August 2, 2021

Threats to the U.S. in Space


KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Space-based systems such as satellites provide a range of services for the global economy and the United States military.
  • Our competitors, like China and Russia, have tested weapons that can put U.S. space systems at risk and potentially jeopardize U.S. military operations.
  • Congress created Space Force to respond to this threat and to give the Department of Defense a dedicated service to protect the U.S. in space. 

Congress and the Trump administration established the U.S. Space Force and Space Command in response to the growing importance of space to our national security. The military, like the rest of society, has become dependent on satellites for communication, GPS, and other technologies, making us vulnerable to enemy attacks against these systems. Prior to the creation of these new organizations, there were 60 offices in the Department of Defense that had interests in space.

Multiple Threats Facing U.S. Space Systems

 

Multiple Threats Facing U.S. Space Systems

contested space

The U.S. can no longer take for granted that we have any sort of control over space, or even assured access to it. Systems of satellites provide a range of tactical and strategic capabilities. Having these things in space helps U.S. forces to win battles and quickly overwhelm enemies. Enemies now seek to use “counter-space,” offensive tools that can destroy the space systems we need to maintain an advantage in military operations. Competitors China and Russia show particular interest in threatening U.S. space systems as a way to deter the U.S. from entering regional conflicts. Both nations consider the U.S. military’s dependency on space to be our Achilles’ heel.

China’s military suggests America’s early warning satellites could be a target, and that it considers destroying space systems to be a good way to “blind and deafen” its enemies. The Chinese also view space dominance as vital to their military success and have invested in offensive counter-space systems like ground-based lasers that can potentially blind orbital sensors, anti-satellite missiles to destroy, cyber capabilities, and co-orbital technology like grappling arms that can be used as weapons. They operate many of these capabilities within China’s Strategic Support Force, a People’s Liberation Army group that integrates electronic warfare, cyber, and space into offensive and defensive operations. The Chinese are also investing in their own space capabilities to support PLA operations through space-based communications and observation.

Russia has invested in similar offensive counter-space capabilities. The Russians have used satellites to conduct co-orbital weapons tests. They field the Nudol system, a ground-based mobile anti-satellite missile system, and they have lasers to blind satellite sensors. The Russians use electronic warfare technology like GPS spoofing. Russia also sees space as important to its military operations and it operates communications and observation satellites.

The Iranians and North Koreans also recognize that they can use counter-space weapons to jam and hack our space systems and to weaken the U.S. military in conflict. Iran is investing in space systems and using its space program to help develop missile technology.

It is possible to counter many of these counter-space threats through orbital maneuvers and defensive protection systems. But DOD must have a strategy and the focus that comes from staff dedicated to staying on top of what we and our competitors are doing in space.

U.S. Response

Congress established the U.S. Space Force in the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, the first new military branch since the Air Force was spun off from the Army in 1947. At the same time, DOD re-established Space Command, a combatant command in that is charged with conducting offensive and defensive operations in space.

These organizations focus solely on space and aim to consolidate the large number of groups that were previously involved in these issues for DOD. The hope is that this will focus our resources and allow the military to develop a professional enlisted and officer corps that specializes in space. This, combined with other efforts to improve the purchase and development of new technology, will help DOD build and secure the U.S. military’s advantage in space.

Future of Space Force

In May, Space Force released a budget request totaling $17.4 billion for fiscal year 2022. It focuses on technologies that will increase situational awareness in space, hypersonic missile identification and tracking, and offensive and defense measures in space.

The budget also includes funds to staff the new USSF. In its first year, more than 5,200 people transferred from the Air Force to Space Force. Now the service is beginning to transfer members of the other branches to consolidate DOD’s space capabilities.

The USSF was created in part to minimize bureaucracy and maximize operational effectiveness. Congress will now have a role in developing the U.S. approach to national security in space as the challenges there evolve.

Issue Tag: National Security