President Trump’s recent directive to establish a space-specific branch of the U.S. Military was met with a mixed reaction in the public and the media, in large part due to a misrepresentation of what this “Space Force” would do, and exactly what kinds of threats it would be tasked with deterring. As SOFREP has covered extensively, the space above our heads has long been militarized — the United States is now simply looking to keep pace in the developing theater.
While debate will continue regarding the most effective way to address orbital threats (establishing a new branch or keeping the tasking under the Air Force’s purview as it currently is), Defense Department officials and experts alike have been touting the growing need for a new and more proactive strategy in space. With America’s defense community and general public increasingly dependent on the constellation of satellites flying above us, America finds itself vulnerable to attack in a way that represents a legitimate existential threat to the nation’s current way of life. It doesn’t take much to interfere with a satellite, and removing just a few from operation could leave the U.S. open to any number of devastating attacks.
In fact, just a few minute interruption in the service of a single satellite could feasibly cripple the nation’s ability to identify and intercept an inbound nuclear missile. The stakes don’t get much higher than that.
Now, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, the head of America’s Defense Intelligence Agency, has joined the chorus of officials calling for a more robust space defense strategy. In his remarks at the Defense One Technology Summit in Washington, D.C. this week, he was among the first U.S. officials to directly escalate the accusations being levied at Russia and China’s respective space-based military branches, both of which were stood up in 2015.
According to Ashley, weapons development is already underway in both Russia and China. He explained that the emphasis has been on developing “the ability to interdict satellites both from a ground standpoint and from a space standpoint. The technology is being developed right now. It is coming in the near future.”
While it’s long been clear that these two military forces have developed their operational mindsets with the United States set clearly in their crosshairs, the orbital assets each nation have developed have been shrouded in two-layers of public relations and mystique. First, neither state’s governments feel particularly inclined to share their defense endeavors with their own people, let alone the world, and second, because it takes so little to weaponize a satellite, many weapons applications can be launched and even tested under the guise of non-threatening endeavors like the removal of space debris.
While Ashley is among the first U.S. officials to acknowledge that opposing weapons systems are already on their way, he’s far from the first to voice concerns about the possibility. In fact, in the DIA’s Wordwide Threat Assessment report released in February also addresses the topic in fairly direct language.
“Russia and China continue to launch ‘experimental’ satellites that conduct sophisticated on-orbit activities, at least some of which are intended to advance counterspace capabilities,” the report reads. “Some technologies with peaceful applications—such as satellite inspection, refueling, and repair—can also be used against adversary spacecraft.”
Concerns about space have only just begun to percolate within America’s slow moving defense apparatus, with the nature of the threat maturing at a faster rate than defensive strategies at present. As a result, many officials have more questions than answers when it comes to how America could manage a peer-level fight with an opposing force with space capabilities. Ashley is no exception.
“The competition is only going to grow,” he said on Tuesday. “Look at the national defense strategy. There is an acknowledgement that our technological lead is vanishing… And so when you get to the warfighting doctrine you have to account for, what is the resilience you build into the domains, the redundancy? When it’s been degraded or denied, how do you fight?”
Image courtesy of the Defense Intelligence Agency