by Richard Nghiem
Image: Jared. 2015, digital image. Available from: Flickr
When President Trump officially announced the creation of the United States Space Force, many experts and officials in Washington D.C., along with the US population, scoffed at the idea. What security threats or weapons were there in space? What was the need for such a force? Was the President just seeking fame by trying to make the iconic movie, Star Wars, a reality? These pointed questions were common as general public saw this new separate branch as yet another example of unnecessary defence bureaucracy and spending. However, unknown to many Americans and even some politicians, space is no longer the demilitarized safe haven it was during the Cold War.
In recent decades, hostile actors such as China, Russia, and North Korea have been deploying weapons beyond Earth’s atmosphere, raising the prospect of war in space considerably. This danger is by far the greatest security threat to the United States and indisputably warrants the creation of an independent, specialized Space Force to defend America’s critical space assets. In fact, it can be strongly argued that the US Department of Defence needs to have an even greater sense of urgency in this domain and start deploying more offensive weapons as no country in the world more heavily depends on space for its military capabilities, societal functions, infrastructure, and economy than America. Without satellites, millions of television screens across the US would go blank, mobile networks silent, digital communications dead, and gas pumps severely disrupted. In addition, with the loss of GPS space assets and their time stamps, financial stock markets, ATM and bank transactions, traffic lights, and railroad switches would freeze while airplane pilots would have no communication with ground control and no functional navigation systems. Control systems for critical power grids, water plants, and transportation hubs would also fail. Militarily, the US would have no contact with their armed drones around the world. “Smart” munitions would be rendered “dumb”. Nuclear missiles would sit immobile in their silos while NORAD could lose early warning of incoming nuclear attacks from certain parts of the world. Also, military recbonnasaince capabilities would be severely crippled.
Consequently, China, Russia, and to a lesser degree, North Korea, are trying to exploit this “Achilles” heel to the fullest extent and have heavily invested in anti-satellite and space warfare weapons. Russia, for example, has constructed and positioned “kamikaze” satellites, which are designed to maneuver up close to enemy satellites and disable or destroy them by crashing into them, near US military space assets. These same “stalker” satellites can also circle around and cozy up close to American communication satellites to eavesdrop on communications and sensitive military information. Another effective space weapon is China’s “kidnaper” satellite, the “Shiyan”, which is equipped with a robotic arm that can grab, “kidnap” or push American space assets right out of orbit and maneuver them out of their combat mission courses. North Korea has also entered the space arms race. Many space security experts suspect that it has already fielded a low Earth orbit space asset, equipped with a EMP weapon payload, that is capable of overloading or disrupting, over a large area, numerous electrical systems and microcircuits in communications, vital infrastructure, and equipment used by the American public and the US military.
However, anti-satellite weapons can also be found back on Earth. Directed energy weapons such as lasers are already in service in the Chinese and Russian militaries with the ability to temporarily blind or fry satellite sensors and cameras. Furthermore, both countries possess the cyber, signal-jamming, and anti-satellite missile capabilities necessary to eliminate US space assets or render them useless. With all of these new weapons already operational, the prospect of war in space is truly terrifying.
Given its enormous reliance on space for its military, economy, and society, and the vulnerability of its satellites, America needs a greater sense of urgency in this vital domain. While it is undoubtedly important for the US Space Force to keep on safeguarding America’s satellites from attack, it must be able to go on the offensive as well. To truly prevent adversaries from contemplating space combat operations against it, the United States needs the weaponry required to decisively demonstrate that there will be catastrophic consequences and repercussions in the case of any attack.
Therefore, America must significantly accelerate its program of deploying laser weapon systems and construct more reusable, highly maneuverable space drones (X-37Bs). These spacecraft are capable of carrying large EMP weapon payloads and staying in orbit for hundreds of days. The US must also increase its production of anti-satellite missiles along with anti-satellite jammers. Not only that, new weapons, disguised as space debris removal spacecrafts, should also be developed and deployed to be able to cripple operational enemy satellites. These vehicles can do this by attaching themselves to working hostile space assets and then breaking their antennae, destroying their solar panels, and destroying their fuel tanks, thus rendering them useless. Other new offensive assets that the US should think of designing, procuring, and fielding include its own “kamikaze” spacecraft as well as military satellites that are armed with lasers to destroy their hostile counterparts.
Lastly, but most importantly, America should invest more in its air-launch-to-orbit capabilities, revive NASA’s space shuttle program, and exploit the efficiency of private aerospace companies such as SpaceX as well as the spaceports and rockets of other allied countries to greatly enhance its space launch capacity. This will allow America to more quickly deploy reconnaissance assets and weapons into space along with large constellations of “guardian” satellites and “cubesats”. These numerous, dispersed, and stealthy small satellites can intercept enemy space weapons before they can destroy US GPS or communications satellites, and create multiple redundancies for critical space networks in the case of a massive surprise attack.
However, even if the United States achieves all of the above and more, Russia and China will still continue to make rapid advances in their technologies as well, making victory an uncertain outcome. With many senior US military commanders adamantly convinced that the next world war or major conflict will be one that extends beyond the confines of Earth, it is time for politicians, scholars, and citizens to fully recognize that a new Cold War in space is upon us and the stakes could not be any higher. How the United States responds to these new threats will not only determine its security, but also who will win the great power competition of the 21st century, and if America can retain its status as the world’s sole superpower.