Russia’s anti-satellite missile test has raised calls for the United States and its allies to push for international norms to ban such tests.
But reaching an agreement on space arms control could take years or even decades. And until that happens, there is no guarantee Russia or another country won’t attempt to blow more satellites out of the sky, including those belonging to the United States.
The Russian military on Nov. 15 launched a Nudol ballistic missile that intercepted a defunct Soviet-era satellite in low Earth orbit. The U.S. government said the strike created an estimated 1,500 pieces of trackable debris. U.S. Space Command, as of Dec. 2, had identified orbits for 207 debris items from the event and will continue to catalog more objects in the coming weeks and months.
If Russia can destroy its own satellite, “you can bet that they can destroy an American satellite, military or commercial,” said Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno, director of staff of the U.S. Space Force.
The Space Force, established by Congress and the Trump administration two years ago as the sixth independent branch of the U.S. armed forces, is responsible for keeping space safe for military, civilian and commercial operations.
While the service has been derided as a vanity project of the former president, the recent Russian missile test is a reminder that the Space Force serves a legitimate role in national security.
U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, the top civilian leader of the Air Force and the Space Force, said Russia’s test was hugely irresponsible but served as a wake-up call.
Access to space is vital to national defense, Kendall said in an interview with SpaceNews. Further, the functions performed by satellites are woven into people’s daily lives, enable the global economy and are vital to U.S. military operations.
“The Space Force in terms of size is very small relative to the other services. But in terms of importance, it’s at least equal to the other services,” said Kendall. “If you cannot operate effectively in space and deal with the threats that you face from space, then it’s hard to conduct terrestrial operations. That’s increasingly true as technologies mature and people become more dependent on space and on the support functions you can get from space.”
The challenge for the Space Force, Kendall said, is to make its constellations more resilient to attacks, not just from missiles but from electronic jammers or lasers now being developed by China.
Kendall said this is not a traditional arms race where rival powers build up their forces and arsenals. China has been pursuing anti-satellite weapons for years, motivated by their assessment of satellites as “attackable assets the United States relies upon.”
How should the U.S. respond? “We need to get on with building resilient architectures,” he said. Work is underway to design future satellites with more maneuverability and deploy them in larger numbers to create disaggregated networks that would be harder to target.
The Pentagon’s deputy chief of space operations, Lt. Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, noted that the satellites the U.S. military currently operates were not designed for space warfare. “When I started flying satellites, our primary concern was the longevity of the system. It was so expensive to put these capabilities on orbit that we did trend analysis on batteries and solar array efficiencies.”
These satellites clearly were not intended to operate in a “contested domain,” he said. “So now we have to shift.”
The Space Force stood up a warfighting analysis center to lead the design of future space architectures using modeling and simulations.
Saltzman cautioned that the transition to easier-to-defend systems would not happen overnight, but the Space Force is taking the first steps of what will be a long journey.
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the December 2021 issue.