The United States is arguably the nation with the most to lose in space. Our way of life has become dependent on satellites for everything from our televisions to navigation in our cars, and our nation’s potential enemies are not only aware of it, they’re planning for it.
In March, a Russian military satellite called the Kosmos 2499 was launched. The rocket’s upper stage that carried its payload into orbit released the satellite just like every other launch, but that’s where comparisons to traditional satellites stop. The satellite then proceeded to conduct a series of eleven close approaches to the rocket as they both orbited the Earth. These approaches went on for months, the most recent of which occurred in July, and on at least one occasion, it would seem the satellite actually nudged the rocket.
This type of orbital maneuverability could be indicative of a weapons system designed to disturb or destroy satellites in Earth’s orbit. Aside from maneuvers specific to the rocket that launched the satellite, U.S. Air Force officials have also indicated that the satellite has approached unidentified space debris, seemingly in an effort to test its ability to locate, close with, and manipulate other items circling the globe high above our heads.
This satellite, informally referred to as “Object E” among the personnel at Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, is the second Russian military satellite to demonstrate this sort of orbital maneuvering capability. Both satellites have been closely watched by the U.S. Air Force, as well as other interested governmental bodies.
Attempts by the U.S. Government to contact Moscow about these satellites have been met with no response, prompting some to believe that they were designed with offensive operations in mind. While these satellites are extremely slow moving in order to safely approach other orbiting debris or equipment, most U.S. satellites have no evasive or defensive capabilities that could prevent Russia’s autonomous satellite hunter from engaging or even destroying them.
Although there have been no clear signs that these satellites were developed specifically to attack other satellites, they clearly have the potential ability to do so. A technical adviser at the Secure World Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to space sustainability, pointed out earlier this year that the Kosmos 2499 platform bares an incredible resemblance to the Cold War era Russian Naryad, which was an anti-satellite weapon system shelved in the 1980s by the communist nation.
China’s Shiyan satellites raised similar questions in 2013, when three of them were launched together and proceeded to engage in orbital corrections, followed by more dramatic maneuvers and finally a rendezvous with a completely different type of Chinese satellite using a prototype manipulator arm. China claimed that these satellites, as well as the others they’ve launched since, were designed for use capturing and studying orbiting debris, but China’s unwillingness to reveal research about the missions with the international community has raised eyebrows and concerns among U.S. officials.
“Since space systems are largely dual use, it should not be surprising that there would be interest in the ability to maneuver satellites in close proximity … but neither should there be blithe assumptions that this is necessarily for solely peaceful ends,” said Dean Cheng, a research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
In response to these developments, the United States has devoted $25 billion to developing their own Space Command, which currently employs approximately 38,000 employees in one hundred and thirty-four locations around the planet. The responsibility of this organization is to track and observe the satellites and debris currently zooming about in Earth orbit, but many fear observation isn’t enough to protect American interests in the vast expanses of space.
“These satellites were built 15 years ago and launched during an era when space was a benign environment. There was no threat,” said Lt. Gen. David Buck, Commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space. “Can you imagine building a refueler aircraft, or a jet for that matter, with no inherent defensive capabilities? So our satellites are at risk, and our ground infrastructure is at risk. And we’re working hard to make sure that we can protect and defend them.”
Laser weapons, already deployed aboard Naval Vessels like the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf, are among the systems being considered for deployment in order to ensure the safety and defense of our nation’s orbital infrastructure. The X-37b, which is a drone that resembles the space shuttle, has already demonstrated its ability to withstand long duration orbital flights, spending over a year in orbit during one of its four unmanned tests. Because most of the payloads, mission parameters and specific activities the X-37b fleet (which currently includes two vehicles) are classified, the platform’s offensive and defensive capabilities remain a closely guarded secret.
Air Force officials have, however, stated plainly that the X-37b was not designed for use as a weapons platform, stating plainly that it is intended solely to “explore reusable space vehicle technologies in support of long-term objectives, such as risk reduction and operations development.”
Although the prospect of satellites fighting in drone space battles may seem far-fetched, our nation’s dependence on satellite technology means it’s a weakness we can’t afford to ignore. When asked if our nation was moving quickly enough to protect America’s interests in space, General William Shelton, the former head of Space Command did not seem optimistic; “I would say the answer was no. Could we provide active defense of our own satellites? The answer’s no.”
In April of this year, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work stated clearly that if the U.S. were to be attacked in space, we would “strike back” and “knock them out.”
“From the very beginning, if someone starts going after our space constellation, we’re going to go after the capabilities that would prevent them from doing that,” Work told CNN recently. “Let me just say that — having the capability to shoot the torpedo would be a good thing to have in our quiver.”
Work and other military leaders may have their work cut out for them if they hope to keep pace with nations like Russia and China, which seem to have already placed at least some offensive capabilities in orbit around Earth. In order to maintain military superiority on the ground in the 21st century, it may become absolutely essential to establish it in space as well.
Image courtesy of NASA