A Costly and Devastating War in Space May Be Closer Than Ever
October 3, 2016
Lee Billings / Scientific American & Robert Beckhusen / War Is Boring & Vice.com
The world's most worrisome military flashpoint is arguably not in the Strait of Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, Iran, Israel, Kashmir or Ukraine. In fact, it cannot be located on any map of Earth, even though it is very easy to find. To see it, just look up into a clear sky, to the no-man's-land of Earth orbit, where a conflict is unfolding that is an arms race in all but name. Space has become the ultimate high ground, with the US as the undisputed "King of the Hill."
War in Space May Be Closer Than Ever
China, Russia and the US are developing and testing controversial new capabilities to wage war in space despite their denial of such work
Lee Billings / Scientific American
(August 10, 2015) -- The world's most worrisome military flashpoint is arguably not in the Strait of Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, Iran, Israel, Kashmir or Ukraine. In fact, it cannot be located on any map of Earth, even though it is very easy to find. To see it, just look up into a clear sky, to the no-man's-land of Earth orbit, where a conflict is unfolding that is an arms race in all but name.
The emptiness of outer space might be the last place you'd expect militaries to vie over contested territory, except that outer space isn't so empty anymore. About 1,300 active satellites wreathe the globe in a crowded nest of orbits, providing worldwide communications, GPS navigation, weather forecasting and planetary surveillance.
For militaries that rely on some of those satellites for modern warfare, space has become the ultimate high ground, with the US as the undisputed king of the hill. Now, as China and Russia aggressively seek to challenge US superiority in space with ambitious military space programs of their own, the power struggle risks sparking a conflict that could cripple the entire planet's space-based infrastructure. And though it might begin in space, such a conflict could easily ignite full-blown war on Earth.
The long-simmering tensions are now approaching a boiling point due to several events, including recent and ongoing tests of possible anti-satellite weapons by China and Russia, as well as last month's failure of tension-easing talks at the United Nations.
Testifying before Congress earlier this year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper echoed the concerns held by many senior government officials about the growing threat to US satellites, saying that China and Russia are both "developing capabilities to deny access in a conflict," such as those that might erupt over China's military activities in the South China Sea or Russia's in Ukraine.
China in particular, Clapper said, has demonstrated "the need to interfere with, damage and destroy" US satellites, referring to a series of Chinese anti-satellite missile tests that began in 2007.
There are many ways to disable or destroy satellites beyond provocatively blowing them up with missiles. A spacecraft could simply approach a satellite and spray paint over its optics, or manually snap off its communications antennas, or destabilize its orbit.
Lasers can be used to temporarily disable or permanently damage a satellite's components, particularly its delicate sensors, and radio or microwaves can jam or hijack transmissions to or from ground controllers.
In response to these possible threats, the Obama administration has budgeted at least $5 billion to be spent over the next five years to enhance both the defensive and offensive capabilities of the US military space program.
The US is also attempting to tackle the problem through diplomacy, although with minimal success; in late July at the United Nations, long-awaited discussions stalled on a European Union-drafted code of conduct for spacefaring nations due to opposition from Russia, China and several other countries including Brazil, India, South Africa and Iran.
The failure has placed diplomatic solutions for the growing threat in limbo, likely leading to years of further debate within the UN's General Assembly.
"The bottom line is the United States does not want conflict in outer space," says Frank Rose, assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, who has led American diplomatic efforts to prevent a space arms race. The US, he says, is willing to work with Russia and China to keep space secure. "But let me make it very clear: we will defend our space assets if attacked."
Offensive Space Weapons Tested
The prospect of war in space is not new. Fearing Soviet nuclear weapons launched from orbit, the US began testing anti-satellite weaponry in the late 1950s. It even tested nuclear bombs in space before orbital weapons of mass destruction were banned through the United Nations' Outer Space Treaty of 1967.
After the ban, space-based surveillance became a crucial component of the Cold War, with satellites serving as one part of elaborate early-warning systems on alert for the deployment or launch of ground-based nuclear weapons.
Throughout most of the Cold War, the USSR developed and tested "space mines," self-detonating spacecraft that could seek and destroy US spy satellites by peppering them with shrapnel. In the 1980s, the militarization of space peaked with the Reagan administration's multibillion-dollar Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed Star Wars, to develop orbital countermeasures against Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles.
And in 1985, the US Air Force staged a clear demonstration of its formidable capabilities, when an F-15 fighter jet launched a missile that took out a failing US satellite in low-Earth orbit.
Through it all, no full-blown arms race or direct conflicts erupted. According to Michael Krepon, an arms-control expert and co-founder of the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, D.C., that was because both the US and USS.R. realized how vulnerable their satellites were -- particularly the ones in "geosynchronous" orbits of about 35,000 kilometers or more.
Such satellites effectively hover over one spot on the planet, making them sitting ducks. But because any hostile action against those satellites could easily escalate to a full nuclear exchange on Earth, both superpowers backed down. "Neither one of us signed a treaty about this," Krepon says. "We just independently came to the conclusion that our security would be worse off if we went after those satellites, because if one of us did it, then the other guy would, too."
Today, the situation is much more complicated. Low- and high-Earth orbits have become hotbeds of scientific and commercial activity, filled with hundreds upon hundreds of satellites from about 60 different nations.
Despite their largely peaceful purposes, each and every satellite is at risk, in part because not all members of the growing club of military space powers are willing to play by the same rules -- and they don't have to, because the rules remain as yet unwritten.
Space junk is the greatest threat. Satellites race through space at very high velocities, so the quickest, dirtiest way to kill one is to simply launch something into space to get in its way.
Even the impact of an object as small and low-tech as a marble can disable or entirely destroy a billion-dollar satellite. And if a nation uses such a "kinetic" method to destroy an adversary's satellite, it can easily create even more dangerous debris, potentially cascading into a chain reaction that transforms Earth orbit into a demolition derby.
In 2007 the risks from debris skyrocketed when China launched a missile that destroyed one of its own weather satellites in low-Earth orbit. That test generated a swarm of long-lived shrapnel that constitutes nearly one-sixth of all the radar-trackable debris in orbit.
The US responded in kind in 2008, repurposing a ship-launched anti-ballistic missile to shoot down a malfunctioning US military satellite shortly before it tumbled into the atmosphere. That test produced dangerous junk too, though in smaller amounts, and the debris was shorter-lived because it was generated at a much lower altitude.
More recently, China has launched what many experts say are additional tests of ground-based anti-satellite kinetic weapons. None of these subsequent launches have destroyed satellites, but Krepon and other experts say this is because the Chinese are now merely testing to miss, rather than to hit, with the same hostile capability as an end result.
The latest test occurred on July 23 of last year. Chinese officials insist the tests' only purpose is peaceful missile defense and scientific experimentation. But one test in May 2013 sent a missile soaring as high as 30,000 kilometers above Earth, approaching the safe haven of strategic geosynchronous satellites.
That was a wake-up call, says Brian Weeden, a security analyst and former Air Force officer who studied and helped publicize the Chinese test. "The US came to grips decades ago with the fact that its lower orbit satellites could easily be shot down," Weeden says. "Going nearly to geosynchronous made people realize that, holy cow, somebody might actually try to go after the stuff we have up there."
It was no coincidence that shortly after the May 2013 test, the US declassified details of its secret Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP), a planned set of four satellites capable of monitoring the Earth's high orbits and even rendezvousing with other satellites to inspect them up-close. The first two GSSAP spacecraft launched into orbit in July 2014.
"This used to be a black program -- something that didn't even officially exist," Weeden says. "It was declassified to basically send a message saying, 'Hey, if you're doing something funky in and around the geosynchronous belt, we're going to see.'"
An interloper into geosynchronous orbit need not be an explosives-tipped missile to be a security risk -- even sidling up to an adversary's strategic satellites is considered a threat. Which is one reason that potential US adversaries might be alarmed by the rendezvous capabilities of GSSAP and of the US Air Force's highly maneuverable X-37B robotic space planes.
Russia is also developing its own ability to approach, inspect and potentially sabotage or destroy satellites in orbit. Over the past two years, it has included three mysterious payloads in otherwise routine commercial satellite launches, with the latest occurring in March of this year.
Radar observations by the US Air Force and by amateur hobbyists revealed that after each commercial satellite was deployed, an additional small object flew far away from the jettisoned rocket booster, only to later turn around and fly back.
The objects, dubbed Kosmos-2491, -2499 and -2504, might just be part of an innocuous program developing techniques to service and refuel old satellites, Weeden says, though they could also be meant for more sinister intentions.
Treaties Offer Little Assurance
Chinese officials maintain that their military activities in space are simply peaceful science experiments, while Russian officials have stayed mostly mum. Both nations could be seen as simply responding to what they see as the US's clandestine development of potential space weapons.
Indeed, the US's ballistic missile defense systems, its X-37B space planes and even its GSSAP spacecraft, though all ostensibly devoted to maintaining peace, could be easily repurposed into weapons of space war. For years Russia and China have pushed for the ratification of a legally binding United Nations treaty banning space weapons -- a treaty that US officials and outside experts have repeatedly rejected as a disingenuous nonstarter.
"The draft treaty from Russia and China seeks to ban the very things that they are so actively pursuing," Krepon says. "It serves their interests perfectly. They want freedom of action, and they're covering that with this proposal to ban space weapons."
Even if the treaty was being offered in good faith, Krepon says, "it would be dead on arrival" in Congress and would stand no chance of being ratified. After all, the US wants freedom of action in space, too, and in space no other country has more capability -- and thus more to lose.
According to Rose, there are three key problems with the treaty. "One, it's not effectively verifiable, which the Russians and Chinese admit," he says. "You can't detect cheating. Two, it is totally silent on the issue of terrestrial anti-satellite weapons, like the ones that China tested in 2007 and again in July 2014. And third, it does not define what a weapon in outer space is."
As an alternative, the US supports a European-led initiative to establish "norms" for proper behavior through the creation of a voluntary International Code of Conduct for Outer Space. This would be a first step, to be followed by a binding agreement.
A draft of the code -- which Russia and China prevented from being adopted in last month's UN discussions -- calls for more transparency and "confidence-building" between space-faring nations as a way of promoting the "peaceful exploration and use of outer space."
This, it is hoped, can prevent the generation of more debris and the further development of space weapons. However, like the Russian-Chinese treaty, the code does not exactly define what constitutes a "space weapon."
That haziness poses problems for senior defense officials such as General John Hyten, the head of the US Air Force Space Command. "Is our space-based surveillance system that looks out at the heavens and tracks everything in geosynchronous a weapons system?" he asks.
"I think everybody in the world would look at that and say no. But it's maneuverable, it's going 17,000 miles per hour, and it has a sensor on board. It's not a weapon, okay? But would [a treaty's] language ban our ability to do space-based surveillance? I would hope not!"
Is War in Space Inevitable?
Meanwhile, shifts in US policy are giving China and Russia more reasons for further suspicion. Congress has been pressing the US national security community to turn its attentions to the role of offensive rather than defensive capabilities, even dictating that most of the fiscal year 2015 funding for the Pentagon's Space Security and Defense Program go toward "development of offensive space control and active defense strategies and capabilities."
"Offensive space control" is a clear reference to weapons. "Active defense" is much more nebulous, and refers to undefined offensive countermeasures that could be taken against an attacker, further widening the routes by which space might soon become weaponized. If an imminent threat is perceived, a satellite or its operators might preemptively attack via dazzling lasers, jamming microwaves, kinetic bombardment or any other number of possible methods.
"I hope to never fight a war in space," Hyten says. "It's bad for the world. Kinetic [anti-satellite weaponry] is horrible for the world," because of the existential risks debris poses for all satellites. "But if war does extend into space," he says, "we have to have offensive and defensive capabilities to respond with, and Congress has asked us to explore what those capabilities would be. And to me, the one limiting factor is no debris. Whatever you do, don't create debris."
Technology to jam transmissions, for example, appears to underpin the Air Force's Counter Communications System, the US's sole acknowledged offensive capability against satellites in space.
"It's basically a big antenna on a trailer, and how it actually works, what it actually does, nobody knows," Weeden says, noting that, like most space security work, the details of the system are top secret. "All we basically know is that they could use it to somehow jam or maybe even spoof or hack into an adversary's satellites."
For Krepon, the debate over the definitions of space weapons and the saber-rattling between Russia, China and the US is unhelpfully eclipsing the more pressing issue of debris.
"Everyone is talking about purposeful, man-made objects dedicated to warfighting in space, and it's like we are back in the Cold War," Krepon says. "Meanwhile, there are about 20,000 weapons already up there in the form of debris. They're not purposeful -- they're unguided. They're not seeking out enemy satellites. They're just whizzing around, doing what they do."
The space environment, he says, must be protected as a global commons, similar to the Earth's oceans and atmosphere. Space junk is very easy to make and very hard to clean up, so international efforts should focus on preventing its creation.
Beyond the threat of deliberate destruction, the risk of accidental collisions and debris strikes will continue to grow as more nations launch and operate more satellites without rigorous international accountability and oversight. And as the chance of accidents increases, so too does the possibility of their being misinterpreted as deliberate, hostile actions in the high-tension cloak-and-dagger military struggle in space.
"We are in the process of messing up space, and most people don't realize it because we can't see it the way we can see fish kills, algal blooms, or acid rain," he says.
"To avoid trashing Earth orbit, we need a sense of urgency that currently no one has. Maybe we'll get it when we can't get our satellite television and our telecommunications, our global weather reports and hurricane predictions. Maybe when we get knocked back to the 1950s, we'll get it. But by then it will be too late."
Sabrina Imbler contributed reporting.
Russia Is Concerned About America's Far-Off Space Weapons
Robert Beckhusen / War Is Boring & Motherboard at Vice.com
(September 18, 2015) -- In a near-future war, 1,000 missiles scream toward Russia at Mach 20. Each one a pinpoint strike hitting the Kremlin's nuclear missiles, military radars, submarine bases -- you name it.
Within minutes, 80 percent of Russia's nuclear arsenal is destroyed without the United States launching a single nuclear weapon of its own. Russia's military networks are blind, the nation's ability to strike back eliminated or severely degraded.
The incoming missiles were no ordinary weapons, but hypersonic glide vehicles developed largely in secret under the US Prompt Global Strike program. They travel so fast, shooting them down is effectively impossible.
The capability, begun as a Pentagon project in the mid-2000s, was envisioned as allowing America to strike anywhere on the globe nearly instantaneously, without resorting to nukes. In this futuristic war, it succeeds wildly.
To be sure, Prompt Global Strike is real, but the scenario above is fiction. It will take many years, and billions upon billions of dollars, to make it possible. And that's if the technology works.
That scenario is a real fear, however, in the minds of many Russian military officials. Russian military journals regularly feature articles presenting future American hypersonic weapons as an existential threat. Far more significantly, the Pentagon's research -- haphazard as it is -- has provoked a radical restructuring of the Kremlin's armed forces.
Since the early days of the Cold War, Russia -- then the Soviet Union -- and the United States dared not go to war because of the presence of nuclear weapons on both sides. It would be far too dangerous for the planet and human civilization to risk an atomic exchange.
Hypersonic weapons pose a different risk. Namely, that they would make nuclear weapons obsolete. The extremely fast-moving conventional cruise missiles -- and atmospheric reentry vehicles plunging down to Earth from space -- could decapitate an entire nation's command and control structure and nuclear arsenal without leading to Armageddon.
In theory. For hypersonic weapons that travel in ballistic arcs into outer space and back down again, they are indistinguishable from nuclear ICBMs. A nuclear-armed nation would have minutes to decide whether to launch a counter-strike.
The Pentagon's far-out hypersonic weapons have had mixed results. The US Army is working on an endo-atmospheric one called the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon. The first test in 2011 was a success, as the ultra-fast missile flew 2,300 miles from Hawaii to Kwajalein Atoll in 30 minutes. Engineers aborted the second test a few seconds after taking launch.
The Air Force, Boeing and the blue-sky Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have worked on the X-51 Waverider -- a Mach 6 scramjet cruise missile that keeps itself in the air using its own shock waves. Its fourth and most recent test in 2013 was successful. The first three crashed or failed in flight.
Far more radical was DARPA's Falcon Project, a guitar pick-shaped glider boosted into the upper atmosphere on a rocket. From there, the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 would speed along at Mach 20. Two test flights ended prematurely and DARPA ended the program.
"A gradual wearing away of the vehicle's skin as it reached stress tolerance limits was expected," DARPA noted after the second failure. "However, larger than anticipated portions of the vehicle's skin peeled from the aerostructure."
It's all interesting, but far from a deployable weapon. Cue a Russian freak out.
And how. In 2015, Russia replaced its air force with a new branch called the Aerospace Forces specifically aimed at defending against Prompt Global Strike. This new branch merged the old air force together with another service branch called the Aerospace Defense Forces.
It's a little confusing, but the latter included responsibility for space and missile defense. (The new, combined Aerospace Forces has more in common with the US Air Force, sorta.)
The missile defense soldiers, cosmo-troops and the air force are all now reporting to the same command center -- a high-tech, fortified base in Moscow that looks like a cross between Dr. Strangelove's war room and the bridge from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica.
Plus, the Aerospace Forces -- which began operations on August 1 -- is heavily pushing war in space as an answer to Prompt Global Strike. Essentially, knock out the satellites upon which precision weapons depend. The Russian state media has made it explicit.
"It will be a comprehensive system, which will help detect and eliminate targets even at distant approaches," a Russian Defense Ministry official told the Interfax news agency. "It can be viewed as our response to the Prompt Global Strike concept being implemented by the US."
Russia has upgraded its optoelectronic satellite-monitoring station at Okno in Tajikistan. And since 2013, Russia has blasted at least three suspected anti-satellite weapons into orbit, disguised as communications satellites.
"If Russia (or China) acquires the capability to destroy US military satellites in low orbits, this will entail rendering the American army blind and deaf, and precision 'smart' weapons will be turned into scrap metal," Konstantin Dushenov, editor of the nationalist Analytical Information Agency, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
Knock out the satellites, and hypersonic weapons are in trouble. To hit a fixed location, such as a building, the missiles will do fine. But to change direction mid-course and hit a moving target, they need satellites to transmit fresh data.
But the biggest loser of all this might be the Russian air force. In January 2014, Russian news website Vzglyad reported that the air force's "army aviation" assets -- i.e. helicopters and transport planes -- could shift to the army. OE Watch, the monthly journal of the US Army's Foreign Military Studies Office, took note and called it an "organizational demotion."
Pity the poor air force. Pity it more that one of its main jobs is now defending against a far-off hypothetical threat from outer space.
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