The Pentagon is gearing up for a future conflict in space as China and Russia deploy missiles and lasers that can take out satellites and disrupt military and civilian communications.
The U.S. military long ago dropped the notion of crewed, orbiting space weapons in favor of satellites because the logistics of supporting people outside of Earth’s atmosphere were formidable.
The physics of space also make it impossible to sneak up on an enemy or quickly change orbit or direction. And earthbound tactics don’t work in space, where the U.S., China and Russia are all turning to satellites and sensors to wage and winany conflict.
“You can’t dig trenches in space,” said
senior vice president of the Defense Systems Group at The Aerospace Corp., a federally funded research group.
“If deterrence fails, you can’t wait until something bad happens to get ready. You have to have the full infrastructure together,” said Mr. Whelan, a former Air Force major general, who led a strategic review of space systems for the Pentagon and the intelligence community.
The White House this month proposed a $30 billion annual budget for the U.S. Space Force, almost $4 billion more than last year and a bigger jump than for other services including the Air Force and the Navy.
The Space Force was created in 2019 as the sixth arm of the military, carving out responsibilities once embedded in the Air Force. A key aim of a stand-alone force was to plan, equip and defend U.S. interests in space for all of the services and focus attention on the emerging threats.
For the first time, the spending request also includes plans for simulators and other equipment to train Guardians, as Space Force members are known, for potential battle. The 16,000 Guardians are charged with running rocket launches, satellites and ground-based communication and sensor equipment.
That training will be critical. The physics and the mechanics of steering objects through space at more than 17,000 miles an hour give attackers the advantage they lack on the ground.
Space is also becoming crowded, with the number of tracked objects in orbit now topping 48,000, more than doubling over the past four years.
The U.S., China and Russia are signatories to the United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, including scientific work. All three also have significant military assets in space.
Just as it is on Earth, China is the Pentagon’s big worry in space. In unveiling a defense strategy late last year, the Biden administration cast China as the greatest danger to U.S. security.
In space, the threats from China range from ground-launched missiles or lasers that could destroy or disable U.S. satellites, to jamming and other cyber interference and attacks in space, said Pentagon officials. China has invested heavily in its space program, with a crewed orbiting station, developing ground-based missiles and lasers as well as more surveillance capabilities. This is part of its broader military aims of denying adversaries access to space-based assets.
China is “testing on-orbit satellite systems which could be weaponized as they have already shown the capability to physically control and move other satellites,” Gen.
chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force, told a congressional hearing this month.
“There’s nothing we can do in space that’s of any value if the networks that process the information and data are vulnerable to attack,” Gen. Saltzman said.
A central part of the Space Force’s next tranche of military contracts for rocket launches is protecting them from attacks by China and other adversaries. The hope is to make satellites tougher to approach by adversaries’ equipment as well as less susceptible to lasers and jamming from space or the ground, said Space Force leaders.
“The physics of the domain provide quite a lot of opportunities to be sneaky and elusive,” said Even Rogers, a former Air Force officer who helped write the service’s initial doctrine for warfighting in space.
In the Ukraine conflict, Russia has expressed its willingness to target space assets, including commercial communications systems, adding to the U.S. urgency of developing warfighting tactics. Russia has previously destroyed one of its own satellites with a ground-launched missile. The U.S. has said any attack on commercial satellites would be met with an appropriate response.
The Pentagon is moving away from a small number of school bus-size satellites to a planned constellation of hundreds of smaller ones. The larger number of targets makes any one satellite less crucial to the network but also requires changes in the capabilities of the satellites themselves, the rockets that put them into orbit and the communications systems they host.
“There are things I can do in space to make the other guy’s job hard,” said
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Mr. Rogers, the former Air Force officer, said he became frustrated with the pace of development of the service. In 2022, he started True Anomaly LLC, a technology company that has built two small satellites due to be launched in October on a SpaceX rocket. He said the plan is to develop the skills to maneuver spacecraft—called Jackals—and practice taking them in and out of harm’s way. “The Space Force doesn’t have the blocking and tackling necessary for space conflict,” Mr. Rogers said.
Gen. Saltzman acknowledges the Space Force needs more training, which is why the latest budget request includes $340 million for simulators and other facilities for Guardians to test skills such as maneuvering objects in space.
Honing skills to move spacecraft in and out of harm’s way and test jamming and other capabilities is viewed by the Space Force as the best form of deterrence. “I’ll have the ability to test out these ideas to see [what] works,” Gen. Saltzman told reporters earlier this month. “I think I can set the conditions that make any attack into space impractical.”