Space and Counterspace

June 1, 2006

The Pentagon is hoping it can avoid conflict in space. More than any other nation, the United States is heavily dependent on space assets for all manner of enabling functions, from eye-in-the-sky information about adversaries to communications and navigation. The US has the most to lose if space becomes a battleground.

However, it is this very dependency on space that makes those assets such an attractive target. Already, other countries have, on a few occasions, attempted to damage or jam satellites, and the United States has been the mark of some of those attempts. Though it hopes to avoid an arms race in space, the Pentagon nevertheless has to take some steps to prepare for such a clash.

The 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review once again took up the subject. Compared to the QDR conducted in 2001, the 2005 version was mild in tone. The earlier version—coming on the heels of the 2001 report of the Space Commission—stridently insisted that the US must not only exploit the advantages of the “high ground” of space, but that it also should develop a robust means to deny the use of space assets to any adversary.

The new QDR, released in February, simply noted that Washington must have “unfettered, reliable, and secure” access to its space assets, assured, for now, by “improving space situational awareness and protection, and through other space control measures.”

The Air Force is taking its cue from the QDR, focusing most of its nonclassified efforts at space superiority on systems that will broadly enhance its knowledge of what’s in orbit, as well as its ability to know if American space systems are under attack.

What’s Up There

“We have to know what’s up there,” said Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force Chief of Staff. “We have to continually modernize the early warning systems to know what is up there, what has been added, what are the orbital paths, and what are the opportunities to see.”

This is what the United States must do to avoid “a Pearl Harbor in space,” Moseley observed.

The emphasis remains on space situational awareness, rather than attacks of adversary systems, because, as Moseley noted, “There’s a 1996 convention on military activities in space, and, as you would expect us to do, we actually live within the law and attempt in every way to stay within the policy guidance. So we, in fact, do that.”

The US will certainly develop means “to be able to defend our systems,” he added, to “make them survivable and make them so we know where they are [and] where other systems are relative to them.”

However, there’s not much decided beyond that, he said. “It’s going to take a bit more of a policy discussion to move from defensive counterspace and space situational awareness” into offensive counterspace.

Moseley also noted that it’s still an open discussion as to how space conflict is directed and coordinated. Strategic Command, he said, has the overall responsibility for coordinating space awareness and action, but the Air Force, as the service with the greatest space infrastructure, is the principal provider of space control capabilities to STRATCOM. Still, USAF must be collaborative with the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the other services, and other agencies, both military and civilian.

“There are so many players in this,” Moseley noted, that “you have to … bring people in, you have to continue to demonstrate competence, and continue to work this supporting-and-supported [command] relationship.”

Moseley asserted, though, that space is fundamentally an Air Force mission.

“It’s in my world,” he said. “I got it; now let’s get all these other people together, so we’re not fussing with each other and we can … move down this path together.” He hopes to reduce the number of moving parts in the organization of space control and neck down the number of agencies involved so there aren’t “a lot of people launching systems.”

Maj. Gen. Mark D. Shackelford, director of plans and requirements at Air Force Space Command, said the relationship between MDA, the Air Force, and the other agencies “is still developing.”

Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz, Space Command’s acting commander, said that, as MDA “becomes more space-oriented, which I suspect they’re considering in the future, we will be hand in hand with them through that process, and I suspect they will want us to help them understand what’s going on around their satellites.”

Not Adequate

In March, Klotz told the House Armed Services Committee’s panel on strategic forces that space situational awareness capabilities “are not adequate to counter future threats” and that the Air Force must “know what each new spacecraft is capable of before it is in position to impact our support to the joint warfighter.”

Klotz went on, “We have witnessed attempts to negate [the US space advantage] and understand the need to protect our space systems. Given the opportunity, our adversaries will attempt to exploit any and all weaknesses.”

This sentiment is reflected in the basic USAF doctrine document for counterspace operations, written in 2004. Regarding it, Gen. John P. Jumper, then the Chief of Staff, wrote that “adversaries will target space capabilities in an attempt to deny [our] combat advantage. We must also be prepared to deprive an adversary of the benefits of space capabilities when American interests and lives are at stake.”

Jumper pointed out that space superiority, “like air superiority, cannot be taken for granted.” He declared flatly that “counterspace operations … is one of the Air Force’s air and space power functions.”

The level of US vulnerability in space was validated in a QDR exercise last year, in which it was postulated that a concerted physical and information attack on US satellites took out half the systems. The result was a US military forced to fight in much the same manner as it did in the 1970s, having to rely on mass and attrition instead of precision and speed.

To prevent such a situation, the Air Force is charged with enhancing its space surveillance network, so it can watch the orbits where critical US satellites are and detect anything that changes or becomes threatening. It also is putting into place systems that monitor the health and condition of satellites and their output, watching for indications that the spacecraft are being affected by natural or artificial means and whether this constitutes an attack.

Finally, USAF is looking into the means to disable foreign or commercial systems, to deny an adversary the means to use space against the US.

Some of these systems are space-based, while others are ground-based surveillance or jamming devices.

In the Fiscal 2007 budget request, the Air Force is asking for $47.3 million for counterspace systems and $27.1 million for space control technologies. Together, these requests total $29.7 million more than what was requested for the same programs last year.

Air Force budget documents note that “consistent with DOD policy, the negation efforts of this program currently focus on … technologies which have temporary, localized, and reversible means.”

They Have Issues

There’s good reason for that, according to Col. Ronald A. Grundman, head of AFSPC’s Space Superiority Division.

Destructive antisatellite (ASAT) systems “do come along with some issues,” Grundman said.

“One of them is, they tend to leave a lot of debris in space, which is an important operating area for us. So there’s long been a debate about the advisability of using ASATs for blowing up satellites,” Grundman pointed out.

Even minute scraps of debris in space must be cataloged and tracked, because at orbital speeds, the tiniest paint chip can be a powerful missile if it strikes a spacecraft. Items already being tracked range from large spent booster rockets all the way down to nuts and bolts. Newly launched spacecraft must be carefully steered so they don’t intersect with the orbit of a piece of space junk that could destroy them—a headache that is worsened any time a space object breaks up.

The Air Force is focusing for now on nondestructive, temporary effects in disabling other satellites because some of those it may want to turn off could be those operated by allies, who will want their expensive hardware to be available again after a conflict.

Former AFSPC vice commander Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf (now deputy head of US Pacific Command) told Foreign Policy magazine last August, “You don’t have to be a spacefaring nation to have access to space capabilities. All you need is a credit card, and you can get imagery derived from satellites very readily. That’s a space capability. Nonstate adversaries that are opposing the United States or its allies could access commercial imagery and use it against us.” Some of the targets of counterspace operations could be commercial satellites operated by companies in a friendly nation.

Leaf told Foreign Policy that it’s important to have these nondestructive means available to disable satellites because the US recognizes that “spurring an arms race [in space] will have more negative consequences than we can stand. … We appreciate the dangers of space debris.” However, he added that “it would be foolish to eliminate from our consideration some capabilities that may be necessary in the future.” Leaf asserted that the Air Force’s approach so far has been “very responsible and thoughtful.”

Grundman observed that the debate over whether and when to use destructive antisatellite systems “will probably continue, but we don’t have any programs right now that are funded in that regard.”

For now, the Air Force is focused on the space situational awareness aspect and has a number of programs under way that will sharply increase its knowledge of what’s going on in orbit.

  • Space Fence: Previously known as the Navy Fence, the Air Force took over this program in 2004. (See “Aerospace World: Air Force Takes Over Navy Fence,” December 2004, p. 20.) The Space Fence is an array of dispersed radars that track satellites as they pass over the United States. The Air Force is planning a $275 million upgrade over the next five years that will convert the system to S-band radar, allowing greater search capability and faster revisit times. It also will sharpen the resolution of the radar, so that it can see objects from a current minimum of 12 inches in size down to two inches in size. The radars themselves will be distributed over a wider geographical area, giving a better view of the horizon. They will be able to see beyond low earth orbit (LEO) to medium Earth orbit (MEO). Grundman said the old hardware likely will be retired around 2011, because “it’s reaching some sustainability limits.”
  • Space-Based Surveillance System: Planned to be a constellation of five satellites, the SBSS would operate in in LEO to look at satellites and other objects in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), at about 26,000 miles from the Earth’s surface. SBSS builds on a missile defense experiment launched in 1996 that looked for ballistic missiles using a visible and an infrared sensor. The IR sensor quit after 18 months, but the visible sensor has continued to function, now for almost 10 years, as proof of concept for a space-based sensor. However, Grundman said, “We think it’s probably going to run out of life at any time.” A Block 10 version of the SBSS is to be ready to fly in 2009. It will be a “risk reducer” for the objective system—the remaining four satellites—which should be launched between 2013 and 2014. The SBSS will be a visible-spectrum telescope. It will “help us find things” at GEO and MEO “that we don’t already know about,” Grundman noted, as well as “keep track of things up there that we do know about, and to get more frequent revisit on them.” The SBSS will be able to survey an area of interest “a few times a day as opposed to every few days.”
  • RAIDRS: The Rapid Attack Identification Detection and Reporting System is not a satellite, but a “hybrid architecture” of sensors, comm links, and data processing systems intended to analyze the data from satellites and determine if they are being affected by some external force, Grundman explained. “It’s a data situational awareness system” that analyzes the data received at satellite downlinks. RAIDRS detects electromagnetic interference on satellites; “in other words, it’s looking to see if our commsats are being jammed by others.” Spiral 1 also will be able to pinpoint the source of the jamming. By 2010, full operational capability will be 32 ground-based, deployable RAIDRS with broad capability to analyze radio frequency energy across many bands.Grundman noted that interference or jamming may not always be a hostile act. “It’s not that uncommon that we end up interfering with our own communications, sometimes,” he noted. However, it’s important to find a jamming signal and stop it, no matter the source. Spiral 2 will have more data fusion and more automated connections with space command and control systems.

On the offensive counterspace front is the Counter Communications System. Known as CounterComm for short, this project funds a series of ground-deployable jamming units, each with two antennas, set up in the vicinity of an area where the Air Force wants to interfere with an adversary’s satellites. Operational since 2004, the Air Force now has three Block 10 systems and, in the Fiscal 2007 budget, asked for three more. There are plans to upgrade the units to a Block 20 configuration. Further details are classified.

The Counter-Space Reconnaissance System, a shadowy project meant to defeat the intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance systems of US adversaries with reversible, nonkinetic means, was canceled, Grundman said, even though the Air Force continues to have a validated requirement for it. (See “Securing the Space Arena,” July 2004, p. 30.)

“As we are in a very tight budget environment, the decision was made to move those funds toward higher … Air Force priorities,” said Grundman. “And we’re going to look at opportunities and approaches towards meeting those mission needs.”

The same fate befell the Orbital Deep-Space Imager, a space telescope intended to give high-resolution imagery of objects at GEO. There’s a validated requirement, Grundman said, but the Air Force has decided “not to pursue an operational system at this time.”

Grundman said he has nothing in his portfolio involving a kinetic ASAT capability. Asked about ASATs that disable a target satellite by spraying their optics or solar panels with paint, Grundman said, “There have been some studies looking at potential concepts in that regard. They’re sometimes called ‘coaters.’ And I think that’s about as much as I can say about that.”

There are a few concepts and programs outside of AFSPC that are looking at ASAT possibilities, however.

The Air Force Research Laboratory put out a request for information last fall for a program called Autonomous Nanosatellite Guardian for Evaluating Local Space, or ANGELS. This program seeks to launch a small satellite in 2009 into GEO, where it would escort a larger satellite, not yet selected. Its function would be to monitor the space around the host satellite, watching for intruders and threats. ANGELS could be the forerunner of a series of “escort satellites” that would move to intercept an attacking ASAT launched by another country. Contractors will be selected next year; AFRL has about $20 million for the project.

ANGELS will build on experience from XSS-10 and XSS-11, also AFRL projects to explore rendezvous, proximity, and station-keeping techniques with very small satellites. The heaviest of the spacecraft weighs in at just 220 pounds. The XSS-10 was used to rendezvous with the Delta II booster that brought it to orbit, flying around the booster and inspecting it visually, sending TV images back to ground controllers from less than 100 yards away.

The XSS-11 was steered to a rendezvous with a spent booster last November, getting within about one mile of it. The satellite orbits at about 500 miles and is also a test bed for miniaturized optics and communications gear. Air Force officials also report that the craft will experiment with techniques for on-orbit refueling of spacecraft propellant systems.

Ready To Act

Although never mentioned in any of the official descriptions of the XSS-11’s mission, the satellite is able to do everything necessary to intercept and destroy an enemy satellite. The craft’s small size and maneuvering capability suggest that low-cost clones could be manufactured rapidly and inexpensively for a variety of ASAT missions, should the Air Force be tasked to provide such a capability.

Setting aside the external steps that can be taken to protect satellites, can anything be done so they can defend themselves? There are techniques, Grundman said, that include radiation hardening, on-board sensors, and armoring.

Until now, such self-protection measures usually have lost out in the zero-sum trade-off analysis about what goes on a spacecraft and what doesn’t.

“There has been, historically, a preference to put as much emphasis as you can on performance of the spacecraft,” Grundman explained. “So, if you’re trading off weight, … you usually have to give up some mission capability, and … program offices have wanted to emphasize their mission performance.”

Now, however, “as we recognize more of a threat, you’ll probably see the trade tipping more in the other direction.” That won’t always be true, but on a case-by-case basis, “defensive measures” may start to claim more of a satellite’s weight allowance.

Grundman said recognition of the importance of space superiority “is rising, due to the fact that we know we have the most to lose in space. And we have prioritized that the most important thing we need to do … is improved space situational awareness.” The ability to defend space assets will come next, he said, followed by the capability of denying the advantages of space-based capabilities to others. However, he acknowledged that some of that capability is already present.