Crowded, Congested Space

Aug. 1, 2010

Last year, an Iridium communications satellite unexpectedly went dead. US military space analysts soon discovered it had smashed into a defunct Russian Cosmos satellite, a collision that destroyed both spacecraft and created a large and dangerous debris field in space.

That incident followed another worrisome event. In January 2007, China successfully tested an anti-satellite missile against one of its own defunct satellites. That attack, a direct hit, created 150,000 pieces of space clutter—not all of it even visible to US space operators.

Both events reveal that the global commons of space—which the United States has long dominated and has increasingly used as leverage to achieve a decisive military edge—is increasingly crowded and contested. There have been years of warnings that US space dominance is in peril. It is now safe to assume that, in a future war, the military will not have unhindered access to the space-based capabilities that create numerous US combat advantages. Potential adversaries aren’t just aware of how heavily the US relies on space. They already have the means to compete and to challenge US operations there.

In this artist’s conception, a laser from a satellite attacks a communications satellite. (Illustration by Erik Simonsen)

Today, many commanders view space dominance as vital to warfare in the Information Age.

“Certainly in the air world, in the ISR [intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance] world, and most especially in the space world, [there is] competition out there, [and the] competition is getting better,” said Lt. Gen. Larry D. James, commander of 14th Air Force at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. “Multiple nation-states now have space launch capability, have ISR capability, [and] have intelligence capability from space, so we’ve got to continue to raise our game to make sure we are still the best.”

As a recent report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) noted, it is increasingly clear that a military able to effectively use space has tremendous advantages through rapid globe-spanning communications, broad and sophisticated surveillance and intelligence-gathering capability, and accurate force positioning, operations timing, and precision targeting abilities.

“Put in military terms, the space commons offers distinct and significant advantages in command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C3ISR), maneuverability, and firepower,” noted report author Eric Sterner. “As the United States has been the world’s leading innovator in the use of space for military purposes, this development is largely a story of American innovation.”

Given the game-changing advantages that the United States reaps from its dominance of space, it was inevitable that other countries would also seek to exploit space for their own uses, both military and commercial. Today, nine countries, plus the European Space Agency member states, have the ability to independently place satellites into orbit, and virtually any country or nonstate actor can access satellite technology by buying time on commercial satellites.

As the US military’s dependence on space systems has grown exponentially in recent years, however, so has a growing sense of unease among military commanders concerned about the vulnerability of those assets. In 2001, the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization released a report that predicted that future warfare in space was a “virtual certainty,” and it proposed that the United States begin to develop the means both to deter and defend against attacks on its space assets, and to mount offensive operations to deny the use of space to potential adversaries. To do otherwise, the commission warned, would invite a “space Pearl Harbor.”

US officials confirmed in 2006 that China had successfully “painted” a US satellite with a laser. China’s January 2007 test of the direct-ascent, anti-satellite SC-19 missile greatly heightened those concerns. And a recent Pentagon report on China’s military modernization revealed that China is developing other anti-satellite systems, to include ground-based lasers designed to blind sensitive satellite optics.

China is also reportedly developing microsatellites crafted to act as “space mines,” which could loiter in space until given the signal to destroy other satellites. At present, US officials say they are uncertain whether China has already launched such “parasite” satellites.

China’s successful 2007 anti-satellite missile test was a wake-up call for the space community. This artist’s conception shows the missile during staging. (Illustration by Erik Simonsen)

“In today’s world, … there are a lot of folks launching a lot of satellites, some of them very small,” and we have a lot of work to do in terms of knowing “what their mission is, … what the intent of the owner is,” and whether they represent a threat, said James. That really gets into the intelligence world more than the tracking world, but, “frankly, we have a long way to go” in achieving that space situational awareness.

According to the CNAS report, China has identified American dependence on space as an asymmetric vulnerability to exploit. “China is developing robust capabilities to operate in space and deny its adversaries the use of space during a time of crisis or conflict,” the report concluded.

A Stalemate

In devising a strategy to maintain space superiority, the Pentagon has been constrained by space governing structures and policies dating back 40 years in some cases. The United States led the way in promoting the principles at the heart of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, for instance, whose signatories pledged not to station nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in space or on celestial bodies, and accepted the principle that space was a global commons that all countries are free to explore and utilize equally.

More recently, however, attempts to update policies governing the space commons have stalemated over American resistance to proposals to ban all weapons in space. In 2002, Russia and China proposed a treaty, for instance, that would ban signatories from placing “in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying any kinds of weapons … or … to station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.”

As the CNAS report noted, such a treaty could negate a clear US advantage—space-based systems—while allowing Russia and China to continue to develop ground-based anti-satellite systems such as kinetic missiles, lasers, particle beams, and radio-frequency weapons. A number of nations have already displayed an ability to jam satellite transmissions, including Iran and Cuba, which in 2003 colluded to jam the satellite broadcast of Voice of America.

A ban on weapons in space is also viewed by some experts as unverifiable.

After withdrawing from the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia in 2001 in order to pursue a more robust national missile defense system, the Bush Administration was determined not to commit itself to a new treaty that precluded space-based interceptors.

In 2006, the Bush Administration also released a new National Space Policy, reaffirming a US commitment to the free exploration and peaceful uses of space by all nations—but put a marker down in terms of the US commitment to protect its edge in space.

Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton (l), commander of US Strategic Command, visits with security forces personnel at Ellsworth AFB, S.D. (USAF photo by TSgt. Lee A. Osberry Jr.)

Space Junk

“The United States considers space capabilities—including the ground and space segments and supporting links—vital to its national interests,” the space policy declared, adding that the US will preserve freedom of action in space, “dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take … actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to US national interests.”

While continuing a de facto policy of not deploying weapons in space, US Strategic Command and its Joint Functional Component Command for Space have pursued a multipronged strategy for fulfilling the National Space Policy. The first pillar of that strategy is to significantly improve the United States’ space situational awareness, the better to understand vulnerabilities and potential threats in space.

Commanders concede there are major gaps in their ability to even identify everything flying in space, and to what purpose.

“I’ve talked a lot about space situational awareness, [because] frankly, we are still challenged in that arena,” said James, noting that operators can only track objects of 10 centimeters (four inches) or more. “And yet there are a lot of things out there two centimeters, three centimeters, or four centimeters that, when they’re traveling at 17,000 miles an hour, can still cause a lot of damage. We don’t even see those.”

STRATCOM’s joint space component also lacks adequate coverage of the skies over the Southern Hemisphere. “So as objects go through the Southern Hemisphere, we often don’t see them until they come back around and they’re coming up over the Northern Hemisphere,” said James, who also commands JFCC-Space.

Besides better intelligence on space launches and satellite characteristics, and more extensive multilateral space partnerships and cooperation to improve transparency of the space commons, the Pentagon has launched a number of programs to improve its ability to monitor space activities. These include a Space-Based Surveillance System that when completed will give the US military round-the-clock coverage of the geosynchronous belt (20,000 to 22,000 miles from Earth) and beefed-up ground radars that can track spacecraft in low-Earth orbit (from 60 to 300 miles).

Another focus in US space strategy is developing “defensive counterspace measures,” or steps the military can take to better protect space assets. These include improved satellite sensors that could detect an adversary’s attempt to interfere with them; increased hardening of satellites against threats such as electromagnetic-pulse weapons or radiation from a potential nuclear detonation in space; and an improved ability to maneuver satellites out of harm’s way.

Space junk ruptures a satellite’s solar panel in this artist’s conception. Several such incidents have highlighted the hazard posed by space debris. (Illustration by Erik Simonsen)

Also part of this effort is the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which produced the Delta and Atlas families of heavy-lift rockets.

The EELV program was designed specifically to quickly and inexpensively launch satellites into orbit on short notice, a key capability if the nation needed to replace spacecraft that had been damaged or disabled in an attack.

Currently the United States has only two space launch facilities designed for large vehicles, however, at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., and Cape Canaveral, Fla. Nor does the nation stockpile excess launch vehicles or significant numbers of spare satellites that it could “surge” into use in a crisis.

Radio Frequency Jamming

“Consequently, once degraded, American space capabilities would likely undergo a long and torturous reconstitution process that could prove impossible in the midst of an ongoing conflict in space with an adversary that had successfully seized the ‘high ground,’ ” concluded Sterner in the CNAS report. “Taken together, these vulnerabilities make space an Achilles’ heel for the United States and the international community.”

Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton is the commander of STRATCOM. “There was a day when we had robust architectures and we had robust development programs, with satellites in the barn ready to go up should a problem develop on orbit,” he said at an Air Force Association symposium last November.

Partly because of some well-publicized acquisition problems with space-based systems, Chilton noted, none of that is true today. “We’ve gotten to the point in some cases where this combatant commander has to count on 100 percent launch success. Now, we’re good, … [but] we’re not there yet.” The US shouldn’t be counting on 100 percent launch success when it comes to national security.

The most controversial component of US space strategy falls under the rubric of attack. This includes offensive counterspace operations and programs designed to deny space to enemies in times of conflict.

Even without launching actual weapons into space, the United States possesses a range of such tools, to include satellite jammers and lasers designed to temporarily blind satellites. Other nations also have access to a broad range of counterspace tactics.

SSgt. Drake Iverson, a joint terminal attack controller attached to the Army’s 4th Infantry Regiment in Afghanistan, hoists a satellite antenna while calling in air support. (USA photo by Spec. Eric Cabral)

“I would argue that the threat that’s the biggest, because it’s probably the simplest, is [radio frequency] jamming,” said James. “Most of our data from space systems comes down on RF links, so it’s very easy to build an RF jammer and go after those links.”

Looking at space systems in their entirety, commanders could likewise target an adversary’s ground-based stations and communication nodes with conventional precision strikes. “Soft kill” options include cyber operations to penetrate a satellite’s command and control link in order to issue false commands.

Though the United States has not deployed a dedicated anti-satellite missile, during the 1980s, it successfully tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon from an F-15 fighter. The importance of space to military operations has grown exponentially since then.

With the end of the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviet Union, US space forces were freed to focus assets and energy on transforming conventional military operations. Before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, for instance, US Space Command sent space warriors to all major in-theater units. In the field, they studied the paths of orbiting satellites to determine how ground troops could maintain satellite communications linkages while moving quickly across hundreds of miles of desert—a range that far outstripped the reach of tactical military radios.

During the opening aerial bombing campaign of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Joint Direct Attack Munition became the workhorse of the air arsenal. The bombs were guided precisely to their targets, day or night, and in all weather, by the constellation of Global Positioning System satellites.

During the massive dust storm that temporarily halted the Iraqi offensive, Global Hawk high-altitude reconnaissance drones used secure satellite links to beam reconnaissance data to California and Nevada, where analysts developed target coordinates that were then beamed back by satellite to Middle East command centers. These targeting coordinates were then in some instances relayed directly into the cockpits of warplanes loitering over the battlefield.

Increased Competition

That globe-spanning cycle of surveillance, analysis, and retargeting of aircraft already in the air represented a revolution in modern warfare. Air Force air controllers could only have dreamed about these capabilities, even during the 1991 Persian Gulf War with Iraq, considered by many as the “first space war.”

In fact, the amount of satellite bandwidth used in the opening days of Iraqi Freedom was 42 times that used in Desert Storm in 1991.

Global Positioning System satellites have changed warfare by making possible extremely precise targeting. Civilians also depend on GPS for navigation and timing. (Illustration by Erik Simonsen)

As former Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne explained, “In World War II, it took 1,500 B-17s dropping 9,000 bombs to destroy a given target. Today, one B-2 Spirit bomber can strike 80 different targets on a single mission” using weapons guided by GPS.

A major Pentagon reorganization greatly expanded the missions of US Strategic Command in 2006, and put the Army, Navy, and Air Force space commands under its operational authority. The Pentagon also ordered STRATCOM to expand its role beyond maintaining the nuclear deterrent by assuming a “global strike” mission, being ready to destroy targets anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice using conventional as well as nuclear weapons. That placed US space operations directly in the chain of command of a military commander oriented toward offense as well as defense.

In 2008, the US returned to the anti-satellite realm, when it reconfigured an anti-ballistic missile system aboard an Aegis warship in order to successfully destroy a malfunctioning spy satellite that was about to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.

As noted in the Center for a New American Security report, “US officials were quite clear that the intercept was undertaken as a special circumstance, though there is no reason to believe that the United States could not repeat the feat with greater margin for success as ballistic missile defense capabilities improve.”

Though officials rarely talk about them publicly, the Air Force continues to study concepts for anti-satellite weapons in space. Though they reportedly have no intention of deploying them now, planners want to at least study how such systems might work if they ever got the go-ahead. Some arms control experts suspect that the XSS-11 micro-satellite the Air Force launched in 2005 might have the capability to interfere with other nations’ satellites.

“When we look to the future of our joint operating environment, we see that increased competition in the global space commons is likely,” said Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command at Peterson AFB, Colo., last year. “As I’ve said before publicly, it’s our job to point out that fact, and it’s our job to try and be prepared for that.”

A Delta IV rocket streaks skyward from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. USAF has had a long streak of launch successes, but leaders warn against counting on perfection. (Erik Simonsen photo)

Space is no longer a sanctuary, but the Air Force is clearly not taking that fact lightly.

A Case Study in Minimizing Disasters in Space

In February 2009, a seemingly routine message arrived via secure link to the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Global Satellite Communications Support Center received information that Iridium had lost contact with one of its communications satellites.

Satellites operating in the unforgiving expanses of space fail for many reasons, but this particular message set off a warning light for the crew commander at JSPOC. The young Air Force officer was trained to treat any anomaly or unexplained failure as a potential offensive operation against US space systems.

The officer and his team immediately ran a “conjunction analysis” of the satellite’s orbit in relation to other man-made objects in space, whether other satellites or debris from past launches or space collisions.

The roughly 1,300 known satellites tracked by JSPOC appeared on a video screen, a computer model showing their orbits crisscrossing in a complex halo around the Earth. The trajectories of roughly 21,100 bits of known “space junk” were also calculated, representing a debris field that has grown rapidly in recent years along with increases in satellite launches. As a result, on any given day, JSPOC operators now track 40 to 50 possible space collisions, a dramatic increase in potential space mayhem.

The conjunction analysis of the Iridium satellite revealed the problem. The computer tracked it on a collision course with a Russian Cosmos satellite, each of them traveling at thousands of miles an hour.

As a result of their violent impact, US space operators suddenly had roughly 1,500 more pieces of space junk to monitor.

Because of the quick actions of this young captain and his crew on the JSPOC floor to determine exactly what was going on, “we were able to ascertain very quickly that we had a problem and that we had a potential debris field that we had to start worrying about,” said Lt. Gen. Larry D. James, head of US Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC-Space) at Vandenberg, speaking at a symposium last November.

Officials said the JSPOC crew’s quick reactions likely averted other potentially devastating collisions.

James Kitfield is the defense correspondent for National Journal in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Front Lines Down South,” appeared in the July issue.