Spaceplanes bristling with weaponry, satellites that capture “space architecture,” directed-energy lasers and electromagnetic shockwaves designed to instantly blind global communications, and missile-test debris fields menacing the congested and contested orbital paths that strap the planet.
These are not highlights from an upcoming Sci-Fi Channel TV series but could be part of a History Channel documentary since all of the above has already happened in all of the above—that is, from the blue sky all the way above into the black of Earth’s near-space.
Space may be the final frontier, but it is now the first theater of war, as demonstrated by Russia’s cyber-blinding of Ukraine and other European nations’ GPS satellite networks before launching its February 2022 invasion.
Within the United States military, there are two entities primarily engaged in defending the nation’s interests in space—which include 8,225 satellites in low-Earth orbit and nearly 1,000 in geosynchronous orbit (GEO)—in a shared “area of responsibility” that begins 62 miles above the planet.
The 18,000-member United States Space Command, a unified all-service command under the Department of Defense (DOD), and the 8,600-member United States Space Force, the eighth U.S. military branch established in December 2019, are the nation’s space-keepers.
Space Command and Space Force are charged with ensuring the security of global satellite communications, “space domain awareness,” offensive and defensive “space control effects,” and digital positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) services that are all critical for military command-and-control operations in outer space and on Earth.
The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee has been meeting since early March with Space Command and Space Force commanders—as it will with many military officials through June to ferret through the DOD’s $886.3 billion Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24) budget request—to discuss threats in space and what they need to combat them.
Space Command Gen. James Dickinson testified on March 6 before the committee regarding, among other things, the Pentagon’s $33.3 billion request to develop “resilient space architecture” and improve its space command-and-control capabilities.
On March 14, Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman testified before the committee about its $30 billion FY24 budget request, a $5.5 billion increase from what Congress approved this year.
These investments are urgently needed, Saltzman said, because the U.S. “relies heavily on assurance that its space capabilities will be there” in a military confrontation, which makes it vulnerable to bad actors aware of the reliance and training and equipping to take advantage of it.
“The Chinese and the Russians have gone to school on us,” he said. “They’re prepared to put us behind the eight ball” instantly in any military confrontation.
Both nations are heavily invested in “counter-space capabilities” that include a range of weapons they have tested and, in some cases, deployed that could hold global communications assets at risk, he said.
Dickson, in his appearance before the panel, outlined several significant “counter-space” weapons developments by the Chinese and Russians.
The People’s Republic of China has developed armed spaceships that can glide in low-Earth orbit and knock out satellites, and in 2021 it conducted a first “fractional orbital launch” of a ballistic missile in a hypersonic glide vehicle that could enable it to rapidly launch weapons from space to the ground.
Russia Practices Destroying Satellites
Russia, in November 2021, conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test that “foreshadows the future of warfare” in space that it has already invested extensively in, Saltzman confirmed during his turn before senators.
That operational comfort in space by Russia was on clear display when it invaded Ukraine, not in blinding “enemy” communication systems but in threatening to do so globally in “retaliation” against commercial satellites Ukraine is tapping into.
Russia’s advances in electronic warfare and in directed energy weapons are all designed to cripple an enemy in space as the opening salvo in any conflict, Saltzman said.
“Space is a force modifier and they want to attack it” and will do so first with cyber-attacks on ground stations, making “the ground also part of space,” he said.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) said, “They say war with China will begin in space,” and asked Saltzman if he agrees with what, “they say.”
He does, he said, because war is already being waged in space, which makes Space Force’s first mission the “avoidance of operational surprise” by a bad actor.
The best defense in space will be a common defense built on an alliance of “like-minded nations” that want to co-exist in space peacefully for commercial development, Saltzman said.
The United States is spearheading a global attempt “to establish norms of responsible behavior” to guide how nations conduct business in space, he said, noting the DOD has published a proposed ‘Tenets of Space Behavior’ and the United States has signed onto the seven-nation Coalition Space Operations Initiative that recognizes “we have to behave a certain way if we want a safe, sustainable space domain.”
China, Russia—and increasingly North Korea and Iran— “aren’t interested in this” effort, Saltzman said. “Unfortunately, the norms they are talking about are not the ones we support, and they don’t like the norms we support.”