields on Earth.
In an era of rising tensions, this is not optional. Mid-21st-century economies cannot operate without reliable satellites. That means that winning or preventing space battles fought between and over these satellites will have life and death consequences for soldiers and civilians on the ground.
Given the technology available, these battles in space are likely to combine one or more of these five fundamental tactics: cyberattacks, spoofing, jamming, directed energy attacks (such as lasers), and kinetic weapons attacks.
Let’s start with Cyberattacks. Satellites are computers that just happen to be in space, so they are vulnerable to attacks that disable or hijack computers, just like their terrestrial peers. For example, in 2008, a cyberattack on a ground station in Norway let someone cause 12 minutes of interference with NASA’s Landsat satellites. Later that year, hackers gained access to NASA’s Terra Earth observation satellite and did everything but issue commands. It’s not clear if they could have done so, but simply chose not to. Nor is it clear who was behind the attack, although some commentators at the time pointed the finger at China.
Experts warn that hackers could shut off a satellite’s communications, rendering it useless. Or they could permanently damage it by burning off all its propellant or pointing its imaging sensor at the sun to burn it out. This is probably where the first strike in a space war will take place. There have been a number of satellite hacks reported over the years, but no permanent damage was confirmed.
In a conflict, commands to fire thrusters could set a spacecraft spinning helplessly or move it into useless orbits. On Earth in 2009, a purposely written piece of malicious software commanded Iranian nuclear centrifuges to spin too fast, damaging them beyond repair. The same could happen with satellites. Even now, hackers could be working to place artificially intelligent software routines (called logic bombs) inside spacecraft control systems. These could be activated when a certain signal is received, or an onboard condition is met.
The European Space Agency is currently looking at safeguarding its satellites by developing quantum encryption techniques for future missions. According to ESA director-general, Jan Wörner, “We have to take cyber-attacks seriously.”
Spoofing is another common mode of attack. Here the challenge is to imitate or “spoof” genuine satellite signals. There is nothing fancy about this; in fact, it’s easier than hacking; and all the gear required is commercially available. Spoofing puts out a fake signal that tricks GPS or other satellite receivers on the ground. In the summer of 2013, some students at the University of Texas used a briefcase-sized device to spoof a GPS signal, using this trick to misdirect an $80 million yacht in the Gulf of Mexico. Rogue nations and major powers could easily wreak havoc using similar techniques, with plausible deniability.
Jammers can be even simpler. They are often mounted on the back of trucks and operate at the same frequency as GPS or other satellite communication systems to block their signals. “They basically throw a bubble around the jammer where the satellite signals don’t work,” says Brian Weeden, a space policy expert at the Secure World Foundation. Jamming can interfere with the command signal going from the base station to the satellite, or it can mess with the signal before it reaches the end-users.
Directed energy weapons including lasers are currently an area of great interest. Today, the primary military use of lasers in space is to “dazzle” spy satellites and stop them from gathering information. China and Iran are reported to have done this to U.S. satellites and it is likely that the west does the same in return. If the laser lingers on the satellite cameras for too long, however, it could permanently blind the satellite rather than just temporarily dazzle it. A recent Defense Intelligence Agency report suggests that China will have a ground-based laser that can destroy a satellite’s optical sensors in low Earth orbit as early 2020 and, by the mid-2020s, it will be capable of damaging the structure of the satellite. The legality of actually damaging a satellite in this way is a grey area.
Going from dazzling to blowing up a satellite with a laser is hard. No nation can yet put lasers in space that literally shoot down satellites. Generating enough power for such lasers is hard, whether one uses electricity or chemicals. However, high-powered lasers could, in theory, be fired from ground stations or mounted on aircraft. All the major space powers have put research funding into such weapons. But there’s no evidence that anyone has yet used lasers to destroy targets in space, though aircraft-borne lasers have been tested against missiles within the atmosphere.
The fifth category of space weapons involve Kinetic attacks. The idea of shooting down satellites has been around as long as satellites have. The first (failed) Anti-SAT test, by the U.S., was back in 1958, less than a year after the launch of Sputnik. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviets both developed sophisticated anti-satellite weaponry. In 1985, the U.S. successfully tested anti-satellite missiles that could be launched from fighter aircraft. It also developed nuclear-tipped missiles capable of obliterating enemy satellites.
China’s first successful Anti-SAT test was in 2007.
The Russians began planning for taking out enemy satellites, in the early 1960s. They tested a system called Istrebitel Sputnik (or fighter satellite). It was designed to approach its target and then explode, destroying both satellites. Although the project was eventually disbanded, testing and development of similar systems have continued on and off ever since. As recently as 2015, the Russians successfully tested a new anti-satellite missile.
In the aftermath of the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite tests, America launched its own missile, destroying a failed spy satellite that was gradually falling back to Earth. However, the Chinese rest made it clear that this approach causes dangerous clouds of space debris, which endanger other satellites, indiscriminately.
The suspicion among U.S. experts is that China is now practicing for something known as a “co-orbital attack,” in which an object is sent into orbit near a target satellite, maneuvers itself into position, and then waits for an order to attack. Tests-to-date could have nonaggressive purposes, like inspecting, repairing or disposing of satellites, perhaps. However, co-orbiting might also be used to attack satellites physically. Think of this as the brute force approach. One satellite simply goes up to another, hits it and knocks it out of orbit. This could damage the attacker as well, so a more sophisticated version is a spacecraft equipped with mechanical arms that grapple the target, pulling off solar panels or instruments.
Russia, too, has been playing about in geostationary orbit. One of its satellites, Olymp-K, began moving about regularly, at one point getting in between two Intelsat commercial satellites. Another time, it got so close to a French-Italian military satellite that the French government called it an act of “espionage.” The U.S., similarly, has tested a number of small satellites that can maneuver around in space.
As the dominant player in space for decades, the U.S. now has the most to lose. And there are fears among the U.S. military that the United States has lost its edge. That is, Russia and China are making advances in developing counter-space systems faster than we are protecting our satellites, which makes us increasingly vulnerable to attacks in space.
Given this trend, we offer the following forecasts for your consideration.
First, the United States Space Force will become a fifth branch of the U.S. military by 2024.
A 2019 Defense Intelligence Agency report points out that both China and Russia reorganized their militaries to give space warfare a far more central role. President Donald Trump’s idea of a U.S. Space Force has a similar objective. While the Space Force could easily function within the Air Force, it’s more likely to get the special attention it deserves in the “start-up phase” by being treated as elite and “special.”
Second, the U.S. military will start making satellites tougher to find and attack.
For instance, the NTS-3, a new experimental GPS satellite scheduled for launch in 2022, will have programmable, steerable antennas that can broadcast at higher power to counter jamming. It’s designed to remain accurate even if it loses its connection with ground controllers and to detect efforts to jam its signal.
Third, by the mid-2020s, the U.S., China, and Russia will all begin to use constellations of satellites in which anyone satellite is not that important.
That’s the thinking behind Blackjack, a new DARPA program to create a cheap network of military communications satellites in Low Earth Orbit. Speaking at the National Space Symposium in April 2019, General John Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command said, “Such constellations could also be used to control nuclear weapons. Instead of relying on hardened communications links, nuclear command and control need to have a near-infinite number of pathways that go through every element of space: hardened military space, commercial space, different kinds of links … so that the adversary can never figure out how the message is getting through.”
Fourth, because of the high-stakes, Russia, China, and the United States will all push the limits of international law to ensure they can protect their space-based interests.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits weapons of mass destruction in space or on “celestial bodies” like the moon. It also forbids “military bases, installations and fortifications” on celestial bodies, though not in Earth orbit. The major spacefaring nations ratified the treaty long ago, but the ambitions of the treaty to codify peaceful uses of space seem increasingly distant, as hawkish rhetoric and actions grow more common. And,
Fifth, in the 2020s, the United States will re-energize its leadership in civilian and cross-over space-technologies by unleashing pure private-sector competition.
As Newt Gingrich observes, NASA and its conventional contractors are notorious for missing timing and budget commitments by hundreds of percent. The same can be said for the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community. Gingrich suggests letting companies compete for prizes such as $2 billion for the first company that “establishes a permanent moon-base” or “lands a human on Mars.” The second-place company might get $1.5 billion. With entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and the late Paul Allen competing for prizes, genuine breakthroughs are possible, and the taxpayer will only pay for results. Elon Musk, for one, has already said he’s eager to compete.