China is close to shooting into space a weapon it claims can blind the optical sensors atop any satellite missile defense system.
Russia will soon stand up its own “S-500 missile program” that it boasts can hit targets nearly 400 miles above Earth’s surface.
And Iran has ambitions to attack U.S. communications satellites.
President Trump’s call for a U.S. “Space Force” may have turned into a punchline on Twitter and late-night TV, but U.S. intelligence agencies, military insiders and security analysts say the nation must take real, concrete action to prepare for conflicts in space or risk falling behind its global foes, chiefly Russia and China.
The Defense Department announced last week that it will immediately begin preparations for a Space Force as the sixth branch of the military. While many critics inside and outside the Pentagon vehemently oppose the idea, there is widespread consensus that outer space will be a key 21st-century battlefield and a theater that the U.S. must be prepared to dominate.
“Other countries have recognized how dependent the United States is on space, and they have developed a range of counterspace weapons. The threats include jammers that can keep us from communicating with our satellites, lasers that can blind the sensors on satellites, and hunter-killer satellites that can maneuver into our satellites and destroy them,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“China and Russia are the most advanced in their counterspace weapons programs,” he said, “but the technology required for some types of threats, such as jammers, has already proliferated to rogue nations like North Korea and even some nonstate actors.”
The notion of space as a battleground, or a staging area for state-of-the-art defense technology, dates back decades. It first came into the public eye with President Ronald Reagan’s call for a “Star Wars” missile program. Since then, the U.S. and its global competitors have made dramatic technological strides.
The world got one of the first glimpses of how space could become a battlefield in 2007 when China destroyed one of its own satellites with a land-based missile, demonstrating that the country could theoretically take out other nations’ infrastructure in the event of a full-blown war.
In the decade since that test, the U.S. intelligence community has closely tracked China’s advancements in space warfare, along with those of other potentially hostile nations. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said this year that Moscow and Beijing are actively pursuing technologies that could aid them in space battle.
“Both Russia and China continue to pursue anti-satellite weapons as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness. Russia and China aim to have nondestructive and destructive counterspace weapons available for use during a potential future conflict,” he wrote in his annual Worldwide Threat Assessment. “We assess that, if a future conflict were to occur involving Russia or China, either country would justify attacks against U.S. and allied satellites as necessary to offset any perceived U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil or commercial space systems.”
Those threats have been central to the Trump administration’s call for the Space Force to become the sixth branch of the armed forces, and to be stood up and fully functional by 2020. Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James N. Mattis made that plan official last week by announcing that the Pentagon will work with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to formally create the Space Force in next year’s defense budget.
The Space Force proposal is likely to face an uphill battle in Congress, where many lawmakers are skeptical of the cost and whether it would result in unnecessary bureaucracy. Supporters, though, say a muscular Space Force — on par with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force — is the only way to fully compete with America’s adversaries.
“For many years, nations from Russia and China to North Korea and Iran have pursued weapons to jam, blind and disable our navigation and communications satellites via electronic attacks from the ground,” Mr. Pence said last week. “As their actions make clear, our adversaries have transformed space into a war-fighting domain already. And the United States will not shrink from this challenge.”
Mr. Mattis previously expressed opposition to the Space Force as a separate branch of the armed forces, but he told reporters this week that he is now on board with the White House plan.
“I was not going against setting up a Space Force; what I was against was rushing to do that before we define those problems. We’ve had a year, over a year in defining,” he said Sunday while en route to Brazil. “And the orbitization of this solution in terms of institutionalizing forward momentum is very important.”
Next generation of weapons
Analysts say the debate over the Space Force has overshadowed the serious issues the U.S. must address and has taken the spotlight off of real threats posed by China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and nonstate actors.
“I think that the whole ‘Space Force’ debate is taking on a life of its own that is distracting attention from the real issue — that is, how America can defend its space assets,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University School of Law. “Let’s stop worrying so much about what kind of uniform a space operator might wear … and focus on what she needs to be prepared to do, and give her the equipment, training and authorities she needs to do her job.”
The job of the U.S. Space Force, should it come to pass the way the White House envisions it, will be to counter escalating threats posed by a growing number of nations, led by China.
In addition to its increasing ability to target satellites, China is making strides with “directed energy technologies” that can blind or damage space-based sensors such as those used on missile defense systems, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Chinese scientists claim to have blinded a satellite using a “50-100 kilowatt capacity mounted laser gun,” though outside observers haven’t confirmed the report.
Analysts say Russia isn’t far behind. In addition to the S-500 program, Moscow is pursuing an air-to-space missile program that it claims will be able to “intercept absolutely everything that flies from space.” Russia also continues perfecting lasers and other space weapons, the CSIS report says, in addition to improving its dangerously effective hacking and cyberattack methods.
Iran is far behind other nations in space weapons — its Iranian Space Agency was formed in 2003 — but it has shown itself capable of conducting widespread cyberattacks, and its technology could be turned toward U.S. satellites and other key pieces of space-based infrastructure.
“Iran is also believed to have advanced offensive cyber capabilities that could potentially be used to target U.S. space systems,” the CSIS study says. “Specifically, Iran is believed to be actively exploring the military uses of cyber capabilities to disrupt enemy missile defense systems, remotely piloted aircraft, logistics operations, and command and control links.”
North Korea lacks the weapons capabilities of major world powers such as China or Russia, but analysts say the reclusive nation’s impressive cyberattack programs could be turned toward U.S. space-based assets.
As technology becomes cheaper and more portable, satellite-jamming devices or other potential weapons of war could fall into the hands of terrorist groups or other nonstate foes.
“Understanding the threats to our space systems is the first step toward understanding why space should be such a high priority for the military. A Space Force is needed to create a more coherent, effective, and efficient organization within DoD that focuses on developing new space capabilities, protecting our space assets, and creating a robust cadre of space professionals,” Mr. Harrison said.
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