Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday announced the Trump administration is laying the groundwork a new Space Force and eventually a separate military branch, dedicated to space.
While the merits of a new organization are debatable, U.S. national security space systems are vulnerable to a wide array of threats, ranging from cyberattacks and jamming to anti-satellite missiles, according to a Center for Strategic and International Studies report published earlier this year. Russia and China, and to a lesser degree North Korea and Iran, are all threatening America’s military through its dependence on space.
“Given our dependence and that of our allies and partners on space, the loss of critical assets today could prove decisive to our ability to monitor critical events like missile launches or nuclear tests, or to successfully prosecute a military campaign,” retired Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, the former chief of U.S. Strategic Command, said in the forward to the report. “Urgent action is needed.”
Here are four of the space threats that a dedicated service branch might address:
1) Kinetic physical weapons. Satellites are vulnerable to objects that can be launched into space to take them out (like ballistic missiles) or a satellite that can be placed in orbit and intentionally maneuvered into another satellite’s path. Ground stations can be attacked by conventional military weapons or disrupted through an attack on the power grid.
China, as Pence mentioned Thursday, destroyed one of its own satellites in low-Earth orbit in 2007 and has since developed a capability likely able to destroy geosynchronous satellites. Russia is reportedly reviving Cold War-era efforts to develop missiles that target satellites and weapons that can maneuver close to satellites to damage or destroy them. (Both Iran and North Korea could modify missiles for a crude anti-satellite capability.)
2) Non-kinetic physical weapons. Lasers, high-powered microwaves and electromagnetic pulse weapons — like a nuclear detonation in space — can have physical effects on satellites and ground stations without making physical contact with them. Lasers can also be used to temporarily dazzle or permanently blind mission-critical sensors on satellites, while high-powered microwave weapons, best deployed from another high-flying platform, can disrupt or permanently damage a satellite’s electronics.
Pence called out Russia’s work to develop an airborne laser that would be able to destroy space-based systems, but China is believed to already have much of the technology necessary to field an operational capability to dazzle or blind a satellite. And last year, Chinese media celebrated the development of a shipboard, miniaturized microwave weapon that could evolve into an orbital anti-satellite system. In 2011, the Christian Science Monitor quoted an unnamed European intelligence source stating that Iran managed to “blind” a U.S. satellite by “aiming a laser burst quite accurately” — sparking speculation it obtained the technology from Russia or China.