Updated: Aug 4, 2020
Since the founding of the United States, Americans have engaged in warfare and dealt with the grueling challenges that come along with it. In order to combat these issues and increase the chance of victory on the battlefield, the federal government encourages its agencies and defense companies to pursue breakthroughs in logistics, industry, and technology. As a result of military innovation, the world now has access to tools and infrastructure that were once deemed the realm of science fiction. The First World War saw the introduction of armored vehicles, airplanes, and long-range communication systems, all of which helped change the tide of battle. The Second World War saw the use of the atomic bomb: a device that caused hundreds of thousands of casualties, yet gave way to the possibility of unlimited, clean energy. The internet was the child of a defense agency's program to securely share files over a digital network in the midst of the Cold War. The Global Positioning System, which played such a pivotal role in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Inherent Resolve, can now be found in any teenagers phone.
Today, the United States of America is the most powerful nation in history of man because of its ability to create or adapt technology for military use. The majority of policymakers will admit that learning to use the tools of modern warfare is the difference between the prospering of one's people, and utter destruction. Despite its unprecedented record of technological improvement and dominance of the global order, the United States now finds itself at grave risk to adversaries in one key war-fighting and geoeconomic domain: space.
Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, once observed that the United States remained a superior force throughout the Cold War because of its ability to dominate space, “he who controls the heavens will control what happens in the battles of Earth.” Amidst a new era of great power competition, the Russian Federation and People’s Republic of China are seeking to expand their influence in orbit, on the lunar surface, and even the distant planet of Mars. These two states have displayed their ability to target satellites, the lifeline of the US military and industrial sector, with orbital and ground-based weapons. In fact, these two adversaries are working together in key areas of space development to the detriment of the American citizenry.
Although the United States has remained above the curve since the end of the First Cold War, it now finds itself at risk as the Second Cold War begins. Years of muscle atrophy in the defense industry, space community, and Washington has taken its toll. In this short report, The Intelligence Ledger seeks to redefine American interstellar strategy using history, threat analysis, and modern technology in order to ensure dominance of the international order in the years following 2035.
Key Definitions and Concepts
Before forming a strategy for American success in space, a clear and common understanding of definitions and concepts must be established.
Communication Satellites: Communication satellites provide government, military, and private organizations access to television, internet, mobile cellular service, voice communication, and data transfer services.
Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Satellites: Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites support civilian, commercial, and military organizations. As the Defense Intelligence Agency notes, "ISR satellites provide remote sensing data, which includes data on the Earth’s land, sea, and atmosphere." ISR platforms support both the intelligence community and military in collecting signals intelligence, imagery, and other related data.
Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Satellites: Positioning, navigation, and timing satellites allow civilian, commercial, and military users to determine location and time. Although PNT encompasses GPS, it is a much larger and more complicated system that performs many other jobs.
Space Ground Systems (SGS): Space ground systems play a critical role in support of operations in space. Composed of Ground Stations, Mission Control Centers, and Launch Facilities, the United States would have no future on the last frontier without SGSs.
Space Launch Vehicles (SLV): Space launch vehicles can deploy, sustain, augment, or reconstitute satellite constellations in support of civilian, military, or commercial customers.
Low Earth Orbit (LEO): Low Earth Orbit is an orbit with an altitude of 2,000 km or less. With the exception of the Apollo missions to the lunar surface, all human spaceflight has been completed in LEO. Communications and ISR satellites currently operate in this orbit.
Medium Earth Orbit (MEO): Medium Earth Orbit is achieved when altitude is maintained between 2,000 km and 35,000 km. Communications and PNT satelites currently operate in this obit.
Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO): Highly Elliptical Orbit is an orbit with an approximate altitude of 40,000 km at apogee (farthest from Earth). Communications, ISR, and missile warning satellites currently operate in this orbit.
Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO): Geosynchronous Earth Orbit is an orbit with an approximate altitude of 36,000 km. Communications, ISR, and missile warning satellites currently operate in this orbit.
History of American Presence in Space
As the United States of America and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics emerged from the Second World War, a mutual distrust, differing ideologies, opposed economic systems, and the buildup of nuclear weapons plunged the world into the Cold War. The Cold War has been characterized in the minds of many by the use of guerrillas, the threat of mutually assured destruction, and covert operations. The exploration of space and development of space-based platforms served as another major arena for great power competition. The history of American presence in space, therefore, is closely connected to the history of the Cold War.
In 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the world by announcing it had successfully placed a satellite into low-earth orbit. American strategists and policymakers fretted over the idea of a Soviet intelligence platform over American airspace. Even more frightening for American citizens was the satellite's delivery vehicle, the R-7 missile. Newsmen and statesmen alike nervously investigated the ability of the vehicle to deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States. Over the next two decades, Moscow would repeatedly best Washington in several key areas of the space race. Out of a fear that the United States was falling behind the communists in this important domain, multiple presidential administrations would increase the funding for space defense, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in hopes of ensuring the United States would emerge victorious on the last frontier.
In 1989, the United States realized it had won the First Cold War with the fall of the Iron Curtin. By all measurements, the dreams of America’s original space policymakers were fulfilled by the conflict's conclusion. Dozens of American astronauts had visited space, while 12 Americans had walked on the lunar surface. The end of the Cold War, however, also spelled doom for many of Washington's own space programs. With no peer competitors threatening the United States in space, multiple administrations and several sessions of congress failed to increase investment in this key war-fighting and economic domain. In fact, NASA was forced to significantly cut back its capabilities as it suffered a string of budget cuts. This culminated in the cession of manned missions from American soil for nearly ten years in 2011.
After several decades of muscle atrophy, Washington is seeking to increase its presence in space amidst growing threats from China and Russia. Unmanned missions to the Moon and Mars are laying the groundwork for future manned landings. The development of launch vehicles, capsules, and lunar base facilities continues on earth under NASA's Artemis Program. In fact, the United States regained the ability to launch astronauts with the successful deployment of a reusable rocket built by SpaceX under the Artemis Program.
In the defense realm, the development of space platforms has taken on a new urgency. Advanced communication, missile warning, and ISR satellites are beginning to replace older and out-of-date platforms. The United States Space Force, America's newest military branch, is swiftly developing jamming and anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities while simultaneously planning for weaponized space stations.
Although the United States is making swift strides in space, American policy in this domain is dangerously uncoordinated and incoherent. Reliance on satellites, the failure to develop lunar facilities, and hostile development of space-based weapon systems reveals severe vulnerabilities that the American government has failed to properly address.
America's Achilles Heel
People never expect something they trust to induce their downfall. In 2010, a glitch in American satellite software rendered nearly 10,000 of the Department of Defense's (DOD) Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers useless for a week. The glitch didn't just hamper movement of units and leave American aircraft grounded; it left the United States open to defeat. News services across the globe barely covered the story, mentioning only briefly that a minor interruption of satellite service caused temporary chaos on American installations.
Ten years later, reliance on technology and satellites is growing stronger while manned systems become weaker. The glitch of 2010 revealed how vulnerable the United States has become. The American system is built on an understanding that satellites will always be available; their service never hampered. With the US poised to restructure the majority of its force to rely on satellites, and a growing number of American businesses counting on the space-based platform for success, The Intelligence Ledger asks the question, "What happens when the enemy steals the keys or smashes the car?"
Strategic Importance of Satellites
Since the launch of its first satellite in 1958, the United States has built up an impressive array of the space based-platform, boasting nearly 1,327 satellites in orbit today. Specifically, the Department of Defense and intelligence community currently operate over 150 satellites of various types and models.
This space-based platform is integral to the success of American military, intelligence, commercial, and civilian organizations. Billions, if not trillions, of wealth has been created as a result of the services satellites provide. Although there are dozens of types of satellites, The Intelligence Ledger assesses that the key platforms for American strategic success include communication satellites, ISR satellites, missile warning satellites, and PNT satellites.
Threats to American Satellites
The PRC and Russian Federation understand that a high-intensity conflict or Cold War with the United States can only be won if they can directly challenge Washington's use of satellites. For this reason, space-based platforms will serve as a double edged sword for those guiding American policy in the 21st century.
American satellites can be targeted in a variety of manners, including through cyberspace, electronic warfare (EW), kinetic weapons, orbital weapons, and directed energy weapons (DEW). In order to successfully to address these issues, an understanding of the threats facing the United States must first be reached.
Satellite systems are at high risk in today's era of cyber warfare. Although private enterprises and nation states take great pains to defend these billion dollar assets through enhanced communication systems and encryption, no system is fool proof. Potential adversaries with a deep understanding of America's satellite command and control (C2) architecture would be able to target system soft points through cyber intrusions or social engineering. Cyber warfare operations would not only target satellites themselves, but space ground systems such as ground stations and launch facilities.
Electronic Warfare Threats
Electronic warfare (EW) platforms can easily be utilized by a foreign state to spoof or jam American satellites in orbit. Owing to the fact that electronic warfare operations can be easily disguised, it is often difficult to determine the actor behind the interference.
There are currently two main means of jamming a satellite: uplink jamming and downlink jamming. Uplink jamming occurs when an RF signal of the same frequency as the targeted uplink is received by the satellite, limiting the ability of the satellite's transponder to properly function. When uplink jamming is successful, all users of the satellite are unable to receive stable service.
Downlink jamming occurs when transmissions sent from the satellite to ground-based downlink receivers using RF signals that mimic the frequency of the downlink signal. Because downlink jammers must be within a short range of the receiving downlink, downlink jamming has a much more localized event and will not impact service over a large region.
Lastly, spoofing occurs when radio interference overpowers weak signals from a satellite, causing the receiver to potentially be deceived by a false signal with incorrect information.
In recent congressional reports and hearings on the Russian military and People's Liberation Army, the Department of Defense has observed that both states are steadily increasing funding and training programs in the EW domain, especially in regards to anti-satellite platforms. Although neither state has publicly interfered with American satellite systems, it is likely that both have conducted training missions on their old and outdated platforms in orbit.
Kinetic Weapon Threats
Ground-based kinetic weapons, otherwise known as anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles, are capable of destroying platforms in orbit from launch platforms on earth. ASAT missiles have also been mounted to aircraft to allow for a greater degree of maneuverability and strategic deterrence. The use of kinetic weapons to destroy space-based platforms is extremely dangerous, as a strike can result in a massive orbital debris field, creating difficulties for future launches.
On January 11th, 2007, the People’s Republic of China successfully utilized an ASAT missile to shoot down one of its aging meteorological satellites in low earth orbit. The fact the missile destroyed a meteorological satellite was not concerning, rather the ability the PLA demonstrated to target platforms in LEO. The test revealed that they could reach out and touch key American Communication, ISR, and PNT satellites. Without these systems, the United States government and commercial sectors would be severely impaired.
On April 15, 2020, analysts from the United States Space Force monitored the test of a Russian direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile system. Based upon publicly available tracking data, The Intelligence Ledger assesses that the DA-ASAT missile is completely capable of targeting platforms in LEO.
Orbital Weapon Threats
Orbital weapons are satellites capable of targeting American platforms in a wide-variety of manners, including through use of robotic contraptions, chemical sprayers, lasers, and kinetic kill vehicles. Actions taken by these hostile platforms can damage or destroy friendly satellites. As some of these satellites can be used peacefully as well as in confrontation (dual-use), it is difficult for defense analysts to determine an orbital weapon's true purpose prior to use.
On June 23, 2017, the Russian Federation launched a satellite with a smaller satellite as its payload. They claimed that the smaller satellite was simply an inspection platform. Due to its small size, it was capable of maneuvering to a damaged Russian satellite in a nearby orbit and help engineers on the ground determine issues and develop remedies. Upon closer examination, the Department of State, NASA, and the DOD noted that its behavior on orbit was inconsistent with anything previously seen from an inspection or space situational-awareness platform, including other Russian inspection-satellites. Simply put, the United States government believes the small platform is an ASAT orbital weapon, not an inspection satellite.
More recently, the Russian's demonstrated their ability to use ASAT platforms on July 15, 2020, when analysts from the US Space Force tracked a Russian military satellite launching a small projectile into orbit at high speeds.
Directed Energy Threats
Directed energy can serve as a useful tool when targeting American satellites. Using laser, microwave, and particle beams, directed energy weapons can damage or destroy space-based platforms in an effective fashion and relatively covert manner. It can not be understated how difficult it is to determine the source of a directed energy attack.
Threats to the Space Ground System
All space platforms, including satellites, rely upon physical infrastructure on earth. This physical infrastructure is known as space ground systems (SGS). Composed of a network of ground stations, launch facilities, and mission control centers, strong SGSs allow nation-states to operate effectively on the last frontier. These terrestrial facilities, however, are extremely vulnerable to sabotage or direct attack.
Ground stations serve as the brain of satellite constellations in orbit. These facilities receive mission data, monitor damage, and upload commands to space-based platforms. Although steps have been taken by the United States government to secure ground stations from physical and cyber threats, they remain vulnerable. The loss of several ground stations in both North America and overseas would result in American satellites being unable to properly perform their intended missions. In the case of high intensity conflict, hostile surface vessels with hypersonic weapons off the east and west coasts of the United States would be well-positioned to damage these key facilities. Ground Stations could also be targeted by saboteurs or hackers, causing a relatively similar amount of damage.
Launch facilities and mission control centers are prime targets for hostile actors seeking to harm the United States. Assume, for example, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Kennedy Space Center, and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station sustained severe damage as the result of a coordinated attack from the naval and cyber forces of a foreign power. With operations at these key facilities halted for months, the United States would be unable to launch large amounts satellites into orbit or resupply missions to space stations. Adversaries would be free to systemically target American and allied platforms in space without fear of immediate replacement.
Impact of Satellite Service Interruption
As adversaries of the United States display their offensive force in space, they seem to be targeting America’s Achilles Heel. A major attack on American satellite platforms would leave Washington reeling. With a broken military, the superpower would be defenseless, exposed, and open to defeat. Without functioning digital infrastructure, the private sector would be placed into an extremely precarious position and the US would loose its geoeconomic strength. In the following section, The Intelligence Ledger studies how a major interruption of satellite service would impact the defense and financial sectors of the United States of America.
United States Army
The loss of satellite platforms would have a profound effect on the United States Army. In 1991, the United States invaded Kuwait alongside an international coalition with the expressed purpose of liberating it from Iraqi forces. The First Persian Gulf War, as it would come to be known, was also the first space war. With only 3,000 GPS devices available for its entire force of heavy armor, light armor, and artillery batteries, the Army was able to cut 200 km through an uncharted and seeming unnavigable desert in less than 48 hours. At the same time the United States Army was learning to use GPS, enemies were learning how to defeat it. Iraqi forces quickly installed jammers near or above strategic installation and facilities in a bid to decrease the effectiveness of coalition munitions. Although this plan failed miserably, it was the first attempted use of downlink jamming during armed conflict in the history of man.
Since the end of Operation Desert Storm, the Untied States Army has maintained superiority on the battlefield. It has done this through modern technology and space platforms. New weapon systems, such as the Bell 360 Invictus and Abrams M1A2 SEPV3 Main Battle Tank, have only increased reliance on technology, and in turn, satellites. A major interruption of satellite coverage would mean soldiers on deployment would loose access to encrypted communications, guided munitions, and ISR support simultaneously. With units disheveled, platforms inoperable, and a severe lack of intelligence, the average warfighter's ability to fight would be significantly decreased.
United States Marine Corps
In a bid to prove its relevance amidst a new era of great power competition, the USMC is restructuring the majority of its force to rely upon long-range precision artillery, hypersonic missiles, and unmanned supply vehicles. Development of these platforms has focused on squeezing the maximum amount of efficiency out of communication, ISR, and PNT satellites.
Just as with their Army brethren, the United States Marine Corps would experience the loss of encrypted communications, guided munitions, and ISR support simultaneously. Unlike soldiers, however, grunts forward deployed in the Pacific would be isolated on islands and atolls without stable logistical support.
United States Navy
An attack on American satellites would arguably have the greatest impact on the United States Navy. The Navy's entire war-fighting methodology is centered around PNT and communication satellites. Missiles which rely on GPS to guide themselves to targets would need to be shelved in favor of less intricate and accurate weapon systems. The fleet would be reduced to pre-digital era targeting, with a high reliance on radar or line of sight weapons. The new MQ-25 Stingray Refueling Drone, which significantly increases the strike range of a Carrier Battle Group, would be rendered useless. Every lesson learned by the Navy fighting high-tech conflicts, such as Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Inherent Resolve, would need to be shelved until new satellite could be put into orbit. Emerging platforms, such as unmanned surface combatants currently in development, would be rendered useless.
United States Air Force
As previously mentioned, the United States Air Force satellite software glitch rendered nearly 10,000 GPS receivers useless for a week. The exact number of aircraft impacted by the failure remains classified till this day. A large scale loss of satellite coverage would significantly impact the USAF. Transport aircraft, fighters, and bombers would loose access to encrypted communication, navigation systems, and the majority of their guided munitions. Although air-to-air munitions would still function, the majority of 'smart bombs' in America's current arsenal would instantly become 'dumb bombs.' Communication and coordination with units on the ground would become extremely difficult. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), common in the sky's of the Middle East today, would be rendered useless.
The economic impact of a major satellite service interruption would be far-reaching and devestating. With phone lines overwhelmed, the internet failing, and television sets across the country dark, a large share of the country's economic activity would halt. Healthcare providers would be unable to access patient records in the cloud, dooming many to a needlessly early death. Airlines would be forced to ground aircraft, as air traffic control and the Federal Aviation Administration would struggle to maneuver safely given the loss of GPS and reliable communication. Farmers, which have become highly reliant on GPS technology for information about their fields, would be without modern technology. Based on these facts, The Intelligence Ledger assesses that a widespread satellite outage would cost the American economy nearly nearly $1,370,000,000 per day.
Securing the Vulnerability
In 1776, the Second Continental Congress determined that armed conflict against the British Empire was the only way to preserve the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If the founding fathers, who risked their lives for liberty, could only see the United States now. From Antietam to the Amiens, Bellau Woods to Bagdad, the United States has sent men to fight and bleed in the name of freedom. America has maintained superiority because of its ability to utilize advanced technologies. But now, as a new era of great power competition begins, that technological supremacy may be its downfall.
That is why today, nearly 245 years after the Thirteen Colonies declared independence, the United States must take drastic steps to ensure continued dominance of the international order past 2035. The recommendations below, although costly and time-consuming, will significantly improve the standing and security of the American system. If a war does come, if an unthinkable conflict with China or Russia does occur, the security of satellites will directly determine if the American way of life is to endure the trials and tribulations of war.
The solution to this problem is not the abandonment of technology. Instead, reliance on technology may be the solution. In the following section, The Intelligence Ledger investigates the establishment of a satellite reserve fleet, the security of satellite ground systems, and the development of offensive ASAT capabilities.
Satellite Reserve Fleet
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United States Navy drastically shrunk in size. Vessels no longer in service with either the Pacific or Atlantic fleets were placed into storage, ensuring that in times of crisis the United States government would maintain the ability to surge in surface combatant size during major contingencies. Following a major conflict that results in the loss of multiple satellite platforms, the United States would be unable to immediately replace lost satellites. Policymakers in Washington would be forced to wait patiently for the development and production of new satellite constellations to be completed, a costly process which could potentially take several years. By the time American superiority is restored, American foreign policy interests will be severely harmed.
The most important and potentially costly step the United States government can take to ensure continued satellite service would be the establishment of a Satellite Reserve Fleet (SRF). An SRF would ensure that in the immediate aftermath of a major crisis in space, severe economic damage could be prevented and defense commitments maintained. Additionally, the establishment of a large and robust reserve would ensure the United States could maintain an effective deterrent. If Washington could replace damaged or destroyed platforms in space, and thus maintain conventional superiority, adversaries may think twice about awaking a sleeping giant without significant long-term benefits.
Any observant policymaker with a thread of common sense would note there is little feasibility to such a plan given the high cost of space-based platform construction. Indeed, if the Satellite Reserve Fleet was composed of highly capable, large, and complex satellites, such a plan would be highly impractical. After a quick investigation, however, The Intelligence Ledger has determined that the solution for this problem is already in development by the United States government: Project Blackjack.
Headed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Project Blackjack is an initiative to demonstrate the military utility of a large constellation of small satellites operating in LEO. As small satellites weight under 500 kg (1,100 lb), they tend to be less capable, less complex, and less costly to produce than the majority of satellites currently in service with the intelligence community and Department of Defense. With the miniaturization of technologies progressing at an impressive rate, the cost-savings and quality of these small platforms are on track to beat today's large and impressive satellites by 2035.
The ability to build and maintain a Satellite Reserve Fleet with small satellites would not be enough, however. After all, if the United States is unable to launch platforms into orbit in large numbers, hostiles could systematically target individual satellites. For that reason, the main issue facing the concept of an SRF is the lack of a cost effective and rapid launch system.