America’s Department of Defense (DOD) “urgently needs” new policies to defend American satellites from foreign nations, according to a recently released report from the National Academies.
DOD officials and the report concluded both Russia and China are developing space weapons capable of knocking out America’s satellites in any future conflict, giving them a potentially catastrophic edge in war.
“The demonstrated development of means to attack space systems by other nations—and the obvious potential for still more nations and perhaps non-state actors to develop such means in the future—raise practical problems that demand solutions,” the report said. “Moreover, there is an urgent need to address the increasing threat to vital U.S. space systems, a need that cannot wait until broader policy considerations have been fully developed.”
This research was co-authored by James Ellis of Standford University and Martin Faga of the Mitre Corporation, who worked with scientists from Johns Hopkins, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Georgetown, as well as military officials. It was published under the auspices of the National Academy of Engineering and Physical Science and financially supported by the U.S. Department of Defense.
The critical military importance of satellites has been obscured in recent conflicts because most of them were against guerrilla foes who lacked the ability to target American space assets, states the National Academies report. America’s military relies on numerous satellites to provide precision navigation, communications, weather monitoring, ground surveillance and spying and detection of nuclear missile launches.
However, all of these systems are extremely vulnerable to both Russia and China, both of which have developed capabilities to attack American space assets. The Chinese successfully targeted and destroyed one of their own satellites in orbit in 2007 and likely tested a ground-based missile launch system to destroy objects in orbit in 2013.
“Despite world interest in avoiding militarization of space, potential adversaries have identified the use of space as an advantage for U.S. military forces, and are actively fielding systems to deny our use of space in a conflict,” Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, wrote in a white paper published in July. “Securing our right to use space is simply an extension of an age old principle to guarantee use of global commons.”
The Air Force has already vowed to invest $6.6 billion into efforts to protect America’s satellites over the next six years, and could spend upwards of $10 billion on space operations from combined public and classified budgets this year, according to The Air Force Times.
“Modern space power involves far more than just reconnaissance satellites,” Dr. Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, wrote in The National Review.”Knock out the enemy’s reconnaissance satellites, and he is effectively blind. Knock out his comsats, and he is deaf. Knock out his navsats, and he loses his aim.”
Almost all of the work done defending America’s satellite fleet was conducted by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing. This was until the private company SpaceX won Air Force certification for national security space missions last year after the company sued the military in federal court for the right to compete. Despite this legal victory, SpaceX didn’t compete on a major contract earlier this month to launch a pair of spy satellites in 2020 and 2023.
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