In the Pentagon corridor where Space Force commanders have their offices, a mural depicting military satellites warns that the heavens are “a new warfighting domain.”
That stark assessment was demonstrated on Monday, as U.S. officials accused Russia of conducting a “reckless, dangerous and irresponsible” test of a new antisatellite (ASAT) weapon.
Space is the new high ground of great-power combat, and the Russians were joining the Chinese in demonstrating they have the ability to launch a direct-ascent attack to destroy a satellite – in this case one of their own. China and India had conducted similar tests in 2007 and 2019, respectively. The United States fired a missile in 2008 to destroy a satellite officials said was leaking fuel.
What angered U.S. officials was that, in showing off their targeting ability, the Russians created a field of debris in low-earth orbit, with 1,500 pieces of the destroyed spacecraft that were big enough to be tracked by radar. This debris could threaten commercial and military satellites, as well as U.S. and Russian astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
State Department spokesman Ned Price used unusually pointed language in criticizing the Russian test, which he said threatens “the interests of all nations” that depend on space-based systems for communications, weather, location and myriad digital information. He said U.S. diplomats had “spoken to senior Russian officials multiple times to warn them” about the dangers of such a test.
“This behavior is not something we will tolerate,” Price said several times. But he didn’t explain how the United States would stop such activity.
Defending space-based systems is the mission of the Space Force, the United States’ newest uniformed service, which is just settling into its digs in the Pentagon. Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, the Space Force chief, hosted me there Monday in a long-scheduled interview, which happened to coincide with the announcement of the Russian ASAT attack.
Raymond’s arsenal is portrayed in the mural that takes up a wall a few dozen yards from his office. It may the closest thing an outsider can find to an order of battle for the highly secretive Space Force. It portrays airplane-borne lasers firing at satellites and the flags of Russian and Chinese potential adversaries. It also shows a variety of U.S. military satellites, including a once highly classified craft that’s part of the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, which scouts the reaches of space where other nations’ strategic satellites are positioned – perhaps with disguised capabilities.
For a glimpse of the cat-and-mouse game that U.S. satellites are playing with potential adversaries, check out a video posted last month by the website Breaking Defense. Using private data, it shows a U.S. craft, described as part of the GSSAP array, tracking a Chinese satellite that then executes an escape maneuver to move farther away.
One worry for Raymond is that the Pentagon maintains big, exquisitely designed surveillance platforms in space that present “a handful of fat, juicy targets,” in the words of Gen. John E. Hyten, who retires this month as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“We have to build a more resilient architecture,” with more small satellites that can’t be so easily targeted, Raymond told me on Monday. He said the Space Force is working to solve this vulnerability, cooperating with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which oversees space surveillance, and with commercial satellite companies.
Raymond said the Space Force had achieved “a close partnership, never closer” with the NRO, something that hasn’t always been easy because the spy agency prizes its independence and secrecy. All U.S. intelligence or military organizations that use space now “operate in a threatened domain,” he said.
The debris problem is something that Raymond has been studying. The American answer has been to be more careful about not creating debris inadvertently through launch or maneuver. Collecting debris would be the next step, but he said the United States doesn’t yet have a plan for that.
“We [the United States] act as space traffic control for the world,” by keeping track of satellites and debris and warning of possible collisions, Raymond said. Space Command, the Combatant Command in charge of day-to-day space operations, recently had warned the International Space Station to alter course to avoid a piece of Chinese space debris from their 2007 ASAT test.
The Russian test this past weekend underlines that need for better consultation about space – the equivalent of the “hotline” that Russia and the United States adopted after the near disaster of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
The idea of space as a contested domain, without common rules or communication, is chilling.
Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost.