Russia’s anti-satellite missile test sparked calls on the United States and its allies to push for international standards to ban such tests.
But reaching an agreement on space arms control could take years, if not decades. And until that happens, there is no guarantee that Russia or any other country will not attempt to blow up more satellites from the sky, including those belonging to the United States.
On November 15, the Russian military launched a Nudol ballistic missile that intercepted a Soviet-era satellite in low earth orbit. The US government said the strike created about 1,500 traceable debris. US Space Command, as of December 2, had identified the orbits of 207 debris from the event and will continue to catalog more objects in the weeks and months to come.
If Russia can destroy its own satellite, “you can bet it can destroy an American satellite, military or commercial,” said Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno, chief of staff of the US Space Force.
The Space Force, established by Congress and the Trump administration two years ago as the sixth independent branch of the United States military, is responsible for ensuring the security of space for military, civilian and commercial operations.
While the service has been ridiculed as a conceited plan by the former president, the recent Russian missile test serves as a reminder that the Space Force plays a legitimate role in national security.
US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, the Air Force and Space Force’s senior civilian official, said Russia’s test was extremely irresponsible but served as a wake-up call.
Access to space is vital to national defense, Kendall said in an interview with SpaceNews. In addition, the functions performed by satellites are integrated into people’s daily lives, enable the global economy and are vital to US military operations.
âThe space force in terms of size is very small compared to other services. But in terms of importance, it’s at least equal to other services, âKendall said. âIf you cannot operate effectively in space and deal with the threats you face from space, then it is difficult to conduct operations on the ground. This is more and more true as technologies mature and people become more and more dependent on space and the supporting functions you can get from space.
The challenge for the Space Force, Kendall said, is to make its constellations more resistant to attack, not just from missiles but from electronic jammers or lasers currently being developed by China.
Kendall said it was not a traditional arms race where rival powers bolster their forces and arsenals. China has pursued anti-satellite weapons for years, motivated by its assessment of satellites as “attackable assets on which the United States relies.”
How should the United States react? âWe must continue to build resilient architectures,â he said. Work is underway to design future, more manageable satellites and deploy them in greater numbers to create disaggregated networks that would be more difficult to target.
The Pentagon’s deputy chief of space operations, Lt. Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, noted that the satellites currently operated by the US military were not designed for space warfare. âWhen I started flying satellites, our main concern was the longevity of the system. Putting these capabilities into orbit was so expensive that we did a trend analysis on the efficiency of batteries and solar panels. “
These satellites were clearly not intended to operate in a “contested area,” he said. âSo now we have to change. “
The Space Force has established a War Analysis Center to lead the design of future space architectures using modeling and simulations.
Saltzman has warned the transition to easier-to-defend systems won’t happen overnight, but the Space Force is taking the first steps on what will be a long journey.
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor-in-chief of National Defense magazine.
âOn National Securityâ appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column was published in the December 2021 issue.