Space, once seen as the benign final frontier, has evolved into a crowded potential battleground that the U.S. must defend as conflicts extend beyond Earth, according to the Air Force’s top military space official.
While officials once aspired to treat space as a peaceful refuge from the strife on Earth, it’s now “congested, contested and competitive”– and “all three of those trends are trending upward,” General John W. “Jay” Raymond, the head of the Air Force Space Command, said in an interview Monday at Bloomberg headquarters in New York.
From jamming and cyber attacks to “kinetic destruction,” there’s a “full range of threats” to U.S. early warning, Global Positioning System and communications satellites, Raymond said. Those threats come from economic and military rivals like China and Russia and include the increasing accumulation of debris orbiting the planet.
“Our goal is not to have conflict in space,” said Raymond. “We want to deter that conflict from happening,” but “space is not a benign domain. It’s a war-fighting domain and we need to treat it as such.”
Raymond cited China’s January 2007 shoot-down of one of its own obsolete weather satellites in low-earth orbit as a turning point, while declining to disclose more recent moves by Russia and China, the U.S.’s prime adversaries in space. Both nations are developing “counter-space” doctrine and technologies, according to Pentagon documents.
The four-star general said the Air Force is examining methods and technologies to improve the protection of U.S. satellites already in orbit and those under construction.
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has compared U.S. ballistic-missile defense efforts in Eastern Europe to President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative of 1983. He said such an effort justifies the development of Russian counter-space programs, according to a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report this year.
“Russia believes that having the military capabilities to counter space operations will deter aggression by space-enabled adversaries and enable Russia to control escalation of conflict if deterrence fails,” the intelligence agency said.
Likewise, in “parallel with its space program, China continues to develop a variety of counter-space capabilities designed to limit or to prevent the use of space-based assets” by its adversaries, the Pentagon said this year in its annual report on Chinese military capabilities.
Beyond the threat of warfare, space is also a junkyard of about 23,000 objects — including 1,400 international satellites — floating or orbiting in space since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957.
The most immediate threat to the world’s 1,400 commercial and military satellites is the more than 20,000 pieces of debris tracked and cataloged by Space Command personnel, Raymond said. “We see that congestion only growing,” he said. “We take about 400,000 observations a day with our sensor network.”
Of the 1,400 satellites, about 75 percent are maneuverable and on average once every three days a satellite is moved “to avert a potential collision” based on a warning from the U.S., Raymond said. He said the U.S. acts “as the space traffic control of the world.”
Adding to the congestion, space launches are becoming easier and cheaper, he said.
“As of today, 86 launches have occurred worldwide this year. In 2001 that number was in the low 50s,” Raymond said.
Raymond said that Lockheed Martin Corp.’s new “Space Fence” — intended to improve the tracking of space debris and scheduled to be in operation next year — “is moving along pretty well.”
The Space Fence, a radar system to be located on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, can detect “smaller micro-satellites and debris than current systems,” according to Lockheed.