Rescind the proposed budget cut for launching DARPA’s RSGS robotic servicing spacecraft

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By the early 2020s, China and Russia will have robotic spacecraft threatening our satellites particularly those at the geosynchronous orbits, which are difficult to reach by other types of antisatellite weapons (ASATs). We have suggested that DARPA’s developing spacecraft for robotic servicing of geosynchronous satellites (RSGS) should also serve as bodyguard spacecraft to protect our critical satellites against adversaries’ robotic servicing spacecraft being used as ASATs.

The need to use these spacecraft also as bodyguards is the strongest reason to rescind the proposed budget cut for launching our first robotic servicing spacecraft. Any delay in its launch would greatly increase the chance of a space Pearl Harbor.

On Aug. 23, the Senate passed a “minibus” appropriation bill for the fiscal year 2019 cutting out $209 million, which is the budget requested by the Air Force for launching the robotic servicing spacecraft in March 2021 as planned. The Air Force said it would need to buy the launch two years in advance (i.e., 2019) of the actual launch. On the other hand, Senate appropriators cut the launch budget on the grounds that the spacecraft will not be ready as scheduled and justified their funding cut as “[too] early to need.” Even if the Senate appropriators were right about the spacecraft not being ready, appropriating the launch funding a year or two too early would amount to at most $20 million in interest charge; a minuscule amount given military spending. In any case, this $20 million is needed insurance against the dangerous outcome of spacecraft ready by March 2021 but unable to be launched as scheduled though ungently required.

The administration, Air Force and DARPA are putting forth good reasons for the cut to be rescinded as Congress goes forward in its budget deliberations. For example, the White House said RSGS is an “innovative public-private partnership to demonstrate on-orbit repair, refuel and other servicing capabilities” and failure to get funding for launch by 2019 would put “at risk substantial private investment and future public-private partnerships.”

As stated above, we need bodyguards to protect our satellites against these Chinese and Russian robotic servicing spacecraft re-tasked as ASATs (hereafter, space stalkers), which can grab and disable our satellites while creating little space debris. We should buy many more of RSGS spacecraft so as to also use them as bodyguard satellites against space stalkers. These bodyguards can be used to block and/or wrestle with the space stalkers moving in to grab and disable our satellites. There are two reasons why these RSGS spacecraft are particularly suitable to serve as bodyguards:

  • RSGS spacecraft will have been developed by 2021 and can fly as bodyguards in quantity commensurate with the growing number of space stalkers, which will emerge by the early 2020s. No other spacecraft has been developed or can be developed in time to serve as bodyguards.
  • China and Russia cannot argue that we need not have bodyguards against their ASAT-capable RSGS-equivalent spacecraft. Besides, our use of RSGS spacecraft as bodyguards is most non-escalatory in crisis or conflict. Also, using RSGS spacecraft as bodyguards is a proportional response to the threat and attack, not a space arms race. To minimize a space arms race, we should not use a defense system with a longer range or more lethal as bodyguards, unless we are forced by more potent threats.

Former RSGS program manager Gordon Roesler said there are other applications for RSGS that have yet to be examined. For example, the robotic arms could be used to install sensor modules on the outside of any satellite, allowing the satellite to see objects in its vicinity and report back to Earth. That is to say, RSGS serves critical national security space missions as well.

Opponents of the U.S. employing bodyguard satellites can no longer claim that the alarm over the rapidly emerging space stalking threat is simply crying wolf. On June 26, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that U.S. lead in space is diminishing and ‘in the near future’ skies will be filled with enemy robot satellites. On Aug. 14, Yleem Poblete, the State Department’s assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance told an audience in Geneva, Switzerland: A Russian satellite made a series of maneuvers in October 2017 that was “inconsistent” with its expected behavior and marks “a very troubling development.”

On Aug. 9, Department of Defense released the Final Report on Organizational and Management Structure for the National Security Space Components of the Department of Defense, which stated that, “using existing authorities,” the Department of Defense is immediately pursuing four components: Space Development Agency, Space Operations Force, Services and Support, and Space Command. In less than two months since President Trump’s announcement of his desire to form a separate Space Force, short of Congress to combine these components into the sixth branch of the Armed Forces, the Department of Defense has moved fast and accomplished a lot to re-organize the space enterprise for the future.

However, if we overlook the devastating space stalking threat, which will be upon us in a few years, all the more distant promises of peace and prosperity in space from the Space Force would mean little to us. It would be even more tragic, if we could have effectively, affordably and timely deterred and defended against this threat but were just too preoccupied to notice the calamity from this seemingly inconsequential budget cut. Let’s rescind this proposed budget cut now, before it is too late. 


Dr. Chow is an independent policy analyst. This commentary is a companion to a recent SpaceNews piece on Growing U.S. satellite vulnerability: The silent ‘Apocalypse Next.’ His recent publications in space appear in Strategic Studies Quarterly, SpaceNews, The National Interest, Defense One, Defense News and The Space Review. He can be reached at [email protected]