WASHINGTON — U.S. Space Systems Command officials earlier this month gave an unclassified briefing to Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos on the power competition taking place in the space domain.
Executives from the space company Blue Origin heard the briefing in September at a Space Systems Command industry meeting in Los Angeles. “The Blue Origin team was so impressed that they requested that SSC brief Jeff Bezos,” Col. Joseph Roth, the command’s director of innovation and prototyping, said Oct. 19 at the Space Industry Days conference hosted by AFCEA Los Angeles.
The briefing was conducted by SMSgt. Ron Lerch, senior enlisted leader of Space Systems Command’s intelligence directorate.
Speaking at the Space Industry Days event, Lerch said it is remarkable how much information can be obtained from open sources. A lot of people “roll their eyes” when you tell them the briefing is unclassified because they assume there’s little value in it, he said, but after hearing it they are surprised by the substance of the information.
Some highlights from Lerch’s talk:
Counter-space weapons are here today. Russia has openly talked about fixed-site and mobile laser systems that it could use to target foreign optical imaging satellites flying over Russian territory. “If they wanted to blind overhead satellites that rely on electro optical cameras, they’d be able to use these mobile systems to sort of blind our assets,” said Lerch.
“When we look at today’s threat, we have to respect the fact that yes, the Chinese and the Russians can potentially blind our satellites. But as we move towards the turn of the decade, we should absolutely expect that the technology is going to get to a point where they could probably start looking at creating actual structural damage to some of our satellites, depending on what orbit it’s operating in.”
A recent example of Chinese orbital capabilities is the Shijian-21 satellite that docked with a defunct Beidou spacecraft and tugged it to a graveyard orbit 300 kilometers above geostationary Earth orbit (GEO). China said this was a demonstration of debris removal, not of a space weapon. “The problem is when you start to look holistically at a lot of what the Chinese are doing in space, that’s where you start really getting worried about these robotic mechanisms that they’re utilizing,” said Lerch.
China becoming more active in GEO. “There is an absolute cat and mouse game that’s happening up in GEO right now,” he said. A recent example is China’s Shiyan 12 01 and Shiyan 12 02 spacecraft that Lerch characterized as “inspector satellites.” For a period of time, anytime that GSSAP (the U.S. Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program) satellites seemingly was getting close to the satellites, you would see them just disperse.”
The takeaway is that “when you start taking a look at the actions that they’re conducting, it’s tactics development, it’s rendezvous proximity operations, they’re starting to show that they’re also working on a lot of these … to be able to do maneuvering to potentially defeat an adversary.”
“We have to expect that by the turn of the decade, the technology will likely get to a point where they’re going to hold satellites in higher orbits, not just in LEO, at risk.”
The U.S. most exquisite satellites will be in danger. As China becomes more involved in space, putting up more satellites, they’re building an inventory only second to the U.S. For that reason they are unlikely to use kinetic weapons to damage satellites and create debris. Lerch said the concern is that the jammers that are now used on the ground will move to space, putting at risk critical U.S. satellites like the Advanced Extremely High Frequency used for classified communications that the Pentagon built precisely to resist jamming.
“The safety blanket that the U.S. has right now is AEHF,” said Lerch. “That’s sort of the untouchable frequency band and capability that we have … Now we have to accept the fact that by the 2030s, that safety net probably won’t be there.” If the Chinese can jam satellites from the ground, “they’re certainly going to explore some of the things that they’re doing on orbit to bring some of those capabilities closer to our regimes.”
Cyberattacks will be the first salvo fired. Lerch noted that cyber warfare is the most difficult topic to discuss in an unclassified forum “because so much of the attribution is what makes it classified.” He recalled that in 1999 the U.S. for the first time publicly acknowledged that the Chinese conducted a cyberattack against U.S. government websites in retaliation to NATO’s accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.
“That was more than two decades ago,” said Lerch. “So you have to believe that the capability has evolved significantly since then.”
Russia’s cyberattacks in February that took out 10,000 or 20,000 satellite terminals across Europe as the invasion of Ukraine got under way is an example of a “day zero enabling effect” that a country would execute to get ready for protracted conflict.”
China is advancing technologies for space-to-ground weapons. China last year reportedly tested a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) – a Cold War nuclear-weapons delivery technology — combined with a hypersonic glide vehicle, setting off alarms that this could give China a strategic advantage. Although China denied it was testing a FOBS, what stood out from the event was the distance the glider traveled, 40,000 kilometers, and that it completed 100 minutes of flight time, Lerch said. “Those are both records for the Chinese … This was considered to be a successful test for the Chinese.”
“The concern here is the evolution of what comes next,” he said. “Imagine a world where you have something that is able to stay in orbit and it has a payload that’s able to be released whenever they desire or at least at a minimum be used as a deterrent. So that’s why some of the most recent launch activity that we’ve seen with regards to their suborbital and orbital reusable vehicles is definitely concerning.”
China’s use of relay satellites to target U.S. forces. Lerch noted China’s deployment of the Tianlian data relay network in geostationary orbit which is now up to eight satellites. “It does offer capability to essentially do over the horizon targeting. They have the ISR [imaging] satellites as the infrastructure and now they have the data relay satellites up there as well, to be able to basically get coordinates of maybe a U.S. aircraft carrier that’s out there.” The relay system would be used potentially to pass the coordinates off to a weapon system to strike the carrier.
Advanced features in China’s Beidou navigation satellites. Beidou is not quite as capable as GPS but it’s catching up, said Lerch. “Some of the more recent assessments say that they likely have at least on average, a two-meter accuracy and an error of 20 nanoseconds, which is pretty good. GPS is slightly better with about a one-meter accuracy and 10 nanoseconds error.” One of the unique features of Beidou is that they’re the only global navigation satellite system with a secure messaging service built in. Lerch said the global messaging service can support up to 40 Chinese characters, and the regional one can support up to 1,000 characters. “It is a very good capability that the Chinese advertise to attract customers.”
The space war for China is economic. Chinese academics are forecasting that operations in cislunar space beyond Earth orbit is going to be a $10 trillion a year industry. “It’s clear that the Chinese have their eyes set on not just what’s happening close to Earth but they’re absolutely looking towards the future and seeing what technology needs to be developed to be able to get to that goal.” Of concern to the U.S. is that if China views the cislunar region as a space economic zone, “you’re going to have the celestial equivalent of the South China Seas happening in cislunar space.”