By 2025, Russia and China will have anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities that will threaten satellites in all orbital regimes, a U.S. Space Force (USSF) official said on March 11.
“By the year 2025, Russia and China are going to be able to threaten every satellite in every orbital regime,” Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno, director of staff for USSF, told a University of Washington space forum. Such threats would encompass those to weather/intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) up to the strategic missile warning and communications satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO).
Established on Dec. 20, 2019, the Space Force has as its primary mission to protect U.S. military and commercial space assets, to deter conflicts from starting or extending into space, and to sustain U.S. capabilities that rely on space.
Russia and China have been advancing direct ascent anti-satellite weapons (DA-ASAT), such as the Russian Nudol, and have not been interested in establishing space norms of behavior, but rather in working within the U.N. Committee on Disarmament to protect their DA-ASAT advantage through a treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT).
The U.S. and other Western nations have opposed the PPWT, as they believe the latter is unverifiable and does not touch on terrestrial counterspace systems, such as DA-ASATs and directed energy weapons, which Russia and China are developing. U.S. Space Command has also said that Russia has a co-orbital ASAT, which demonstrated an on-orbit kinetic weapon in 2017 and last year.
Also last year, the United Kingdom and the U.S. said that Russia had launched the “nesting doll” Cosmos 2542 and 2543 satellites, which could pose a significant danger to LEO satellites (Defense Daily, Jan. 21).
A space-based tracking system of commercial, optical sensor satellites could help provide near-synoptic, simultaneous coverage of all orbits.
The primary ground-based space tracking system is to be the $1.6 billion Space Fence radar system by Lockheed Martin [LMT]. Located on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the solid-state S-band radar system achieved initial operational capability on March 27 last year.
USSF and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) have been working on a SILENTBARKER program to field space-based sensors to improve the U.S.’ Space Surveillance Network (SSN). Better space situational awareness may provide insights on the intent of potential U.S. adversaries in space and may help deter such adversaries.
“Surveillance from space augments and overcomes existing ground sensor limitations with timely 24-hour above-the-weather collection of satellite metric data only possible with a space-based sensor and then communicates its findings to the Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC), National Space Defense Center (NSDC), and other classified users,” according to U.S. Air Force budget documents.
Armagno said on March 11 that kinetic ASAT weapons are a “particularly concerning threat.”
“Kinetic weapons are irresponsible, especially if they’re high debris,” she said.
Beyond the Outer Space Treaty of 1967’s prohibition on the placement of nuclear weapons in space and a commitment to use space peacefully, USSF leaders have said that space is the “Wild West.”
Armagno said on March 11 that USSF is working to put a space domain awareness sensor on the Japanese Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS), sometimes referred to as the “Japanese GPS.”
“That particular project is going very well,” she said.
Armagno also put in a plug for international dialogue on space in general, including with Russia and China.
She called such dialogue “the most important thing we could do in year two” of USSF.
Rules of the road could include how close one space object can get to another before it’s considered threatening, and what behaviors in space proximity, such as co-planar, are considered appropriate. “You need to understand what those red lines are,” she said.
Defensive capabilites USSF is pursuing include propulsion to allow satellites to avoid collisions and contact with other space objects and on-board early warning of threats, Armagno said.