When it comes to war in space, U.S. has the edge
Quietly and without most people noticing, the world’s leading space powers — the United States, China and Russia — have been deploying new and more sophisticated weaponry in space.
Earth’s orbit is looking more and more like the planet’s surface — heavily armed and primed for war. A growing number of “inspection” satellites lurk in orbit, possibly awaiting commands to sneak up on and disable or destroy other satellites. Down on the surface, more and more warships and ground installations pack powerful rockets that, with accurate guidance, could reach into orbit to destroy enemy spacecraft.
A war in orbit could wreck the delicate satellite constellations that the world relies on for navigation, communication, scientific research and military surveillance. Widespread orbital destruction could send humanity through a technological time warp. “You go back to World War Two,” Air Force General John Hyten, in charge of U.S. Space Command, told 60 Minutes. “You go back to the Industrial Age.”
It’s hard to say exactly how many weapons are in orbit. That’s because many spacecraft are “dual use.” They have peaceful functions and potential military applications. With the proverbial flip of a switch, an inspection satellite, ostensibly configured for orbital repair work, could become a robotic assassin capable of taking out other satellites with lasers, explosives or mechanical claws. Until the moment it attacks, however, the assassin spacecraft might appear to be harmless. And its dual use gives its operators political cover. The United States possesses more space weaponry than any other country, yet denies that any of its satellites warrant the term.
When 60 Minutes asked the Air Force secretary whether the United States has weapons in space, Secretary Deborah Lee James answered simply: “No, we do not.”
Still, it’s possible to count at least some of the systems that could disable or destroy other satellites. Some of the surface-based weaponry is far less ambiguous and so easier to tally. Even taking into account the difficulty of accurately counting space weaponry, one thing is clear: The United States is, by far, the world’s most heavily armed space power.
But not for a lack of trying on the part of other countries.
New Cold War in space
Earth’s orbit wasn’t always such a dangerous place. The Soviet Union destroyed a satellite for the last time in an experiment in 1982. The United States tested its last Cold War anti-satellite missile, launched by a vertically flying F-15 fighter, in 1985.
For the next three decades, both countries refrained from deploying weapons in space. The “unofficial moratorium,” as Laura Grego, a space expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, described it, put the brakes on the militarization of space.
Then in 2002, President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from a treaty with Russia prohibiting the development of antiballistic-missile weapons. The move cleared the way for Bush to deploy interceptor missiles that administration officials claimed would protect the United States from nuclear attack by “rogue” states such as North Korea. But withdrawing from the treaty also undermined the consensus on the strictly peaceful use of space.
Five years later, in January 2007, China struck one of its own old satellites with a ground-launched rocket as part of a test of a rudimentary anti-satellite system. This scattered thousands of potentially dangerous pieces of debris across low orbit. Beijing’s anti-satellite test accelerated the militarization of space. The United States, in particular, seized the opportunity to greatly expand its orbital arsenal.
U.S. companies and government agencies have at least 500 satellites — roughly as many as the rest of the world combined. At least 100 of them are primarily military in nature. Most are for communication or surveillance. In other words, they’re oriented downward, toward Earth.
But a few patrol space itself. The U.S. military’s Advanced Technology Risk Reduction spacecraft, launched into an 800-mile-high orbit in 2009, is basically a sensitive infrared camera that can detect the heat plumes from rocket launches and, presumably, maneuvering spacecraft. It then can beam detailed tracking data to human operators on the ground.
The risk-reduction satellite works in conjunction with other spacecraft and Earth-based sensors to keep track of Earth’s approximately 1,000 active satellites. The telescope-like Space-Based Space Surveillance satellite, launched in 2010, “has a clear and unobstructed view,” according to an Air Force fact sheet, “of resident space objects orbiting Earth from its 390-mile-altitude orbit.”
“Resident space object” is military speak for satellites.
A network of around 30 ground radars and telescopes complements the orbital sensors. Together, these systems make “380,000 to 420,000 observations each day,” Space Command explains on its Website.
Observing and tracking other countries’ satellites is a passive and essentially peaceful affair. But the U.S. military also possesses at least six spacecraft that can maneuver close to enemy satellites and inspect or even damage them.
In 2010, the Air Force launched its first X-37B space plane. A quarter-size, robotic version of the old Space Shuttle, the X-37B boosts into low orbit — around 250 miles high — atop a rocket but lands back on Earth like an airplane.
The two X-37Bs take turns spending a year or more in orbit. Officially, the Air Force describes the maneuverable mini-shuttles as being part of “an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform.” But they could also attack other spacecraft.
The X-37Bs “could be used to rendezvous and inspect satellites, either friendly or adversarial, and potentially grab and de-orbit satellites,” the Secure World Foundation, a space advocacy group, pointed out. The group stressed that the feasibility of the X-37Bs as weapons is low because the mini-shuttles are limited to low orbits and because the United States operates at least four other maneuverable satellites that are probably far better at stalking and tearing up enemy spacecraft.
These include two Microsatellite Technology Experiment satellites that the military boosted into low orbit in 2006. The MiTEx satellites are small, weighing just 500 pounds each. This makes them harder for enemy sensors to detect — giving them the advantage of surprise in wartime.
The two Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program satellites are much bigger and higher up. From their stationary positions 22,000 miles above Earth, these spacecraft — in orbit since July 2014 — monitor other satellites and can, according to the Air Force, “maneuver near a resident space object of interest, enabling characterization for anomaly resolution and enhanced surveillance.”
Maneuverable space planes and satellites are one way of attacking enemy spacecraft. But there’s an older, less subtle method — blasting them out of space with a rocket.
In late 2006, an U.S. spy satellite malfunctioned shortly after reaching low orbit. In early February 2008, the Pentagon announced it would shoot down the dead spacecraft. Officially, Washington insisted that the anti-satellite operation was a safety measure, to prevent the defunct craft’s toxic fuel from harming someone when the satellite’s orbit decayed and it tumbled to Earth.
But it appeared to more than one observer that China’s 2007 anti-satellite test motivated Washington’s own satellite shoot-down. A new Cold War was underway, this time in space.
On Feb. 20, 2008, the Navy cruiser Lake Erie, equipped with a high-tech Aegis radar, launched a specially modified SM-3 antiballistic-missile interceptor. The rocket struck the malfunctioning satellite at an estimated speed of 22,000 miles an hour, destroying it.
Today, the United States has dozens of Aegis-equipped warships carrying hundreds of SM-3 missiles, more than enough to quickly wipe out the approximately 50 satellites apiece that Russia and China keep in low orbit.
“Aegis ships could be positioned optimally,” Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in a 2011 paper, “ to stage a ‘sweep’ attack on a set of satellites nearly at once,”
As an anti-satellite backup, the U.S. Army and the Missile Defense Agency also operate two types of ground-launched missile interceptors that have the power to reach low orbit — and the accuracy to strike spacecraft.
Against this huge arsenal, Russia and China possess few counterweights. China’s 2007 anti-satellite test, and a similar trial in early 2013, proved that Beijing can hit a low satellite with a rocket. In 2010, the Chinese space agency launched a cluster of small space vehicles, including two named SJ-6F and SJ-12, that slammed into each other in orbit, seemingly on purpose. In July 2013, China deployed a small inspection spacecraft, designated SY-7, in low orbit.
Like the U.S. fleet of maneuverable inspection spacecraft, the tiny SY-7 with its remote-controlled claw could be orbital repair or inspection vehicle — or it could be a weapon.
“One could dream up,” Brian Weeden, a technical and space adviser at the Secure World Foundation, told the War Is Boring Website in 2013, “a whole bunch of dastardly things that could be done with a robotic arm in close proximity.”
But China lacks the space- and ground-based sensors to accurately steer these weapons toward their targets. Compared to the U.S. space-awareness system, with its scores of radars and telescopes, China possesses a relatively paltry system — one consequence of Beijing’s diplomatic isolation.
Where the United States can count on allies to host parts of a global sensor network, China has few formal allies and can only deploy space-awareness systems inside its own borders, on ships at sea or in space. The Chinese military can watch the skies over East Asia, but is mostly blind elsewhere.
By contrast, Russia inherited an impressive space-awareness network from the Soviet Union. Russia’s allies in Europe — in particular, the former Soviet and Eastern Bloc states — extend the network’s field of view. As a result, Moscow possesses “a relatively complete catalog of space objects,” the Secure World Foundation concluded.
But Russia is still far behind the United States and China as far as space weaponry is concerned. There was a 31-year gap between the Soviet Union’s last anti-satellite test and Russia’s first post-Soviet orbital-weapon experiment. On Christmas Day in 2013, Russia quietly launched a small, maneuverable inspection spacecraft into low orbit, hiding the tiny spacecraft among a cluster of communications satellites.
Two more space inspectors followed, one in May 2014 and another in March 2015. Moscow hasn’t said much about them, but amateur satellite spotters have tracked the vehicles performing the kinds of maneuvers consistent with orbital attack craft. “You can probably equip them with lasers,” Anatoly Zak, the author of Russia in Space: Past Explained, Future Explored, said of the Russian craft. “Maybe put some explosives on them.”
They join a growing number of space weapons guided by expanding networks of Earth-based and orbital sensors on a new, distant battlefront of a so far bloodless neo-Cold War.