The Air Force—with mounting urgency—is seeking new ways to protect and preserve the nation’s assets in space. In the minds of senior service leaders, it’s no longer a question of whether the so-called “Space Control” mission is necessary, only how soon it will have to be performed.
Air Force leaders have set a near- term goal of increasing the service’s awareness of what’s happening in space at any given moment. This will enable it to know whether a spacecraft is, in fact, under attack. At the same time, the service has begun planning to field defensive and offensive space systems to protect US satellites against an enemy assault and to disable those of an adversary.
Given American dependence on its space assets, Air Force leaders believe, space defenses are necessary.
“Our adversaries have taken note of the asymmetric advantage that we have in space today,” said Peter B. Teets, undersecretary of the Air Force and the Pentagon’s space “czar.” In addition to coordinating the space functions of all the services, he is also the director of the National Reconnaissance Office. “The success of our networking ability in the field, the success of our getting actionable intelligence information to the warfighters hasn’t gone unnoticed. Our adversaries are certainly thinking about how they could exploit whatever vulnerability we might have.”
Such an attempt took place during the second Gulf War, when Iraqi troops tried to jam Global Positioning System satellite signals used to guide US precision munitions to their targets. It didn’t work—the weapons used to destroy the jammers were themselves GPS-guided—but the attempt was a taste of things to come.
Air Force leaders have already moved to strengthen the GPS signal and make it more jam resistant. They worry that smarter adversaries with more technological know-how might be successful.
Current military dependence on space is great and still growing. In Iraq, US forces counted on space systems to underwrite the functions of communication, navigation, weather forecasting, targeting, and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance functions—all critical to the speed and precision of the US operation. Satellites provided reachback capabilities that greatly reduced the number of support personnel needed to deploy into the theater of operations. Precise command and control—exercised through space assets—led to the toppling of the Iraqi regime by a force far smaller than many thought possible.
Such a swift and decisive operation would have been unthinkable without space-based resources.
The ability to enhance a force’s speed, precision, and lethality through global networking is the main underpinning of the Pentagon’s transformation strategy. The future military will be even more dependent on space than it is today.
Beyond the military aspects, the US depends on space-based resources that provide high-speed data and voice communications, navigation, weather data, and other capabilities. These systems represent hundreds of billion of dollars worth of investment and play a significant role in the national economy. Such national resources must be protected.
More and more countries can acquire their own space systems or purchase access to space through the commercial launch services of numerous other countries. That constitutes a mounting threat, said Teets.
“As time goes by, more and more nations will become spacefaring nations,” he said, emphasizing, “We need to ensure our freedom to operate in space.”
Knowing the Playing Field
The potential vulnerability of US space assets makes it “important for us now to focus some attention on this whole space control arena,” Teets said. “We have been focusing attention, first of all, on space situational awareness.”
The US maintains a catalog—“the ephemeris”—of the 10,000 or so mostly man-made objects now orbiting the Earth, said Teets, but “we really don’t know as much about those objects as we would like to.”
Air Force Space Command tracks the objects, ranging from active and inactive satellites to asteroids to spent boosters and what Teets called “relics” of the space age. The command keeps tabs on these objects both to prevent collisions between spacecraft and to highlight any that behave unexpectedly and could pose a threat.
The Air Force currently tracks these objects by means of ground-based sensors—mainly telescopes and radars, which collectively are called the Space Surveillance Network (SSN).
The telescopes offer good resolution on objects in low Earth orbit—at altitudes of about 500 miles—but they are far less useful for imaging objects in geosynchronous orbit—about 23,000 miles above Earth. They are also limited by the weather. A huge radar complex called the Navy Fence (now under Air Force control) can spot objects as small as 12 inches in the “geo belt,” but it, like other radars, doesn’t offer visual data. Another drawback for ground-based sensors is that they lose track of objects that move temporarily out of view. That leaves information voids to be filled.
“We find that space situation awareness is by far the top priority” in the space control arena, said Col. Susan J. Helms, former chief of requirements at Air Force Space Command’s Space Control Division and now vice commander of the 45th Space Wing, Patrick AFB, Fla. “It’s very difficult to take defensive action ... unless you have a very sound information base on which to act.”
USAF has proposed three different steps to improve space situational awareness, said Helms. The first is the Space Based Space Surveillance System (SBSS), an orbiting telescope that will be able to fix its optical eye on objects in the geo belt, affording far better views than ever before possible.
“We’re just in the early phases of that,” Teets said, “but that will be a dramatic improvement. That will give us some capability to really start to identify what these space objects are.” Today, many of the objects merely have a catalog number with no other identification available.
Helms explained that the US must “go to space” to be able to watch objects in the geo belt “doing maneuvers within a time that is militarily significant.” She said SBSS is an optical sensor that is “no longer Earthbound,” and, consequently, it can “revisit space objects on a much more frequent basis.” SBSS will be able to monitor objects without regard to weather or other ground-based limitations, said Helms, and “detect space maneuvers that we were not anticipating.”
Under current concepts, SBSS would orbit Earth every 90 minutes.If a space object were to break up, said Helms, “we would be able to get a much better feel for the number of pieces and the debris field in a much more timely fashion.”
AFSPC’s Space and Missile Systems Center Los Angeles AFB, Calif., expects to have a preliminary “pathfinder” system ready for launch in 2007. The current SBSS concept calls for USAF to field a full system of four to eight satellites around 2012-13.
The second situational awareness system in the pipeline is the Orbital Deep-Space Imager. This, too, will be a telescope system, but it will be a “drifter.” It will continuously move around the geo belt and take pictures of objects of interest, whether US or foreign.
The imager would be used, for instance, to get “up close and personal information” on any US satellite that might have been damaged, for whatever reason, said Helms.
A vexing problem of defensive counterspace is the need to determine whether a problem is the result of natural phenomena or an attack, she noted. Solar flares, fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field, cosmic rays, and other space events can affect a satellite’s systems. An attack could come in the form of a laser beam fired from another satellite or a burst of artificially generated electromagnetic energy.
“The way you can tell is to collect information from a variety of sources, and do ... the detective work in a timely manner and arrive at what would appear to be the only answer,” Helms explained.
The satellite may be “smart enough” to say that it is under attack, Helms said. If not, there may be clues in the flow of data from the vehicle that help determine whether it’s the victim of space weather or a man-made attack.
This information is paired with “what the space weather team is telling you” about natural phenomena going on and whether other satellites in the area are having similar problems. If they are, the culprit is likely the space weather. If not, “and if that trouble began over a certain part of the world, well, that points to a different solution,” Helms noted.
A third element in USAF’s situational awareness approach would aid the attempt to differentiate between natural phenomena and a man-made attack but it is also “characterized as a defensive counterspace program,” she said. It is called Rapid Attack Identification, Detection, and Reporting System (RAIDRS).
The system is not a separate spacecraft. Rather, it is a program to develop “decision-making tools specifically for the goal of recognizing an attack on a satellite,” said Helms. RAIDRS would be integrated on an existing satellite or those in development to provide “extra artificial intelligence elements” to the data available to the satellite controller, she explained. USAF plans to have the capability ready in 2007.
While working on these new space- based systems, the Air Force will upgrade the ground-based portions of its Space Surveillance Network. For instance, the Ground-based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance system—a set of telescopes that watch starfields and look for objects moving within them—will be upgraded to digitally enhance what the telescopes see and improve their data overlay with other sensors.
USAF has not yet decided whether to upgrade the Navy Fence. The Air Force took over the Fence in 2000, along with an annual operating cost of $33.5 million.
Currently, USAF is considering an upgrade valued at $333 million, but the funds would have to come from programs elsewhere within the Air Force.
Just before handing over the program, the Navy awarded a contract that would have enhanced the system to see objects as small as two inches in size. The Air Force deferred the upgrade, which it would have to fund, until it finalizes plans for the entire space surveillance network.
The Air Force not only is becoming more aware of what’s happening in orbit, but also is providing physical protection of satellites and ground elements.
Military satellite communications (MILSATCOM) systems are so crucial that many of the satellites in the MILSATCOM fleet already have some “hardening” against electromagnetic pulse and other antisatellite measures.
Helms said that all new satellite programs go through a series of assessments that determine their importance, vulnerability to attack, and impact if they were lost. This provides a context for determining whether it makes sense to add weight to armor the satellite or otherwise provide for its self-defense.
Overall, Teets said, the anticipated vulnerability of satellites to space threats has not spurred a radical shift of design toward small microsatellites or large, heavy spacecraft. It is more a matter of function.
The Space Based Radar, for example, will be “an important sensor that will provide very valuable information to the warfighter and therefore could be subject to attack,” said Teets. In planning SBR, the Air Force has asked for a “broad range of alternative concepts,” including operating procedures and different orbits, explained Teets.
The SBR might be safer at medium Earth orbit, where it will be out of reach for many current rocket-launching countries; however, putting SBR at that altitude would require more power and greater antenna size to avoid reducing resolution. The better option, said Teets, might be to place more SBRs in low Earth orbit—with some countermeasures—knowing they would be somewhat more vulnerable. “We’re trying to run through those trade-offs right now,” he said.
Ground stations—the key link between satellites and command centers—have become the subject of extensive vulnerability assessments, said Teets.
“We’ve done a serious investigation of it, and so I think we know where our vulnerabilities lie,” he said. The Air Force is looking at “a wide range of corrective measures” to address those weaknesses.
Taking the Offense
For the Air Force, “denial of an adversary’s access to space services” has become a pivotal capability needed to fulfill DOD’s transformation goals.
In its transformation flight plan, released in February, USAF lists two “key unclassified” offensive counterspace programs designed to achieve space superiority:
Counter Communications System (CCS)—a near-term ground-based, mobile system to disrupt enemy satellite communications.
Counter Surveillance and Reconnaissance System (CSRS), a near-term ground-based, mobile system able to disrupt and degrade enemy space-based surveillance and reconnaissance systems.
Space Command’s “Strategic Master Plan: FY 2006 and Beyond,” released last fall, lists one other concept, a Counter Navigation System that will deny an adversary use of satellite navigation signals. It is slated for fielding by 2017.
According to Teets, the first CCS, also known as Counter Comm, was fielded earlier this year with the 76th Space Control Squadron, Peterson AFB, Colo. Teets told Congress in February that the Air Force plans to deliver two more systems in Fiscal 2005 and “then will begin work on the next generation.”
Teets said the goal for initial operational capability for the CSRS is Fiscal 2009. In April, Lt. Gen. Brian A. Arnold, SMC commander, told reporters that the system is headed toward a program definition review in July.
Each of these new systems, said officials, complies with an Air Force policy that target satellites be temporarily disabled, not permanently destroyed. The systems will create what is termed “reversible” effects.
The Air Force is looking to the long-term, as well, and expects that the threat to its space systems will be substantially more advanced in the next 15 to 20 years. For that time period, Helms said, “escort satellites” have been brought up as a concept that is “worthy of investigation.”
Such vehicles would stand by in the vicinity of crucial ISR satellites and could be directed from the ground to intercept any threatening vehicle that tries to approach.
Industry officials who have looked at such concepts said they range from “kill vehicles”—in which the whole satellite steers to a collision with an attacking object—up to “space battlewagons” that can launch interceptor rockets or fire destructive lasers at attacking objects.
Teets declared that the Air Force isn’t ruling out anything. At present, it is conducting a review of “a wide range of corrective measures to decrease our vulnerabilities.” He did say, however, that the service prefers in the short run to pursue nondestructive means of neutralizing threats. He called it “our main thrust.” In explanation, Teets notes that an enemy may be using another country’s commercial space asset. Outright destruction of the third party’s satellite likely would severely strain the US relationship with that country, whereas temporarily disabling the satellite might not. However, Teets said, “As time goes on and you start to look to the future, it’s certainly wise for us to be keeping our thought processes open” to other approaches.
The Air Force has looked at destructive space-based lasers, but Teets said, “I think space-based weapons themselves are still out there in the relatively distant future.”
Even now, however, critics predict that the Air Force’s approach to space control will ramp up a new arms race in space and break treaties. USAF insists none of its programs violate standing agreements.
“Treaty restrictions are not really in question,” Teets said. “The Outer Space Treaty says that you will not put nuclear weapons or any weapon of mass destruction on a celestial body or ... in orbit around the Earth. And we have no plans to do that.”
On the other hand, said Teets, the US must “be able to fend off attacks.” He continued, “The whole idea of knowing whether or not you are under attack is a fair subject for us to be addressing.”
The space czar’s own assessment is that the threat of physical attack from other countries is “a few years out,” but he believes the capability to defend against such an attack should be in hand before then.
“In the next few years, we need to be able to deal with that kind of threat,” said Teets. He gave a disturbing example of why the new space awareness tools are needed as soon as possible.
In mid-April, he said that the Air Force had recently discovered that a Defense Meteorological Satellite Program spacecraft had broken into six pieces. “That’s a little unsettling, actually,” said Teets. “This is not an active satellite, it’s a satellite that was launched a good number of years ago and is currently dormant, but, candidly, this is not an event we’ve [ever] witnessed before, and DMSP has been around for a long, long time.”
That event highlights the need for space situational awareness, he said.
“We need to know more, sooner, about what’s happening up there. And it’s hard work.”
The next Daily Report will be Tuesday, Feb. 19, due to the Presidents Day holiday.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag