First shots of next war likely to be in space
The launch of Space X’s Falcon Heavy rocket this week is a major step in the American space program – once the best in the world, but now lagging behind Russia’s space launch capability.
Space X, a private American space company has become the first private firm to design and launch a rocket that is capable of launching massive payloads into deep space.
“The great thing about Falcon heavy is that it opens up a new class of payload,” Space X head Elon Musk said. “It could launch one more than twice as much payload as any other rocket in the world, so it’s up to customers what they might want to launch. But it can launch things direct to Pluto and beyond. No stop needed.”
Musk said he hopes the first flight of the Falcon Heavy inspires more competition. At the post-flight press conference, he spoke about how the rocket was developed using around $500 million of the company’s own funds. That’s a lot of money, but it’s a sliver compared to the multi-billion dollar price tags of some other famous rockets. “I think it’s going to encourage other countries and companies to raise their sights and say hey we can do bigger and better, which is great,” he said. “We want a new space race. Races are exciting.”
Musk is also looking at a larger rocket booster, the Big Falcon Rocket that can launch people to either the Moon or Mars. However, these large boosters are less likely to carry astronauts than satellite payloads – both commercial and military. And, as space has become a bigger part of the battlefield, military payloads will be a major part of Space X’s revenue.
The Physics of Space War
Few realize that space war is much more complicated than land, sea, or air war, thanks to the laws of physics. Traditional 20th Century warfare was fought in a narrow band going from several hundred feet underwater to about six miles above sea level. The space war battlefield ranges from about 100 miles above sea level for low altitude reconnaissance satellites to about 26,000 miles above the earth for geosynchronous communications satellites. Manned space stations are about 250 miles above the Earth.
Putting a satellite into orbit requires considerable amounts of power. For instance, placing a satellite in low earth orbit requires reaching about 15,000 mph, about the same energy requirements as launching an ICBM. However, the energy to reach a higher orbit requires more power, which is why large payloads require large rocket boosters and a major launch facility like Cape Kennedy.
What this means is that an anti-satellite weapon designed to hit a satellite in orbit has similar energy needs. While a missile fired from a high flying aircraft can reach and destroy a low earth orbit satellite (providing it is nearby), an anti-satellite weapon designed to reach a geosynchronous communications satellite must be considerably larger and more powerful.
No wonder that 60 years after the first satellites were launched; there is no failsafe way to shoot down a satellite.
However, that isn’t keeping Russia and China from trying – especially since the US relies heavily on satellites for navigation, intelligence purposes, and communications.
Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Chinese and Russian space weapons pose “an emerging challenge” and that the Pentagon is accelerating its efforts to counter the threat.
“The Department of Defense has aggressively moved out to develop responses to the threats that we see coming from China and Russia…I believe it’s essential that we go faster in our responses.”
A new report released by the Center for a New American Security highlights the vulnerabilities the Pentagon has in space, and calls for a shift in strategy to safeguard it and prepare for conflict there. It argues that potential adversaries like China and Russia have noticed the degree to which the United States is reliant on its “space architecture,” and begun to seek ways to threaten it.
“Indeed, many observers have noted that these potential opponents judge the U.S. space architecture to be the Achilles’ heel’ of U.S. military power, in light of the depth of American reliance on theses systems and the vulnerability of the U.S. military satellite architecture,” the report said.
Since the space battlefield is so large, Russia and China have to develop several types of anti-satellite weapons to defeat the American space satellite fleet. These include different types of missiles, (depending on the orbit) and electronic and cyber attack methods.
Some of the methods can be quite simple. A spacecraft could simply approach a satellite and spray paint over its optics, or manually snap off its communications antennas, or destabilize its orbit. Lasers can be used to temporarily disable or permanently damage a satellite’s components, particularly its delicate sensors, and radio or microwaves can jam or hijack transmissions to or from ground controllers.
Russia has the most advanced anti-satellite systems. The earliest was a 23 mm automatic cannon placed onboard the Almaz spacecraft in the 1970s. Although the NR-23 cannon was never tested with astronauts onboard, it was capable of destroying satellites and even the US space shuttle. The problem with this weapon system was its heavy recoil and the need to maneuver the Almaz spacecraft close to the American satellite.
By the 1980s, the Russian had developed a more sophisticate anti-satellite system (ASAT). It was a ground based interceptor, with a pellet type warhead that would damage the target much like a shotgun. It could hit satellites as high as 3,000 miles, but was designed for lower orbit satellites like the CIA’s reconnaissance satellites.
The Russian GOLOSH ABM system also has some ASAT capability against low altitude satellites.
At the same time, in 1985, the U.S. Air Force staged a clear demonstration of its formidable capabilities, when an F-15 fighter jet launched a missile that took out a failing U.S. satellite in low-Earth orbit. In 2008, a ship-launched anti-ballistic missile shot down a malfunctioning U.S. military satellite shortly before it tumbled into the atmosphere.
However, it appears that Russia is also secretly launching ASATs. A few years ago, it included three mysterious payloads in otherwise routine commercial satellite launches. Radar observations by the U.S. Air Force and by amateur hobbyists revealed that after each commercial satellite was deployed, an additional small object flew far away from the jettisoned rocket booster, only to later turn around and fly back. The objects, dubbed Kosmos-2491, -2499 and -2504, could also be “covert” ASATs.
Of course, both sides play this “cat and mouse” game. Many think the US has secretly placed ASATs in orbit with its secret space vehicle the X-37. The X-37B program is run by the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, with mission control for orbital flights based at the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado. The space planes are built by Boeing.
There is also evidence that the US has secretly launched backup satellites that appear as space junk, but can be activated in case of a space war.
Both sides are also studying the use of lasers to destroy or blind satellites. This includes developing a space based laser that can hit satellites from great distances. There is also work on airborne lasers that can be deployed on high altitude aircraft so the laser beam isn’t distorted by the atmosphere.
But, such lasers aren’t the easy answer many think. Reflective material on a satellite makes them nearly invulnerable to laser attacks. There is also the energy requirement for a high power laser.
What Would a Space War Look Like?
While a space war could look like a space “Pearl Harbor,” where either China or Russia could carry out a mass attack against the whole US satellite fleet, it could be more limited so as to avoid a massive American retaliation.
Some vulnerable US satellite systems would be intelligence gathering, communications, and Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites.
A strike against low orbit reconnaissance satellites could “blind” American intelligence to critical movements of military assets or ballistic missiles. However, the US does have high flying reconnaissance aircraft that can temporarily replace the satellites. But, when hours count, blinding US spy satellites could offer a critical advantage to China or Russia.
Another likely target would be America’s GPS satellites, which orbit at a higher altitude of about 12,000 miles.
As we have seen in the last year, the US Navy is overly reliant on GPS for navigating. In fact, some have hypothesized that the recent Navy collisions weren’t caused by poor seamanship by the Navy officers on the bridge of the ships, but by cyber attacks on the GPS system.
The Air Force and Army are also overly reliant on GPS. Air Force aircraft rely on GPS for navigation and targeting. The Army’s artillery also needs GPS information.
Taking out the GPS system in wartime or during heightened tensions could lead to a number of US military accidents and the inability to accurately target enemy positions. And, since the American civilian transportation system relies on GPS, there would also be a dramatic impact on the American infrastructure.
An attack on communications satellites would hamper America’s Command and Control, which is considered the best in the world. American commanders would be unaware of the situation on the battlefield and would be unable to direct forces in the field.
Hampering communications would also have a dramatic impact on the civilian sector. Not only would phone communications be cut, financial transfers, credit card transactions, and bank account information would be stopped. Since many Americans rely heavily on electronic financial transactions, many Americans would be unable to buy food and gasoline. The result would be that American leadership might face a level of civil disturbance that would deflect attention away from any foreign problems.
No wonder that the US Air Force is concerned about space war. Air Force officials have been seeking ways to increase the resilience of space services for several years. Some of their newest ideas are seen in its 2019 budget proposal to Congress.
Air Force officials are looking at buying smaller, cheaper satellites to detect enemy launches, move data and communications, and gather intelligence. Though they would neither replace nor last as long as the Air Force’s customary multibillion-dollar behemoths, the smaller spacecraft would augment them and serve as backups if the larger ones were attacked.
The Air Force is also considering buying satellites made to less expensive commercial standards. This isn’t a radical move as the military already buys bandwidth on commercial communications satellites.
Looking further down the road, Space Command is investigating orbiting satellites five times farther from Earth, or making them far more maneuverable than current ones. Since it takes more energy and technology to hit satellites further out, it would make US satellites less vulnerable to Russia and China. It would also make it harder for rogue nations like Iran and North Korea to hit the US satellite fleet in the future.
However, many satellite projects take 10 years to move from concept to launching the first in a satellite constellation. It then takes another five to make the constellation operational. The result is that in the near future, the US must rely upon the durability of the current flock of satellites to withstand a potential space war.
2018 index of US Military Strength
October 5, 2018
The United States maintains a military force primarily to protect the homeland from attack and to protect its interests abroad. There are secondary uses—for example, to assist civil authorities in times of disaster or to deter opponents from threatening America’s interests—but this force’s primary purpose is to make it possible for the U.S. to physically impose its will on an enemy when necessary. It is therefore critical that the condition of the United States military with respect to America’s vital national security interests, threats to those interests, and the context within which the U.S. might have to use “hard power” be understood. Knowing how these three areas—operating environments, threats, and the posture of the U.S. military—change over time, given that such changes can have substantial implications for defense policies and investment, is likewise important.
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Space 201: Thinking About the Space Domain
By Dean Cheng
October 5, 2017
Over the past three decades, the role of outer space in military operations has risen steadily. From the inception of the space age, America’s activities in space have included a large national security component. The development of satellites was not only a matter of national prestige in the ideological competition of the Cold War, but also an effort to monitor military and other developments from the strategic high ground of space. Many of the earliest satellites were engaged in the gathering of intelligence. Due to their sensitive nature and the advanced technologies associated with them, information derived from reconnaissance satellites (sometimes termed national technical means, or NTM) has generally remained highly classified. Rumors have long abounded regarding the capabilities of American reconnaissance satellites, for example, but little of their actual resolution (what they were able to see on the surface of the planet) was revealed during the Cold War. The end of the Cold War and the subsequent use of satellite imagery in 1991 during the first Gulf War pulled back many of the curtains that had obscured the capabilities and nature of reconnaissance satellites as programs were declassified and images were disseminated more broadly.
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5 Myths About the Nuclear Posture Review
By Michaela Dodge
February 2, 2018
Today, the Trump administration’s released its long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review. Already, myths of a nuclear Armageddon have monopolized the media space. In reality, the review is a balanced document carefully weighing the impact of dangerous international trends like a resurgent Russia and an aggressive China on U.S. nuclear posture. The recommendations in the review, if implemented, will result in a safer world. Here are the top five myth-busters about the Nuclear Posture Review:
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Nuclear Posture Review: The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same
By Rebecca Hersman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 6, 2018
Last week, the Trump administration formally released its review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy—which is nearly identical to the version leaked to the Huffington Post in early January. Judging by reactions over what amounts to the longest rollout in Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) history, there is something in it for everyone. That means almost no one is happy. Paradoxically, initial reactions suggest the review opens the door to nuclear “war fighting,” or closes it; raises the nuclear threshold, yet lowers it; continues some Obama administration policies and programs, or departs from them dramatically; goes too far in portraying a confrontational approach to Russia and China, yet does not go far enough. It’s fundamentally different from the Obama administration’s nuclear policy, but it is also largely the same.
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Connecting Current Operations to Policy Ambition in Syria
By Melissa Dalton
Center for Strategic and International Studies
January 26, 2018
2017 marked a significant shift in the two wars in Syria. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Coalition forces drove ISIS from its self-proclaimed caliphate capital in Raqqa, across northern Syria, and down the Euphrates River Valley. Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, backed by Russia and Iran, secured key population areas and strategic locations in the center and coast, and stretched to the eastern border to facilitate logistics and communications for Iranian-backed militias. In both wars, Syrian civilians have lost profoundly. They also have shown incredible resilience. Still, the outcome of both wars is inconclusive. Although major areas have been cleared of ISIS, SDF and Coalition forces are fighting the bitter remnants of ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. Enduring security in ISIS-cleared areas now depends on governance and restoration of services. Turkey’s intervention into Syrian Kurdish-controlled Afrin risks pulling the sympathetic Kurdish components of the SDF away from the counterterrorism and stabilization efforts in Syria’s east in order to fight Turkey, a U.S. ally. With a rumbling Sunni insurgency in pockets of Syria’s heartland, Assad and his supporters continue to pummel Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus and threaten Idlib. They are unleashing both conventional and chemical weapons on the remnants of Syrian opposition fighters and indiscriminately targeting civilians.
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Is the New U.S. National Security Strategy a Step Backward on Democracy and Human Rights?
By FRANCES Z. BROWN and THOMAS CAROTHERS
January 30, 2018
Experts on a wide range of issues have parsed the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) since its release in December, often criticizing what they regard as a weak treatment of crucial topics. This scrutiny includes attention to the strategy’s stance on U.S. support for democracy and human rights abroad. Former national security adviser Susan Rice, for example, observed in a list of stinging criticisms that the strategy “fails to mention the words ‘human rights.’” The editorial board of the Washington Post regretted that the strategy contains “no commitment to promote democracy and human rights, other than by example.” Given the administration’s erratic and often damaging stance thus far on democracy and rights abroad, these warning flags are more than understandable.
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Rolling Back Iran’s Foreign Legion
By Hanin Ghaddar and Phillip Smyth
February 6, 2018
On February 2, Hanin Ghaddar and Phillip Smyth addressed a Policy Forum at The Washington Institute. Ghaddar, the Institute’s Friedman Visiting Fellow, is a veteran Lebanese journalist and researcher. Smyth is a Soref Fellow at the Institute and a researcher at the University of Maryland. The event marked the release of Ghaddar’s new Institute report “Iran’s Foreign Legion: The Impact of Shia Militias on U.S. Foreign Policy.” The following is a rapporteur’s summary of their remarks. HANIN GHADDAR: Political balance has ceased to exist in Lebanon. The March 14 coalition has faded away and could not compete with Hezbollah even if it were still in play. Hezbollah has more power than ever in Lebanon and serves as Iran’s main arm in the rest of the region as well. What we are seeing in Syria is not separate Shia militias fighting on the Assad regime’s behalf, but parts of a structured army commanded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force, with Hezbollah as its right hand. Hezbollah was somewhat independent prior to 2011, but after senior officials Imad Mughniyah and Mustafa Badreddine were killed, Qods Force chief Qasem Soleimani was left in direct control of the group. The Afghan militia Liwa Fatemiyoun and the Pakistani militia Liwa Zainabiyoun are also part of this structure.
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