North Korean leader Kim Jong-un observes the March 7 test launch of four ballistic missiles. Credit: Rodong Sinmun

WASHINGTON — North Korea and other rogue states pose unique challenges and threats to the space environment, defense experts said March 8.

U.S. near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia have incentives to remain peaceful in orbit. They may not want to create debris for fear of damaging their own satellites, or disrupt position, navigation, and timing services that they also use.

But the same logic doesn’t apply to non-state actors or rogue nations that don’t “have anything at stake in the global economy,” said Todd Harrison, director of Defense Budget Analysis and the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

He noted that North Korea is “jamming GPS signals in certain areas along their border. It’s disrupting shipping, mainly.”

“That’s going to happen. You can’t necessarily deter that because they don’t have a lot to lose from it,” said Harrison, speaking Wednesday night at an event hosted by Defense One.

North Korea has never accepted many of the norms used by other nations for space operations, said John Hill, the principal director for space policy at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

“North Korea has never committed not to test nuclear weapons in space,” he said. “And North Korea has demonstrated they’ll do all sorts of strange things. I don’t think I just put an idea in anybody’s head…That is not a good thing and that is something that we have to think about. How do you deal with that larger problem of North Korea?”

One of the key space capabilities to counter that nation is missile warning, both men said, perhaps no more apparent than March 6 when North Korea launched four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, apparently in a test of its ability to hit Japanese or U.S. targets in the region..

“[T]alk to anyone at [the Missile Defense Agency] and they’ll tell you that the No. 1 thing you can do to improve the effectiveness of missile defense systems we already have is to improve tracking and discrimination,” Harrison said. “The best way to do that over long distances is in space. We need more of this capability.”

But missile warning is an area where the U.S. needs to start thinking ahead on what’s next, he added.

“In space it typically takes about 10 years from the time you initiate a program to when you can actually get something on orbit. Ten years is if everything goes well,” Harrison said.

He said the very first satellites in the Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System of missile-warning satellites will likely start to die in about 10 years.

“When do you need to start the follow-on program? Oh, yesterday,” Harrison said. “So we already need a follow-on program for SBIRS, even though we’re not quite finished launching them yet.”

The lack of a follow-on program of record is true for other military space programs, he said, including protected communications.

“We’ve got a number of these programs that are already at the point where we need to be initiating a follow-on and we haven’t yet,” Harrison said. “I’m going to be anxiously looking at the FY 18 budget request when it comes out to see if there’s anything in there to start these follow-on programs, or if we’re going to continue launching the things that we have been launching.”

Hill said that developing the next generation of military satellites must include working closely with — and even buying services from — private industry.

“There are pieces of it where the commercial demand, the commercial market, starts driving the innovation,” he said. “The trick for DoD is to say ‘how does our acquisition system, how does our requirement system, recognize where are those points where we have ceased to be the innovator and driver?’ The commercial side is now driving it and how do we capture that and bring it in?”

Harrison said he believes space has reached an “inflection point.”

“I think it is being primarily driven by the private sector,” he said. “We are seeing a real revolution in space launch, we’re seeing it in satellite communications, we’re seeing it in remote sensing, Earth imaging, and it’s really being driven by the commercial sector. The challenge for DoD now, it’s not about catching up; It’s about leveraging it. It’s about ‘how do we tap into it, how do we use it for the military purposes?’”

Phillip Swarts is the military space reporter for SpaceNews. He previously covered space and advanced technology for Air Force Times, the Justice Department for The Washington Times, and investigative journalism for the Washington Guardian;...