Magazine article National Defense


Magazine article National Defense


Article excerpt

It has been called both an Achilles' heel and the ultimate high ground for the U.S. military.

Space might be the final frontier for exploration, but the millions of square miles that extend from just beyond the Earth's atmosphere to geostationary orbit some 23,000 miles outwards will be a battle zone in any future conflict involving peer or near-peer competitors, experts and officials have said.

"No one would win a conflict that extended into space, but given how dependent modern life is on space - for the Air Force, Department of Defense and our allies, we will defend that way of life if threatened," Winston Beauchamp, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space, and director of the principal Defense Department space advisor staff, said at a recent Air Force Association conference.

Rear Adm. Brian Brown, deputy commander of the joint functional component command for space at U.S. Strategic Command, said: "What I am most concerned about is miscalculation in this area, because miscalculation leads very fast to unintended consequences. And that's the part that worries me the most."

Statements from the U.S. military have evolved over the last decade from acknowledgments that space had become more "congested, contested and competitive" to more martial rhetoric that is designed to send messages of deterrence to potential adversaries.

The fact that any major future conflict will extend into space should not be surprising since so many systems here on Earth depend on space-based applications. The U.S. military and intelligence community rely on space-based platforms to provide them with communications, precision guidance and navigation, reconnaissance and surveillance.

And increasingly, so do potential space-faring adversaries such as China and Russia. As they become more dependent on their space systems, they too are vulnerable.

Brien Alkire, senior researcher and professor at Santa Monica, California-based RAND Corp., said, "Of course, U.S. dependence on space will vary with the particular security concern. I think the same is true for our competitors. Their dependence may grow as the sophistication of their military capabilities increases."

Much of the U.S. offensive and some of the defensive technologies being developed for future conflict in space are classified. What is happening in China and Russia, and some of the lesser space-faring nations such as Iran and North Korea, is even more opaque. But a space race is seemingly on.

"In every other domain, we are seeing new weapon systems come up, then counters to that weapon system," Brown said. "It's the same in space, but the domain is a lot farther away." U.S. space agencies need to understand what is happening in space, what a weapon can do and its intentions and attributions, he added.

Beauchamp said this new reality of a contested space environment will call for updated ways of carrying out missions and a revamped architecture.

Space situational awareness is complicated by long distances and the vastness of this area of operation. The upper atmosphere to geosynchronous orbit - where many stationary satellites are parked - comes to about 8.626 billion square miles to monitor.

And the orbits that spacecraft occupy are becoming increasingly congested. Euroconsult - in its annual 10-year forecast of the satellite market - predicted that 145 new satellites larger than 120 pounds will be launched each year through 2025. When small satellites, known as cubesats are included, the total comes to some 9,000 new orbiters over the next 10 years. To put this growth in perspective, there were only 1,450 new satellites launched over the previous decade.

"The proportion of military satellites in relation to other satellites is going to go down," said Brian Weeden, technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, a Broomfield, Colorado-based think tank that focuses on space issues. "That is a big change." Even if a low-end estimate of 4,000 new spacecraft on orbit over the next decade is closer to reality, that still means space will be more crowded than ever, he said. …

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