Last year, both the U.S. Congress and Senate seemed to hear the chorus of defense officials calling for an increased emphasis on the defense of America’s orbital infrastructure when they put together budget proposals for an increase in defense spending. Unfortunately, when the two budgets were reconciled into a single bill, both the plans for an increased emphasis from the Air Force and the establishment of a new space-specific branch of the military were done away with in favor of continued analysis into the potential threats faced, and the promise of making strides to defend against those threats at some point in the future.
Now, the Joint Staff intelligence directorate, known as J-2, has released a new report that once again shines a light on the growing threat of competitor nations like China and Russia taking offensive actions against the satellites the United States military and economy has grown so dependent on in recent decades. In fact, according to officials that have had eyes on the report, “China and Russia will be capable of severely disrupting or destroying U.S. satellites in low-earth orbit” in the next several years, likely prior to 2020.
We assess that Russia and China perceive a need to offset any U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems and are increasingly considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine,” Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, said.
“Both will continue to pursue a full range of anti-satellite weapons as a means to reduce U.S. military effectiveness.”
According to testimony Coats provided to Congress, Russia, in particular, has a “diverse suite of capabilities to affect satellites in all orbital regimes,” including an airborne laser designed specifically with targeting and disrupting the function of U.S. satellites in mind.
Other threats come in what could be described as the orbital equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing: satellites marketed as a means to remove orbital debris that could easily be used in offensive operations. It actually takes very little to hinder the performance of orbital assets, meaning something as simple as a nudge from one of these autonomous “clean-up” satellites could cripple elements of the satellite network relied upon for communications or targeting systems.
This threat is not new; in fact, the United States started making strides toward defending against orbital threats during the Reagan era, co-opting the “mutually assured destruction” mentality that secured nuclear stability by developing offensive orbital assets to serve as a deterrent against Russian programs that were already underway. Since then, China has already deployed at least two mobile Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile systems, and has plans in progress for new, more advanced ground-launched ASAT systems.
The United States ASAT program, Program 437, took the form of the ASM-135 missile, or the ‘flying tomato can’ and was intended by the Reagan administration to be a deterrent to the Soviet co-orbital system,” said Michael J. Listner, founder of Space Law & Policy Solutions, a consulting firm. “When Congress defunded development of the ASM-135 there was no follow-on program to provide the desired deterrent effect.”
“That Russia did not completely scrap its program and China is pursuing its own, leaves the United States with the conundrum of how to deter the threat aside from the hope of resilience.”
However, the United States may not be entirely dragging their feet in this realm. The Air Force’s secretive X-37B, which is an autonomous drone that stays in orbit for hundreds of days at a time, could potentially be equipped to take on offensive or defensive operations. Further, the Zuma satellite launch, that SpaceX reported as a success and the government reported as a failure, could potentially be a functioning defensive asset, though in both cases, these possibilities are based more on hearsay than anything else. Meaning, at least officially, the U.S. is currently defenseless, and the competition seems to have a head start.
Advances and proliferation in advanced electronic warfare (EW), kinetic, space, and cyber capabilities threaten our ability to maintain information superiority,” the report said, noting “under severe stress situations, jamming can render all commercial satcom and most defense satcom inoperable.”
“This reality should be considered a crisis to be dealt with immediately,” the board warned.
Image courtesy of the Associated Press.