CHANTILLY, Va. — Space powers are playing cat-and-mouse games in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles above Earth. In the last few years, Russian and Chinese reconnaissance satellites have maneuvered to get a closer look at U.S. military satellites that provide critical services like early warning, intelligence and surveillance. 

This is a growing problem for U.S. Space Command, responsible for ensuring the safety of the nation’s satellites. A key concern is that U.S. surveillance satellites that monitor potentially hostile activities are increasingly at a disadvantage because of their limited maneuverability, said Lt. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of U.S. Space Command.

The military’s geosynchronous space situational awareness platforms ideally should be able to “maneuver without regret,” Shaw said Jan. 24 at the National Security Space Association’s defense and intelligence conference.

Shaw compared a U.S. military geostationary satellite to an RVs that is sold with a full tank of gas but cannot be refilled once the fuel is consumed. “That would severely limit your options when you plan your travel,” he said. 

DoD’s geosynchronous satellites designed decades ago were intended to remain static and perform minimum maneuvers to preserve fuel. But now that rival nations are circling around, “we’d like to move around and look at many things in the geosynchronous sphere as much as we possibly can,” Shaw said. Not having freedom to maneuver is “constraining us in a significant way. And it’s not enabling us to do dynamic space operations the way we’d like.”

Shaw said Space Command has been putting a lot of thought into this issue and is drafting requirements for future satellites to be developed by the U.S. Space Force. 

Some solutions already are in the works, such as deploying refueling stations in space and on-orbit servicing vehicles. Another way to address the problem is by making cheaper “commoditized” satellites that can be deployed more frequently than traditional big-ticket satellites, an initiative advocated by the head of Space Force acquisitions Frank Calvelli.

“We have this new kind of requirement emerging that we hadn’t really thought through before,” Shaw said.  

U.S. systems ‘increasingly vulnerable’

Ronald Moultrie, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, said the power competition in space will only intensify, and the United States has to prepare for the possibility of anti-satellite weapon attacks.

“We are not the only nation that understands the vital importance of space,” he said at the NSSA conference. 

“The expansion of global space services has placed more assets in orbit, which is now exponentially multiplied when we factor in our allies and competitors,” he said. “Alarmingly, we know that China and Russia are developing common space capabilities including multiple-attack options designed to deliver a whole spectrum of effects: some reversible, but some that would inflict permanent damage.”

As these nations improve their space asset tracking systems, Moultrie added, “we are increasingly vulnerable in this domain.”

“In order to stay ahead of our competitors and remain the undisputed leader in space,” said Moultrie, “we must modernize our architecture, both in space and on the ground to become faster, more agile, and just as importantly, more resilient.”

He noted that DoD is planning a diversified space architecture that includes large and small government-owned and commercial satellites in multiple orbits. 

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...