pace today enables nearly every facet of society and is central to our way of life: From commerce to weather forecasting to global communications, society not only relies on space capabilities, but also expects those capabilities to be available on demand. Space enables everything from email and Internet service to global trade, scientific research, and national security, where it is essential to achieving U.S. goals and maintaining U.S. leadership.
The ideological and geopolitical struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union that followed World War II fueled a space race that began in the 1950s and stretched into the 1970s. Beginning with the successful launch of Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, that Cold War race was on. Both countries were battling for power, prestige, and control of the new “high ground.” The nation that mastered getting to or operating in and through space would have a huge advantage.
From the beginning, the United States promoted the free and open use of space for the entire world, and organizations and policy approaches designed to support that view. The very goal of the “freedom of space,” rather than “domination of space,” was uniquely American.
Two key milestones in establishing this approach were the formation by the Air Force of the Western Development Division under Brig. Gen. Bernard A. Schriever in 1954, to drive the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, led by Thomas Glennan, to develop scientific exploration of space. The U.S. also created organizations to develop overhead intelligence to better understand our adversaries so that war would not break out accidentally. Both the National Reconnaissance Office, led by Dr. Joseph Charyk, and the Central Intelligence Agency worked with industry to create amazingly complex and capable intelligence satellites. Yet Russia continued to lead the way in many areas, becoming the first to:
- Launch an ICBM;
- Put a satellite on orbit;
- Put a living animal in space;
- Put a man in space;
- Put a woman in space;
- Successfully launch interplanetary probes;
- Land a spacecraft on the moon—and also on Mars and Venus; and
- Put a manned space station on orbit.
Even so, the United States prevailed. It built superior rockets, missiles, satellites, and space-based intelligence assets, and on July 20, 1969, NASA won the public space race when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, achieving what only decades earlier had seemed an impossible dream. By winning those bragging rights, as well as the missile race and the overhead intelligence race, the United States set the foundation for the free and open use of space by all the nations of the world. Rather than becoming weaponized, space instead became a uniquely peaceful sanctuary, beyond what the Airman-poet John Gillespie Magee Jr. called “the surly bonds of Earth.”
America’s gift to the world enabled a nascent commercial space economy that has grown by leaps and bounds, especially in the past decade, and which now encompasses governments and independent companies representing some 80 nations who now have assets on orbit, enhancing the lives of everyone in the world.
Arguably, America’s superiority in space and its heavy investment in space-based missile defense helped win the Cold War and bankrupt the Soviet Union. By 1989, the Berlin Wall had fallen and within two years the Soviet flag had been lowered for the last time over the Kremlin in Moscow. Both the United States and Russia cut back on nuclear weapons spending and reduced their arsenals.
The Honeymoon Period
With the dissolution of the Soviet empire, the U.S. became the world’s sole superpower and the dominant player in outer space. It would hold that leading position through 2015, using the power of its example to ensure the free and open use of space. By successfully maintaining strict separation between scientific exploration, commercial exploitation and military space, the U.S. nurtured a flourishing international space industry in which competition fueled innovation.
Over the course of the past decade, however, both Russia and China have emerged as counterweights to the U.S. strategy to keep space peaceful and benign. While each has sought to gain parallel military capabilities to those the U.S. has demonstrated over this stretch of time, each has also demonstrated threats and actions that on an almost daily basis challenge the safety and security of the space operating environment. We are entering a new era and a new space race, one in which the very freedom to leverage space is at risk.
Space Race 2.0
Space Race 2.0 started on Jan. 11, 2007, when China launched a ballistic missile from Xichang Space Launch Center. Its payload, a kinetic kill vehicle (KKV), collided with an inoperable Chinese weather satellite, the Fengyun-1C (FY-1C), 863 km (534 mi) above the Earth’s surface, instantly destroying the satellite and creating a debris field that threatened every satellite in low-Earth orbit (LEO). Even now, 15 years later, more than 2,300 pieces of debris from that collision remain in space and must be tracked as threats. The launch and strike were condemned almost universally, and for the next 14 years no one else took a similar risk. That is, until Nov. 15, 2021, when Russia—testing its LUCH anti-satellite (ASAT) system—launched the weapon against a long defunct Tselina-D electronic signals intelligence (ELINT) satellite. The resulting cloud of at least 1,500 pieces of trackable debris—and many thousands more smaller objects—now circles the globe, threatening everything in its path.
These are just the best-known events. Other dangerous and provocative offensive counterspace demonstrations by both Russia and China came in between. In 2008, China’s BanZing (BX-1) imaging satellite travelled within 45 kilometers of the International Space Station without providing prior notification. Because of the relative speeds of objects in orbit—the ISS flies at 4.76 miles/second, for example—that qualifies as a near miss. The combination of orbital speed and the latency of maneuver orders in space is such that a 45 kilometers distance could be closed in just three to six seconds. In 2010, after China launched its SJ-12 satellite, it maneuvered the asset and successfully bumped it into China’s own SJ-6F satellite, demonstrating the ability to intentionally impact other satellites including those owned and operated by the United States. In 2013 China demonstrated the capability to grab and disrupt satellites, using its Tiangong robotic arm aboard a Chinese satellite.
In 2021, the Center for Strategic International Studies Aerospace Security project reported that: “Unlike most objects in the geostationary belt, [the Russian satellite] Luch (Olymp-K) made a series of orbital maneuvers after it reached its destination orbital regime, varying its position relative to the Earth and neighboring satellites and spurring several accusations of Russian misbehavior by other satellite operators.”
From July 2017 to December 2020, the report noted, “Luch (Olymp-K) occupied at least 16 distinct orbital positions.” Among those expressing concern about Luch (Olymp-K) over the past decade: France and Italy, which in 2014 accused Russia of maneuvering the satellite to spy on their Athena-Fidus military communication satellite, and Intelsat, the commercial communications satellite operator, which raised similar concerns in 2015.
In 2019, Russia deployed a small satellite into an orbit so close to a U.S. national security satellite that the U.S. government was unsure whether it was attacking or simply observing. The Russian satellite then backed away and conducted a weapons test, releasing a small target before shooting it with a projectile.
“There really are no norms of behavior in space,” said Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, Chief of Space Operations, at a National Press Club event in March 2021. “It’s the Wild, Wild West.”
The United States has long known and long recognized that access to and freedom to maneuver in space is a vital national—and indeed global—interest,” he said. “It underpins our national security, it underpins our intelligence efforts, it underpins our treaty verification, it underpins our economy, and it underpins every instrument of national power. The challenge is that the access to space and the freedom to maneuver in space can no longer be treated as a given. There are threats that exist today. … With high relative velocities, even a tiny fragment can cause significant damage should it collide with another spacecraft, especially vulnerable commercial spacecraft.”
The establishment of U.S. Space Command and the U.S. Space Force in 2019 demonstrates recognition that the current space environment needed a coherent response to ensure space remains a free and open environment enabling all to enjoy the economic and social benefits. The mission of the U.S. Space Force is to deter conflict in space and avoid a costly conflict that could have worldwide implications. The world has changed and external threats have emerged that drive a need for the U.S. to respond. Space is becoming a dangerous place in which to operate—not just for us, but for the commercial and civil markets across the world.
Gen. David D. Thompson, USSF Vice Chief of Space Operations, makes this clear: “The threats are really growing and expanding every single day. And it’s really an evolution of activity that’s been happening for a long time, we’re really at a point now where there’s a whole host of ways that our space systems can be threatened. Both China and Russia are regularly attacking U.S. satellites with nonkinetic means, including lasers, radio frequency jammers, and cyberattacks”
Most reasonable people wish weaponizing space never occurred, but Russia and China have already passed that threshold, demonstrating offensive space capabilities with the stated and demonstrated intent to use those capabilities. Additionally, they are both building hypersonic weapons systems to put our nation and our people at risk. The truth is that our adversaries now pose a clear and present threat to our national security, making the case for a strong defensive posture in space.
Space Race 2.1
Speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum in November 2021, Thompson acknowledged that in some ways—as it did in the 1950s and 1960s—the United States has again fallen behind. “We’re not as advanced as the Chinese or the Russians in terms of hypersonic programs,” Thompson said.
New advanced threats include hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs) and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), which place a maneuverable projectile atop a ballistic missile or rocket booster, and can be utilized as a fractional orbital bombardment system. This could also take multiple orbits becoming the world’s worst nightmare—offensive weapons in space.
HCMs travel about six times faster than conventional cruise missiles, powered by supersonic combustion ramjets, or scramjets, a technology first conceived in the late 1950s but not fully demonstrated until 2013.
HGVs resemble ballistic missiles, but fly at lower altitudes and are more maneuverable, making them far less predictable. HGVs do not require any new engine technology development, instead they leverage conventional rockets to gain speed, then bleed off in an unpowered glide. In addition to being able to be used like a standard strategic or tactical missile, HGVs can launch from mobile platforms, ships, submarines and aircraft. They also can also go into space, go into orbit, then re-enter the atmosphere to release the kinetic energy gained in orbit while maneuvering to the target at immense speed on unpredictable trajectories deep into the Earth’s clutter.
Both HCM and HGV weapons are maneuverable and operate below the classical ballistic missile trajectory and above typical low-speed cruise missile operating altitudes. They are difficult to detect both from the ground, because of limited viewing angle, and from space because of background clutter caused by reflections from other objects on the ground; in effect, they can hide as if in fog. They maintain significant maneuverability with precision even in the terminal phase, putting even moving targets at risk. For example, consider a Navy ship underway. If the ship can detect such a missile at 100 miles, it would have only about a minute to change its course before it hits. An Aegis weapon system requires eight to 10 seconds to intercept an incoming threat, enough time for a hypersonic missile to travel 15 to 20 miles.
Both HVMs and HGVs can carry conventional or nuclear weapons, further complicating strategic decision-making and operational identification, response, and engagement. In addition to nuclear and conventional warheads, hypersonic missiles can also carry Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons. Both Russia and China already possess EMP capabilities, which could be launched on a hypersonic glide vehicle. EMP could be used in conjunction with cyberattacks early in a conflict to try to destroy information and communication systems. While there are known active protection measures, they are not currently deployed across the U.S., which leaves vulnerable civilian systems such as electric grids, telecom networks, transportation systems, water and sewer services, and other critical infrastructure.
Finally, Hypersonic threats encompass intercontinental- range, medium-range, and short-range/tactical missile threats. Both HCM and HGV weapons can be ground based, mobile launcher based, ship based, or air based, resulting in short flight that adds to their complexity.
To protect and defend against such threats the U.S. must be able to find, fix, track, and then intercept incoming threats. Hypersonic threats have four features that make them challenging.
- 1. They are very fast, which makes them very difficult to intercept prior to almost being on the target.
- 2. They rapidly enter the atmosphere in an area of high clutter, making them difficult to find and fix.
- 3. They maneuver, which makes it very challenging to fix and track.
- 4. They are virtually invisible to radar. Hypersonic weapons fly so fast that the air pressure in front forms a plasma cloud as it moves absorbing radio waves, making it virtually invisible to radar.
Russia has conducted research on hypersonic weapons technology since the 1980s and became more serious in 2001. Today, Russia is pursuing multiple hypersonic weapons programs, including the Avangard (a hypersonic glide vehicle), the Tsirkon (a ship-launched hypersonic cruise missile), and the Kinzhal (“Dagger”), a maneuvering air-launched ballistic missile that is reportedly already fielded.
China has conducted flight-tests of an HGV and some analysts believe it may be planning to mate conventionally armed HGVs with its DF-21 and DF-26 ballistic missiles in support of an anti-access/area-denial strategy. They have already conducted several successful tests of the DF-17, a medium-range ballistic missile specifically designed to launch HGVs and threaten the U.S. fleet. The DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, which was tested could be modified to carry a conventional or nuclear HGV, and the highly maneuverable DF-ZF HGV (previously referred to as the WU-14) at least nine times since 2014. China has also tested the Starry Sky-2 (or Xing Kong2), a nuclear-capable hypersonic vehicle prototype—a “wave rider” that uses powered flight after launch and derives lift from its own shockwaves. Finally, in August 2021, China tested a nuclear-capable HGV-Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), which could provide the People’s Republic Army with a space-based global strike capability, further reducing warning time prior to a strike.
“Today, we are at war every day in space,” wrote former Rep. Robert S. Walker, who once chaired the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and the President’s Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry. In an article published in May 2019, months before the Space Force was established, he continued: “We have satellites chasing satellites. We have adversaries developing and deploying offensive and defensive space weapons. Our $19 trillion economy is at grave risk that a space attack could significantly cripple us. Today, the potential of a space attack is as dangerous to us as a nation as the threat of a nuclear attack was in the 20th century. And we now have the USSF on the JCS with a focus of looking at and responding to these very real threats, every second of every day.”
The Chinese and Russians have been both provocative and sometimes reckless in their development and demonstration of offensive space capabilities. The demonstrated capabilities now range from direct ascent to co-orbital systems and ground-based lasers, weapons that can produce both reversible and permanent effects. They threaten both national security assets in space, as well as civil and commercial space systems. Having demonstrated their hypersonic attack capabilities, Russia openly brags that the U.S. has no response.
In the first space race the ability to escalate was minimal, focusing only on the numbers of nuclear missiles fired. The biggest inhibitor to their use was the catastrophic nature of that step. Any use of nuclear forces pointed toward Mutually Assured Destruction, an untenable choice for either party. In the Space Race 2.0, however, there appear to be options for a more gradual escalation, which suggests a greater likelihood of miscalculations leading to a disastrous ending. Because escalation actions are not catastrophic, they are inherently more likely to occur.
The risk of a space Pearl Harbor—in which an adversary launches an unprovoked, unpredicted surprise attack on U.S. space assets—is growing every day. Such a war would not last years, but rather would be over the day it started. Without satellites to guide our weapons and our warriors, to communicate globally and to gather intelligence, the U.S. would be hard-pressed to fight back. Indeed, America might not even know who attacked, only that it was suddenly deaf, dumb, blind, and impotent. Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned of such a threat in 2001, but the Defense Department did little since to reduce this existential risk. The 2008 Allard Report warned that “no one is in charge” of U.S. space strategy.
The December 2019 establishment of the U.S. Space Force, to join US Space Command, was a crucial step in reconciling this shortfall. Since then, DOD’s dependence on space has only grown, as has commercial space systems that depend on the free and open use of the space regime.
America and, indeed, the free world, cannot afford to lose that freedom. As Raymond said in June, “We cannot afford to lose space. Both China and Russia are developing space capabilities of their own, narrowing the gap with the U.S. in this area. At the same time, these countries are developing weapons systems that could target U.S. satellites. We have long understood that our nation is stronger—economically, diplomatically, and militarily—when we have access to and freedom to maneuver in space. America’s predominant position in space might come under threat from more aggressive rivals. For three decades, we have been able to take that access and that freedom for granted. Unfortunately … this is no longer the case.”
The Space Force and U.S. Space Command were formed just in time. The risks of adversaries moving from demonstrations to action, from Cold War to hot war, are increasingly possible. The world needs the U.S. to be the world leader in space, to preserve their freedom to build and prosper in that domain. To achieve that, the U.S. must prevail in this new “Space Race.” This “Space Race” is every bit as crucial as was the first “Space Race.” It must have resilient, lean, and agile Space capabilities which can absorb losses without loss of capability. It must have the ability to rapidly and affordably reconstitute space capabilities. And these systems must be acquired inside the acquisition speed of our allies, to deter conflict and, if necessary, to fight and win in the heavens.
Maj. Gen. Thomas “Tav” Taverney, USAF (Ret.) is a former vice commander of Air Force Space Command. His last article for Air Force Magazine appeared in the December 2020 issue.