WHEN PRESIDENT TRUMP proposed a space force as the newest branch of the United States military, big-name columnists and late-night comedians went into warp drive.
The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd ridiculed the president’s “evil galactic Space Force,” and late-night comedian Stephen Colbert said Trump got the idea “from a Buzz Lightyear Happy Meal toy.”
But Colbert clearly wasn’t peering through a telescope on the afternoon of January 11, 2007, when the Chinese fired a ballistic missile from the mountains of Sichuan province into low-earth orbit and blasted an aging Chinese weather satellite into 3,000 pieces, just to show what they could do.
And he musn’t have been stargazing in the fall of 2014, when Western space agencies noticed that a presumptive piece of space junk, known as Object 2014-28E, was suddenly making high-precision maneuvers — darting here and there, and sidling up to other space objects in what looked like the revival of a Soviet-era program known as Istrebitel Sputnikov.
Translation: “satellite killer.”
These little-publicized episodes underscored what many aerospace defense experts believe: We’re in the midst of a secretive, orbital arms race of enormous consequence.
Much of the mockery prompted by Trump’s idea reflected Hollywood assumptions about how military operations might look — armies of stormtroopers battling for territory on faraway planets, manned gunships streaking through interstellar space. But if there’s a war in the skies, it’ll happen a mere 22,500 miles or so above the surface of the earth, and the front-line combatants will likely be machines. Forget Ewoks and X-wing fighter pilots. This is all about satellites — jamming them, fooling them with lasers, and blasting them to bits.
Satellites have become an indispensable part of American military operations. They play a major role in intelligence gathering and reconnaissance. They’re at the core of our missile detection system. They guide aircraft carriers and troop movements. And as anyone who watched the Gulf War on CNN can attest, they’ve been steering bombs to their targets for decades.
They’re also a linchpin of the 21st-century economy. Space commerce is worth some $350 billion, according to the Satellite Industry Association’s latest annual report. That includes phone service, television signals, agricultural monitoring, meteorology, aviation, and broadband. And the sector is only expected to expand in the coming decades, with heavy investment in space tourism and asteroid mining. There is gold in them thar rocks — literally. Silver, tungsten, and iridium, too.
Critics of Trump’s space force are asking, in essence: Why now? What’s the rush? But national security experts are asking a different question: How should a vast bureaucracy adjust to new realities, as our military apparatus and economic interests increasingly rely on equipment circling far above our heads?
The space race began in earnest in 1957 with the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. It was a tiny craft, just 23 inches in diameter. But the polished-metal sphere sent a strong radio signal to Earth — and a ripple of anxiety through the West. The Soviet Union was orbiting above. Who knew what it would rain down upon us?
Americans accelerated their efforts to militarize space, with the Army, Navy, and Air Force all vying to take the lead. And while each branch would get a piece, it was the Air Force that came out on top.
Today, it controls some 90 percent of the military’s space budget and oversees about 38,000 people at US Space Command, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.
Air Force leaders are loath to cede control. Deborah James, who served as Air Force secretary during the Obama administration, says there is little value in creating a costly new bureaucracy. Space force, she says, is “a solution in search of a problem.”
But Douglas Loverro, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy in the Obama administration, says there is a problem. The Air Force is dominated by a fighter-pilot culture — “Fly, fight, and win” — and space has never fit in. It’s a backwater, with stagnating budgets and scant opportunities for career advancement.
“I was in the Air Force for 34 years and I love the Air Force,” he says. “But unfortunately, my service just doesn’t get it.”
The irony is that the Air Force’s own story suggests the value of a standalone service. After it split off from the Army in 1947, it developed a culture, leadership, and lobbying prowess that helped the US dominate the skies.
Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says without that kind of focus, the United States will remain mired in the indecision that has characterized its space policy for the last decade or more.
Harrison points to the handful of big, “Battlestar Galactica”-style satellites we depend on for missile warning and protected communications (yes, even the experts who back a space force can’t resist sci-fi metaphors).
The problem, he says, is that with our adversaries’ growing space power, these big, fixed vessels are becoming juicier and juicier targets. Analysts have been saying for a long time that we need to spread our missile warning and communications capability over a larger number of small, agile satellites. And yet, the bureaucracy is stuck.
For Representative Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat who has pressed for a standalone force, it all adds up to a stunning vulnerability: With a well-targeted space attack, an inferior military power like Russia or China could quickly create a “fair fight” with the United States — or worse. “We could be rendered deaf, dumb, and blind within seconds,” he says.
One of his biggest concerns is an attack on the Global Positioning System, or GPS. And that would have impacts not just on the military, but on the economy. We all know that GPS can map a route to the closest Walmart or send an Uber driver our way. But its role is far more critical than that.
GPS satellites are loaded with atomic clocks, synchronized with each other and calibrated to the microsecond. Together, they serve as a timekeeper that allows ATMs to time-stamp transactions, cell phone companies to coordinate their signals, and electrical grids to finetune the supply of current.
Even a minor disruption of the system — a mishap throwing the global clock off by 10 or 12 microseconds — could have grave consequences. An intentional attack could be truly catastrophic.
IF THE CRITICAL importance of our satellites is a reason to accelerate the weaponization space, it’s also an argument for restraint.
Space force destroys an enemy satellite, and you’re left with thousands of pieces of shrapnel whipping around the planet at 17,000 miles per hour. That shrapnel can demolish other satellites, including our own. Then, you’ve got even more debris, and on and on it goes. There’s even a name for this cascade of destruction: the Kessler effect.
Still, the prospect of mutually assured destruction provides a real check on so-called “kinetic,” blow-it-up attacks in space. The coming space war will probably be more cunning, more covert — and it will be prosecuted by more than just the biggest militaries in the most powerful countries.
In 2013, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin showed it’s possible to “spoof” GPS signals, or replace them with faulty information — sending an $80 million yacht off course in the Mediterranean Sea. Iran claims it used similar techniques to take down an American drone in 2011.
North Korea has proved expert in another method: jamming satellite signals. In the spring of 2012, it managed to disrupt air traffic at Incheon and Gimpo international airports in South Korea.
Then, of course, there is the frightening prospect of a cyberattack. And even non-state actors have shown they’re capable of that sort of thing. Back in 2007, the Tamil Tigers guerilla organization in Sri Lanka hacked a communications satellite and began transmitting its own propaganda.
With terrorist groups and rivals like Russia and China pushing further into space, and our own dependence on satellites deepening, it’s pretty clear the United States can’t stay pat.
It’s really just a question of how we step up our presence. We can try to do it through existing channels. We can count on the Air Force to lift its gaze to the stars in a way it hasn’t before. Or we can pull on our helmets, flip the visor down, and move ahead with space force.David Scharfenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.