The Evolution of Space War
Although generations have been raised on movies like Star Wars (and before that Flash Gordon), few appreciate the complexities of a war in space. And, although things like Death Stars and Tie Fighters may seem realistic, it is the dead hand of Sir Isaac Newton and his laws of gravity, that really control war in space.
A recent example was an article in the blog Defense One that saw the development of robotic repair satellites as a threat to America’s galaxy of defense and communication satellites.
The article said, “in the next few years, China and Russia will begin to launch a new kind of spacecraft; robotic mechanics that can repair or upgrade friendly satellites in orbit. Inevitably, these will also be able to use the very same rendezvous and robotic capabilities as killer spacecraft to get close to and disable American satellites.”
Admittedly, these satellites could incapacitate American satellites. However, why should the Russians or Chinese waste such expensive technology to kill an American satellite, when simpler and less obvious methods are available?”
However, the fact is that the next generation of space war has started. Last September, the French government accused Russia of an “act of space espionage,” when Moscow’s signals intelligence satellite Luch-Olymp was steered close to a French military communications satellite Athena-Fidus. The French accused Russia of trying to intercept the satellite’s communications.
Another Russian satellite, Olymp-K, also recently maneuvered close to two Intelsat commercial satellites in geosynchronous orbit.
The French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said, “Trying to listen to your neighbors is not only unfriendly, it’s an act of espionage.”
A couple of weeks ago, Parly announced details of a new “defense space strategy. It includes cameras, machineguns, and lasers on “sensitive satellites” so they can watch for threats and defend themselves. They also see defensive satellites that will surround important satellites like bodyguards and a fleet of satellites that can be quickly launched to replace satellites destroyed by an enemy.
France is also creating a Space Command that mirrors President Trump’s space force – a recognition that the rules of war have changed in space. The directive signed by Trump states, “Potential adversaries are now advancing their space capabilities and actively developing ways to deny our use of space in a crisis or conflict.”
The Chinese have become very active in pushing the border of what is acceptable behavior in space. In 2016, it launched a satellite designed (according to the Chinese) to test high performance solar cells and new propellants. However, once in orbit, it started maneuvering around other Chinese satellites. Experts wonder if it is designed to destroy another satellite, intercept the satellite communications, or position it in order to jam its communications in case of a war.
However, space war is more complicated than that. The first complication is the laws of gravity and space mechanics, which make destroying an enemy satellite complicated. The second problem is that space launches and orbiting objects are so closely monitored, that a “killer satellite” that destroys a military satellite will be as obvious as a Russian bomber flying over Fort Knox and dropping 500-pound bombs on it.
It is an unwritten rule that not only is an attack on another nation’s satellites a violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, it is considered an act of war. Consequently, the traditional ‘killer satellites” that maneuver close to a satellite and explode, and the ground launched anti-satellite missiles that intercept a satellite are so obvious as to the country of origin that they are impracticable for the opening act of a war.
The other problem is space mechanics. Satellites don’t flit back and forth like the spacecraft seen in a Star Wars movie. Orbiting a satellite requires a lot of kinetic energy and changing their course mid orbit requires a lot of energy. Consequently a “killer satellite” in space needs a large amount of fuel in order to change orbit and chase down an enemy satellite. That’s one reason why ground based anti-satellite missiles are so attractive.
However, ground based missiles have their problems too. Solid fuel, the preferred fuel for quick response missiles, don’t contain enough energy to reach the highest orbiting satellites like those in geosynchronous orbit. That preempts a quick hit on the critical communications and warning satellites.
This means the only way to hit a geosynchronous orbit satellite is to use liquid fuel rockets that take time to launch and are easier to destroy before launch. And, even if the launch is successful, it takes time for the killer satellite to enter a geosynchronous orbit, which allows the target satellites to take evasive action.
So, how does one attack and destroy an enemy’s satellites without being discovered?
The answer isn’t blowing up the satellite but using less aggressive methods like cyberattacks that interfere with the data flows between satellites and the ground stations. These attacks are opaque enough to keep the nation under attack from being sure who the attacker is.
The problem for America is that these sorts of attacks are already underway.
In 2008, a cyberattack on a ground station in Norway let someone cause 12 minutes of interference with NASA’s Landsat satellites – satellites that can monitor activities in Russia and China. 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 issue commands but chose not to.
The problem with these cyberattacks is that there is no proof about who initiated the attacks, although many think it was the Chinese. Imagine what could happen in the opening minutes of a war if this occurred. What would the nation under attack do?
Experts warn that cyberattacks could shut off a satellite’s communications, which would make it useless. Other options include ordering the satellite to use its remaining fuel to go into a useless orbit or ordering the satellite to point its sensors at the sun, so as to destroy the sensors.
Another method to attack a satellite in a less obvious manner would be to jam or spoof the satellite signals. The gear is commercially available and could be mounted on a vehicle. A vehicle with jamming equipment could be placed near a base station, which would prevent the satellite from communicating with it.
There are some that think that Russia has already executed this type of jamming of GPS signals during NATO exercises in Norway and Finland. Jamming is hard to distinguish from unintentional interference and the US military regularly accidently jams its own communications satellites.
Since these jamming systems are so easy to build, experts think that they aren’t limited to Russia and China. The US Defense Intelligence Agency says North Korea has purchased some jamming equipment from Russia. The report also says that insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Iraq have been known to use jamming equipment.
There are also reports that Russia uses spoofing of GPS signals to protect Russian President Putin as he moves around.
But the technology is not limited to Russian security agencies. In 2013, students at the University of Texas used a briefcase sized device to spoof a GPS signal, which caused a multi-million-dollar yacht to veer off course in the Mediterranean. The spoof wasn’t detected, and the students later announced what they did.
The US is responding to the threat by hardening satellites and making them tougher to spoof or jam. For instance, the NTS-3 GPS satellite scheduled for launch in 2022 will have steerable antennas and more usable frequencies that will allow it to counter jamming. It can continue operate even if it isn’t in communications with a ground station and it can detect efforts to jam it.
DARPA is also trying to make it harder for Russia or China to attack a few satellites and cripple the whole US military communications system. A DARPA project called Blackjack is designed to create a constellation of inexpensive military satellites in low earth orbit that can continue to operate even if several of the satellites are destroyed or made inoperable.
According to General John Hyten, commander of the US Strategic Command, the US must learn to not rely solely on hardened communications links for nuclear command and control.
Hyten said the US needs, “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 though.
The Russians have headed in this direction already. Instead of relying totally on satellite communications, they have gone back to older methods like shortwave radio for backup. They have a station called UVB-76 (called the “Buzzer” by shortwave fans) which broadcasts on 4.625 megahertz and can be heard around the globe thanks to shortwave’s ability to bounce radio signals off the ionosphere. The frequency is used by the Russian armed forces and sends out a buzzing sound that lasts about one second. There are occasional verbal codes sent over the frequency.
It is assumed that this is a backup communications band in case other communications methods are unavailable.
There are two other Russian military stations that follow the same format, called “The Pip” and “The Squeaky Wheel.”
Shortwave communications were a major method of military communications before satellites. Shortwave stations could be moved and could change frequencies in order to avoid jamming.
It is obvious that the Russians have decided that while space communications offer many benefits, traditional methods like shortwave radio are less susceptible to hacking, spoofing, and jamming.
While the US appears to be focused on space based, space war solutions, it seems that some of the solutions to a war in space may be found back on earth.