In this LeoLabs image, the International Space Station's orbit is depicted in orange. The while circles show debris stemming from the Nov. 15 Russian antisatellite test. Credit: LeoLabs

WASHINGTON — China and Russia for decades have watched the United States display its military power, much of it enabled by satellites in space. China’s recent demonstration of an orbital hypersonic weapon and Russia blowing up a satellite in orbit are expected countermoves, said Space Force deputy chief of operations Lt. Gen. B. Chance Saltzman.

What is happening in space is a “natural consequence” of how military powers historically behave as they try to gain a leg up on adversaries, Saltzman said Nov. 29 during a Mitchell Institute online event.   

“These are dynamic times in the space security environment,” he said. 

Military capabilities acquired by the United States such as GPS-guided weapons and overhead sensors that detect missile launches are all dependent on satellites in orbit. China or Russia have an incentive to develop space weapons that could serve as “first strike” capabilities in the event of a conflict to deny the U.S. these advantages, Saltzman explained. 

“We are seeing a shift to where the first strike advantages are encountered in space,” he said. “They’re the first mover advantage, whoever can go first on the offense has an advantage.”

China demonstrated a hypersonic glide vehicle that can be launched to orbit, reenter the atmosphere and strike a target on the ground. “Now, what the military minds have to do is offset that. And we have to figure out how you defend against that capability so that first mover advantage is not there,” said Saltzman.

“I think what we’re seeing is a cycle of history. When you are behind, you look for ways to seek vulnerabilities in your competitors so that you can regain your advantage. And we’re seeing that play out,” he said. “We’ve had an advantage for a long time.”

Russia earlier this month launched a Nudol suborbital missile that intercepted a defunct Soviet satellite 468 kilometers above Earth, creating a large cloud of debris that could endanger other satellites and the International Space Station. 

This sends a signal to the United States that the U.S. advantage derived from space is at risk, said Saltzman. “They’ve watched how we’ve prosecuted campaigns from Desert Storm and beyond. And they know that if they can take those capabilities away from us, that it can bring more parity to the strategic military environment.”

The U.S. now has to figure out what to do next to restore strategic stability. Saltzman said the answer does not have to involve aggression. “The Space Force sees as one its primary responsibilities to deter a war that starts or extends into space. And so deterrence is at the heart of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond frequently has compared space to the lawless wild west where anything goes. 

Saltzman said Russia’s latest demonstration proves that point. Space is a global commons so it’s imperative to have an international agreement in place that lays out rules of behavior and punishes violators. “It’s hard to hold people responsible for any kind of behavior because you haven’t really defined what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”

“I don’t think we should underestimate how important setting the framework for what responsible behavior in space looks like,” he said. “Once we set that framework, we can hold other nations accountable in a broader sense, through maybe the United Nations or through other international coalitions and I think that international peer pressure is actually pretty valuable.”

To enforce a code of conduct, it will be important for the United States and other nations to have accurate intelligence about space activities. Russia shooting down a satellite was clearly an intentional act, “but there are other times when two objects just run into each other and create a debris field. So a debris generating event can occur by accident, as much as it can occur deliberately. And we have to have that capacity to rapidly characterize, figure out where those orbits are, and then start doing projections about potential hazards that those new objects created on orbit could cause.”

Better detection needed

To counter China’s advances in hypersonic weapons, the immediate response will be to deploy sensors that can detect these threats, said Saltzman. “It’s incumbent on the Space Force to make sure that we’re developing the capabilities to track these kinds of weapons before they’re launched, ideally, but then throughout their lifecycle, either on orbit or in execution of their mission.”

“If we can track we can attribute, and if we can attribute I think we can deter,” he said. “One of the imperatives of the Space Force is to make sure that we’re developing those capabilities to be able to hold accountable nations who are using these kinds of destabilizing weapons.”

One way to deter anti-satellite attacks like that performed by Russia is to make it costly for the aggressor. An approach favored by the Space Force is to deploy large numbers of lower-cost satellites to create a “disaggregated” system, instead of relying on a handful of costly and sophisticated satellites that Russia and China would target.

“We think that our ability to have more resilient capability, maybe disaggregated capability on orbit creates a problem for an adversary,” said Saltzman. “If they don’t know what to shoot at, then what’s the benefit of shooting? And so we are actively pouring our resources into building a resilient architecture that no one satellite destruction would dismantle.”

Of course there’s no guarantee that strategy will work, he added. “If they think they can get away with things scot free, then it changes the calculus.” At least, the Space Force will look at what “research and development are required to see what it would take to impose costs. And so that’s our that’s our strategy initially.”

The satellites the U.S. military currently operates were not designed for space warfare, Saltzman noted. “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. And we designed a very efficient architecture with regards to that.”

What the United States has is “certainly not an architecture designed knowing that you are going to have to provide those services in a contested domain. And so now we have to shift.”

Saltzman cautioned that this transition could take years. “It’s not going to be overnight that we can shift like this.”

The Space Force stood up an analysis center to help design the future space architecture. “They’re using modeling and simulations that we really haven’t had in the past,” he said. 

“Some of these things take a while to get on orbit. But a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. So that’s that’s the path of the journey we’re on.”

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...