High Frontier

First published 16 July 2004.

There’s an excellent article in this month’s [July 2004] issue of Air Force magazine, entitled “Securing the Space Arena“. American armed forces are utterly dependent on space-based assets to conduct modern warfighting, and the article examines the vulnerabilities of United States spacecraft and how U.S. Air Force Space Command is working to reduce those risks. One of the major problems is that at present, Air Force Space Command does not have the tools to determine whether a malfunctioning satellite is suffering from natural phenomena or a deliberate attack. In one case, the Air Force did not become aware until mid-April that a dormant Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) spacecraft had broken into six pieces — cause unknown.

Western success, both commercial and military, depends heavily upon information dominance. Our economies have enjoyed a competitive advantage over the past few hundred years because of our ever-increasing technological advantages. Our businesses have been able to communicate, innovate, market, monitor and respond better and faster than anyone else. Likewise, Western armed forces are so effective because they attained and kept a technological edge. Today the West’s warfighters have access to critically important space systems that provide communication, navigation, weather forecasting, targeting and intelligence. If Western military forces were to lose those advantages, some of our warfighting capability would be degraded back to the Vietnam era.

Effective anti-satellite weapons do not have to be something expensive and exotic launched from Cape Canaveral, or an exo-atmospheric missile fired from fighter aircraft. An article titled “GPS Vulnerabilities” in the March-April 2001 issue of Military Review, written by Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas K. Adams, USA (Ret.) and published by the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, describes how even a low-tech adversary can take out satellites:

It is not difficult to reach at least low-earth orbit with ordinary meterological sounding rockets that carry 50- to 100-pound payloads. If a rocket could carry 40 pounds of 00 steel buckshot — available in most sporting goods stores — it could kick the pellets out into an appropriate orbit with an explosive charge. Moving at relative velocities of about four miles a second, the tiny pellets would slam into and disable any satellite they encountered.

Most satellites are not protected against anything more exotic than temperature extremes, radiation exposure and use by unauthorized ground stations. Armour is not an effective answer since it adds weight and impairs the satellite’s functionality, and some satellite parts (such as solar panels) cannot be armoured at all. Using maneuvering fuel might save a satellite, provided that threat detection was timely, but the satellite may have reduced capability (or be completely useless) while it is out of its assigned orbit. Replacement is also an option, albeit an expensive and time-consuming one. Presently, the United States has concentrated on orbiting small numbers of very expensive satellites with extended longevity and exceptional capability. Replacing these satellites on short notice is not easy, as Lieutenant-Colonel Adams points out.

The time needed for countries such as China, India, Japan or North Korea to acquire significant space-denial capabilities is rapidly becoming less than the time the United States needs to replace existing satellites. During the Falklands War, the Soviet Union launched 29 small satellites within 69 days. In contrast, the United States took 113 days to replace a defense weather satellite after an emergency.

It’s also not that hard to exponentially increase the effectiveness of low-tech anti-satellite weapons, as Lieutenant-Colonel Adams goes on to illustrate in very humourous terms.

The effectiveness of these defense measures is limited; an attacker could increase his satellite lethality simply by using ball bearings instead of buckshot and attacking twice. Suppose the attacker has a little better lift capacity and is less fussy. Orbiting a thousand pounds of gravel could sweep parts of near-Earth space like a broom and provide history’s most spectacular meteor shower as millions of tiny rocks, bits of $500-million satellites and plans for information dominance all begin the long slide to earth.

But who would want to take out Western satellites, and why? Strategic rivals like China, certainly; probably regional aggressors like North Korea as well. For now, states are unlikely to wage that kind of war because they lack the strategic imperatives and political will to risk it all by putting a dent in the Western economy and encouraging a Western military response. But what about non-state actors, like al-Qaeda? Acquiring sounding rockets, or something better, would not be a tremendous challenge; acquiring something with a thousand-ton payload capacity might be. Considering that the X-Prize and SpaceShipOne are ushering in the era of private spaceflight, it is not inconceivable that a terrorist group might attempt to steal a privately-built spacecraft. SpaceShipOne’s payload capacity is undisclosed, but we do know that it can carry three persons, so we can estimate its payload capacity at somewhere between 540-750 pounds.  That’s enough to put a lot of gravel into orbit.

Whether or not Western civil populations would be willing to engage in war to avenge lost satellites is, in itself, an interesting question. Suppose all of those satellites were swept from our skies tomorrow; would we be willing to go to war even though no humans died in the assault against us?

In Canada our debate about space systems is stillborn; the Conservatives support Canadian involvement in ballistic missile defense (BMD) and the NDP wails that BMD will lead to an arms race, nuclear holocaust, and a worldwide Bushitler reign of terror. What is missing is the realization that Canada has her own small fleet of very expensive satellites up there, and Canadian policymakers are more concerned about scoring points with the electorate than thinking about how to protect our hard-earned investments.

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