Significant changes are underway in U.S. military space operations due to the growing threat from Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons and the exponential growth in lightsats and CubeSats that threaten to “darken the sky,” consuming huge bandwidth while also raising new satellite collision dangers.
Once again the Obama Administration, through its military space commanders, has openly warned China to halt ASAT threats to U.S. and allied civil and military spacecraft.
These issues will be major topics of discussion at the 31st Space Foundation Symposium in Colorado Springs next week.
The Air Force is increasingly overwhelmed tracking space debris that computer analysis indicates number 500,000 objects, while current capabilities allow tracking of only 23,000 of the largest pieces, Air Force General John E. Hyten, Commander of U.S. Space Command, told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces last week.
“Over the last year, a plethora of activity clearly demonstrated that space is even more congested, competitive and contested than ever before with no signs of slowing down,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, commander of the joint service Functional Component Command for Space at Vandenberg AFB, Calif.
“Adapting to this new [space] threat environment is driving an increasing mutual dependence between the Defense Department and the Intelligence Community,” he told the subcommittee.
They will together need to:
- Prioritize requirements for added capability and increased resiliency for future space systems.
- Reevaluate new areas of emphasis for our space Science and Technology efforts.
- Revise how we think about and conduct architectural planning for future space capabilities.
- Assess how and at what pace we develop and manufacture these capabilities and the resulting implications for the space industrial base.
The latest Chinese ASAT test last July and related intelligence has galvanized the Obama Administration, through top U.S. military and civilian defense officials, into warning China against ASAT threats against U. S. and allied spacecraft. These spacecraft are increasingly vulnerable between 100-25,000 mi. altitude because of new Chinese ASAT development activity.
The Defense Dept. is seeking $5 billion in its 2016 budget request to fund increased ASAT countermeasures and better space tracking and surveillance capability.
U.S. intelligence systems have observed China fire ASAT capable rockets to geosynchronous altitude, although last year’s test was at relatively low altitude and fired toward a star or other harmless coordinate in space. The 300 pieces of debris created by China’s 2007 destruction of a defunct polar orbit weather satellite continues to threaten multinational space assets, including China’s.
The recent explosion of an old U.S. Air Force weather satellite added at least 43 more pieces to this polar orbit mix.
“Space is now a contested warfighting domain and multiple players are increasingly challenging our ability to execute the strategic and operational Space capabilities required by our Nation, the Joint Force, and Allies and partners,” Raymond told the subcommittee.
He said, “The capabilities we launch, operate, command and control, track, support and defend are indispensable warfighting components to support our Nation’s strategic deterrence.”
“The Nation and Department of Defense have never been more reliant on space capabilities as we face increasing threats to the peaceful use and freedom of action in the Space Joint Operating Area,” he testified.
“The emerging space strategic environment demands we adopt new ways of thinking and continue to hone our skills across each mission area to protect and defend our national interests. We must prepare now and build our understanding of adversary tactics as we codify our options to decisively employ space power. We must develop solutions to counter emerging threats in our current fiscally- constrained environment,” said Raymond.
“The rapid evolution and expansion of threats to our space capabilities in every orbit regime has highlighted [a growing] asymmetric disadvantage due to the inherent susceptibilities and increasing vulnerabilities of our space systems” said Dyke Weatherington, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for Space, and Strategic and Intelligence Systems.
A new review “revealed that the U.S. today is not adequately prepared for a conflict which might extend to space. That is a statement of posture more than it is of capability,” Douglas Loverro. deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Space, told the subcommittee.
“Our review affirmed that in the case of a conflict that could threaten space assets, [our] way of thinking must change. It is one thing to be prepared to deal with an on-orbit engineering issue or even a random outage caused by a piece of debris; it is quite another to have to respond to problems in space caused by a determined, thinking, and dynamically agile adversary [like China or Russia],” he said.
“We recognized that the most important near term action we could take to respond to that need was to invest in our people, our training, our modeling, our doctrine, and our tactics. To that end, we have proposed the standup of a new Joint Space Doctrine and Tactics Forum led by the Commander of the U. S. Strategic Command.
“The Forum’s purpose is to help our forces understand and practice the strategy, doctrine, and tactics of a conflict that extends to space by investing in modeling and simulation, training, and operational exercises similar to what we do in other domains. In many ways, you can view the Joint Space Doctrine and Tactics Forum as the operational image of the Space Security and Defense Program, which we established several years ago. Whereas that focuses on the analytical and technical side of space security, the Doctrine and Tactics Forum will focus on developing and exercising the operational side of space security. This is a critically important step,” Loverro said.
“The Nation and Department of Defense have never been more reliant on space capabilities as we face increasing threats to the peaceful use and freedom of action in the Space Joint Operating Area.
“The Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) at Vandenberg notifies more than 8,000 satellite owners of potential space debris collisions with their satellites. During 2014 those operators maneuvered their satellites 121 times to avoid debris. Three of those maneuvers were done by the International Space Station. The Center averages 23 collision warning notifications per day,” Raymond told the subcommittee.
“Those figures are daunting enough without the fact that we believe there are another 500,000 objects in space that are too small for us to track. The challenge will only grow more difficult as space congestion increases,” he said. “There were 229 new payloads launched last year. Of those, 158 were nano or microsats—defined as weighing between 1 and 100 kg.”
“The latest space revolution revolves around the most common of these small satellites—the CubeSat. A CubeSat is structured around a 10cm x 10cm x 10cm form factor, with deployed weights ranging from 1kg – 20 kg. CubeSat technology represents awesome potential, affordable access to space [but] with significant safety of flight challenges,” said Raymond.
“Unlike a normal space launch that is announced to the global space community so we can track them from the ground, CubeSats are typically deployed once they are already on orbit. In fact, 28 CubeSats were deployed from the U.S. ORS-3 space mission in November 2013, and the International Space Station has deployed 48 CubeSats.
“In order for us to track these satellites in a timely manner, we need a substantial amount of coordination and cooperation with the owners and operators of those satellites. In addition to being small and hard to track, their numbers are on the rise, and once launched many of them will linger far beyond their useful lifetimes. There were 92 nano/microsats launched in 2013, 158 nano/microsats launched in 2014, and a predicted 2,000 – 2,750 nano/microsats will be launched within the next 5 years. In addition to their rapidly increasing numbers, many objects placed into orbit will linger there for many dozens of years–far beyond their useful lifetimes,” the Lt. General said.
“This is good for the growth of our domestic space enterprise, but causes concerns for future safety of flight,” he told the subcommittee. “For example, Vanguard-1, [America’s fourth satellite] launched in 1958, is still on orbit 57 years later.”
“To mitigate these challenges, we are taking a multi-pronged approach to enhancing space situational awareness (SSA). We are fielding new, more-capable SSA sensors, implementing a new SSA Sharing Strategy, and entering into two-way sharing partnerships.
“New SSA capabilities provided by the military services such as, the Geosynchronous SSA satellite program, the Space Fence, and the Space Surveillance Telescope being installed in Australia, will fill critical shortfalls in the SSA mission with increased tracking and characterization of objects in space,” said Raymond. “These successes represent initial steps toward the goal of leveraging existing and planned SSA capabilities of Allies and space partners,” he testified before the subcommittee.
“The skies will ‘darken’ with the hundreds of small satellites to be launched by U.S. companies and as procedures are developed to allow safe operation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in civil airspace. We need to invest in the growing number of commercial satellite providers to enhance our persistence capabilities,” said Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
The questions that will arise from “ geospatial data streaming from hundreds of overhead platforms covering the earth multiple times a day are staggering and the challenges of taking advantage of that data are daunting,” he told the subcommittee.
“We cannot afford to store it all and we cannot afford the manpower to exploit it all. We have to go to a service model where we acquire only what we need, when we need it. Assured access is a priority, however, and space situational awareness underpins all we do in space from launch to disposal. It supports the protection of critical space assets upon which our national leadership, warfighters and civil and commercial space operators depend,” Cardillo concluded.