Space Warfare & Anti Satellite Weapons - "Taking the High Ground" in the new warfighting domain

Space Warfare & Anti Satellite Weapons -

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It's a quirk of military history that whenever humanity enters a new domain or develops a new transforming technology, there's usually at least a small window before it is weaponised. When the first opposing aircraft encountered each other over the battlefields of World War One for example, they did so effectively unarmed, with crews forced to either ironically wave at each other or to take pot shots at one another with things like hunting shotguns and pistols. Inevitably someone would figure out that it made sense to start fitting machine guns to the aircraft and air combat as we know it from World War One was properly born. But for a brief moment in at least some places, hostile aircraft could pass each other in a contested airspace environment mostly without posing a threat to one another. For many years you could argue that space provided a similar environment to those brief moments of demilitarised airspace.

When the first man-made satellites were launched they were completely beyond the capacity of any existing power to meaningfully shoot down or intercept. By air, land and sea the opposing power blocks on Earth may have been preparing for mutual annihilation, but for many years in the space overhead Soviet and American satellites could peacefully orbit, going about their missions blissfully invulnerable. And for powers like the United States that would go on to primarily fight much less technologically sophisticated opponents in the coming decades, space would remain something of an invulnerable high ground. Where communication, reconnaissance and navigation satellites could go about their critical business reasonably confident that opponents like the Taliban were probably never going to succeed in launching a weapon to for example, semi-synchronous orbit to go after GPS satellites.

But wherever there are useful and valuable targets to be struck there will be militaries looking for a way to strike them. And in the 21st century militaries are pushing to find ways to ensure that the high ground no longer provides safe haven. So what am I going to be talking about today? The first thing to say is depending on how this video goes, I'm hoping it's going to be the first part in a series covering the topic of space-based competition and warfare more generally.

But while the second video will likely look at how powers are using space in new and creative ways in order to generate new capability, I thought it was best to open with some basic concepts around space warfare and the race for improved counter-space assets. That is, the future video is going to ask what can space do for you, this one is going to ask what you can do to space. So to that end, in this episode we're going to open with some pretty basic ideas. Why might powers want the ability to shoot down or disable satellites in the first place? And what is it about trying to engage in combat in space that makes it so different from more terrestrial environments? Then we are going to look at some of the main players who command most of the satellites that are up there and have the most advanced anti-satellite weapons programs. Followed by an examination of some of those different counter-space weapons types, their advantages and disadvantages. That means comparing for example, an interceptor missile launched from Earth to a laser weapon that may be ground-based or mounted on some sort of patrolling satellite.

Finally, having gone through a number of scary counter-space options, we'll also look at the defensive side. I'll ask how vulnerable are satellites and the capabilities they represent really? And I'll introduce some of the potential counter measures and responses that I hope I'll get a chance to explore further in the future. Alright, so before we begin talking about all the different ways in which governments are pouring billions into the development of anti-satellite weapons, it's probably worth taking a brief moment to ask the question of: why? After all, governments usually need a reason to sign off major expenditure items. Now during the Cold War this was arguably a pretty simple process.

If the Soviets had already done something like put a satellite in orbit, then you funded doing the same thing to prove that they weren't genuinely ahead and that you could do it too. Meanwhile, if the Soviets hadn't done something like land a man on the moon, well then you did that too to prove that you could do it and they couldn't. Because how else are you going to judge the validity of a socio-economic system other than by the ability of its scientists and engineers to put a human being on the lunar surface? In any case, if you're looking to try and understand the current focus on counter-space research then it can help to understand the metaphorical race for the high ground that occurred during the Cold War, and just how important space is to modern economies and militaries.

During World War Two and the early Cold War, building a more survivable reconnaissance asset usually meant building an aircraft that could fly higher or faster, or both, compared to any interceptor that would try and bring it down. In the 1950s the Americans would introduce the U-2 spy plane, which at the time of its introduction flew so high that it was basically impossible for Soviet aircraft to intercept. The introduction of new Soviet surface-to-air missiles would eventually pierce the U-2's invulnerability. But a series of overflights of the Soviet Union would gather valuable intelligence before the first one was finally brought down in 1960. American science and ingenuity had taken an aircraft to 70,000 feet, and for a while at least, that had given them a distinct advantage. But in 1957 clearly the Soviets felt it was time to redefine the military high ground.

A modified R-7 rocket carried its famous payload, the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into an orbit hundreds of kilometres above sea level and completely beyond the reach of any existing American weapon system. For roughly three weeks that little metal ball would transmit signals back to Earth. In terms of military value Sputnik had basically none. It had no cameras, no surveillance suite, no payload of any particular value. But the follow-up design, Sputnik 2, weighed almost 500 kilograms, which was starting to get into useful payload territory.

And when the first US attempt, Vanguard TV-3, blew up on the launch pad not long afterwards, it seemed to confirm an unfortunate reality to the Western public. Space was the new high ground, the Soviet Union had taken it first. And history shows us pretty clearly how comfortable the American public were with coming second to the Soviet Union in anything during the Cold War. Whether it was science, sport, or the number of foreign coups financed, the Americans weren't going to let the Soviets take the podium on anything during this era.

And so we entered a truly remarkable period of peaceful competition between superpowers in the form of the Cold War space race. But space wouldn't remain simply a forum for great power grandstanding. Instead it would become a very real battleground for economic and military competition.

And the main reason for that is that space is now filled with satellites that underpin so much of how our economy and our technology functions. In late October 1957 Earth had one artificial satellite. In 2022, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, there were more than 8,000, with nearly 5,000 of those still being active. These serve a variety of vital functions from providing communications, internet, navigation, reconnaissance, and a dozen other services besides, from tracking wildfire outbreaks to identifying nuclear missile launches. While you probably don't think about it much, these things probably impact your life in a dozen different ways every single day.

And if you think you wouldn't notice even the slightest disruption, I'd invite you to talk to the residents of Moscow where GPS jamming briefly started convincing people's Uber apps that their cars were at distant airports, in the river, or otherwise far from their actual locations. When the technology works it's usually so seamless that you don't register the fact that your hand-held mobile device only really knows where you are because it's communicating with a series of satellites that might be roughly 20,000 kilometres away. And militaries are just as reliant, perhaps even more reliant, on that same space-based infrastructure.

If MS Teams goes down at an office that's fine, everyone can probably whip out their mobile phones and start making calls. But if a military's encrypted satellite communication suddenly all go down, then commanders are probably not going to be thrilled if troops whip out their mobile phones and start making unencrypted phone calls in order to get orders. But that's OK of course, because no first-rate military would ever do that, would they Russia? NATO identifies space-based assets as critical to the alliance's security, vital in areas from weather monitoring, environment, agriculture, transport, science, communication, banking, and of course allowing alliance militaries to respond to crises with speed, efficiency and precision. The modern kill chain that enables military units to identify targets and then strike those with precision relies in many cases on those satellites. With every step of the process, from initial identification which may be for example by a reconnaissance satellite looking down from above, to a final engagement that might be by a weapon guided by GPS signals. Take those signals and overhead assets away and suddenly those military units are going to be deafer, dumber and blinder than they are used to being.

But space combat isn't the same as fighting within Earth's atmosphere. There are numerous concepts and complications you don't normally have to deal with when you are within the comforting embrace of Earth's atmosphere. So before we talk through all the various ways in which you can kill a satellite, let's quickly whip through a few key features of space combat. Because yes, while the X-wings are probably a long way off yet, we are entering an era of human history where space combat is a legitimate field of study. Now most humans live on or near the Earth's surface, our brains are wired for that environment.

And whether you're aware of it or not, you probably have a pretty intuitive understanding of the way physics works on the surface. Throw a rock for example, and you probably have a pretty good idea of how far it'll go before it drops back to the surface. But leave the atmosphere and head into orbit and the rules begin to change. Throw a rock in orbit, and unless it is acted on by some outside force like the gravity of some greater object, it is just going to keep going.

But even as the lack of atmosphere providing drag makes it very easy to go very fast for protracted periods of time, it makes manoeuvring considerably more complicated. Without something to push against, a control surface isn't really going to help you. Use a rudder on an aircraft or a ship it's going to turn. Apply the same principle in space and everyone is going to be wondering why the astronaut on EVA strapped a fin to their back as they drift off into the distance and someone else suits up to go rescue them. Instead, achieving any meaningful change to your velocity or your path is going to require applying thrust, which means you are going to be limited by however much fuel or propellant mass you carried up with you.

If you're on a spacecraft and you've got enough fuel left for a delta-V of 500 metres per second and that's all you've got, you can adjust your velocity by plus/minus 500 metres per second. And once you're out, you'd better hope you're drifting in the right direction. Or at the very least that you have found yourself in the correct orbit.

Which brings us neatly to a discussion on orbits and energy. You can generically refer to all of the satellites as being in orbit. But those orbits are useful for very different purposes. Low earth orbits for example, where a satellite might only be a few hundred kilometres above sea level, well, that's where a vast majority of our current active satellites currently sit.

LEO is fantastic because you're closer to the Earth's surface. That means it's both easier to lift an object into that orbit, you don't need as much energy as you do to go further out, but also the satellite is closer to the surface, which is useful for everything from communications and internet to some forms of surveillance and reconnaissance. Connect to a Starlink satellite in low earth orbit, say at about 550 kilometres up, you're probably going to be able to play a game of Counter-Strike just fine. Place those satellites in a high earth orbit and I hope you are ready to play a slide show.

So LEO is cheap to get to and pretty well suited for most tasks, so unsurprisingly that's where most satellites live. But it certainly isn't the only useful orbit. For example, if you go out far enough you can place a satellite in what's called a geostationary orbit, which is a form of geosynchronous orbit that orbits over the equator. It's called "geostationary" because from the point of view of someone on the ground the satellite never moves. Its orbital speed and path are set such that it always orbits over the same position on planet Earth. That means if you want one ground station to always be able to point at your communication satellite, that's a pretty good place to put it.

You may have higher latency, but instead of having to have multiple satellites in low earth orbit or multiple ground stations to track a satellite as it rotates, you can now make do with much less in the way of infrastructure. But let's be clear, when I say you have to put the satellite further out - I mean a lot further out. Most LEO satellites orbit the Earth at altitudes measured in hundreds of kilometres. The ISS orbits at an average altitude of about 400 kilometres. But if you want to go find GPS satellites, you have to multiply that number by 50. As GPS satellites orbit in what's called a semi-synchronous orbit at roughly 20,000 kilometres above sea level.

"Semi-synchronous" simply means that every GPS satellite orbits the Earth exactly twice per day, once every 12 hours. And as for those geostationary or geosynchronous satellites I talked about earlier, well you better keep going. If you happen to really, really want to reduce latency on your satellite TV broadcast by parking yourself next to the satellite, then be prepared to take up a position roughly 36,000 kilometres from the Earth's surface. That's about 22,000 miles in Freedom Units, but I imagine even without making the conversion, you'd probably already realised that it's a long, long way. From the point of view of space combat, the key takeaway here is that it's very, very different trying to engage something in low earth orbit as opposed to something that might be 9% of the way to the moon. When it comes to talking about the targets themselves in space, it's important to emphasise that they're all probably going to be pretty damn fragile.

When it comes to satellite design, weight is king. Adding more weight has plenty of implications for a satellite, none of them good. It means it's much more expensive to lift it into orbit, it means you might not lift as many per mission. It might mean you have to use a different launcher entirely to get the system into orbit or that you're not going to be able to lift it as far. Plus for a lot of satellites, every unnecessary kilogram you add is going to mean more energy spent every year preventing its orbit from decaying. Because gravity generally resents the fact that we put thousands of objects in orbit and would like nothing more than to drag them down to Earth and their fiery doom.

So no one's going to be adding tank armour to satellites any time soon. And even if the Ukrainian Army got involved, I imagine this is one system where explosive reactive armour would not find itself being added. And even if it were, most satellites are going to have components that simply can't be protected or are always going to be inherently fragile.

Most satellites rely on solar panels for their power source. And things like cameras and many sensors don't work very well if you put a big slab of ceramic or metal in front of them in an effort to protect them. So satellites are extremely fragile in an environment where just about anything counts as a weapon if it impacts anything else.

Because remember when you are talking about objects in stable orbits, the term hyper-velocity certainly applies. And when you are talking about fragile objects hitting each other at tens of thousands of kilometres per hour potentially, then the potential for damage is immense. In 2021 it was estimated there were more than 23,000 pieces of debris in orbit that were larger than softballs. On Earth a softball isn't particularly dangerous, but then again on Earth a softball probably isn't going at Mach 25.

Not that Mach numbers would be particularly relevant in space given there is a lack of atmosphere for sound to propagate through. The key point is that when you're talking about space, you're talking about a lot of fragile targets in an environment where everything that's flying around has an awful lot of energy. It's something I feel that sci-fi writers don't always get right.

The fact that in any universe where you have spacecraft capable of getting anywhere interesting in a reasonable time scale, then everyone is essentially piloting a potential weapon of mass destruction. Because a spaceship moving at any practical speed is probably going to make a heck of an impression on anything it chooses to crash into. Get it right and congratulations, you've just written something like The Expanse.

Get it wrong, and well I'll just leave this completely unrelated image here on screen for a moment. The final point to talk about here is the general difficulty of tracking and engaging objects in orbit. Now you might think that we can track everything in orbit all of the time. The reality is it's a lot harder than that, first of all there's a lot of very small objects that we can't practically track at all.

And then there are a range of objects that we've identified and catalogued and measured at one point, but which we aren't actively tracking, as in pointing a radar at it every second of every day. If we did have that sort of awareness collisions between objects and debris, or objects and other objects wouldn't happen. They do. In a lot of cases there are objects out there that we're aware of that we're just assuming will go along a certain path because physics tends to obey certain rules. If you know how much an object masses and what its orbital path is, you can probably make a pretty good prediction of where it's going to go. But satellites, active satellites as opposed to debris, have the capacity to manoeuvre. And if that happens, depending on who's watching and how, it might take some time for people to realise that the orbital path of the object in question has changed.

Which is a problem if you're trying to shoot something down, because if you're trying to hit it and destroy it, it helps to know where it is. Now tracking is absolutely a problem that can be solved if you are interested in a particular potential target. Just don't take it for granted that you can point a radar dish at the sky and see where everything is all of the time. OK, so now we understand the rules of the battlefield, let's have a look at a few of the main players quickly. Because while almost every country on Earth benefits from space-based technologies, only a select few are really in a position to compete when it comes to space-based warfare.

As we know, the Soviet Union was the first nation to put an artificial satellite into orbit, and Russia continues to be a major competitor in orbit to this day. Russia inherited a great many things from the Soviet Union including the stockpiles, manufacturing facilities, skills, and capabilities necessary to send a seemingly unending stream of Soyuz rockets into orbit even after the fall of the USSR. Indeed, Russia's launch capacity was so significant that for a not so brief period between 2011 and 2020 the United States was completely reliant on Russia and the Soyuz system to lift astronauts to the International Space Station.

Now even though this is a space sector that's probably heavily in decline since February of last year, it's important to still recognise Russia as a major space power. Notably it has its own navigation system, GLONASS. As well as a full suite of other militarily relevant capabilities, from communication satellites to a number of confirmed or suspected intelligence relevant platforms. The United States was the second power to get a satellite into orbit. And while they got bored of sending people to the moon after a while, as soon as the National Reconnaissance Office figured out that orbit was a pretty good place to put a camera, the Americans embraced the value of satellite infrastructure and never really looked back.

We'll talk more about US space capabilities in a future episode, but for now it's enough to know they seem to have most of their bases covered. All of you have probably heard of and used GPS. And between an array of privately and publicly owned satellites, that distinction being key, the Americans have everything from communications to reconnaissance very well covered. Just how well covered of course is a secret. As generally speaking most powers will not want their opponents to know just how good for example their surveillance satellites are.

Because the 21st century is weird for example, I know that I can get access to publicly available imagery of Russian defence installations using American satellites. That free imagery is usually good enough to identify the key features you'll see at many Russian bases. For example, the combination garbage dump and area where you park the truly decrepit vehicles you can see on the right there.

But also images like the one on the left there which is clearly high enough in quality to distinguish different artillery systems. This is the kind of image quality that intelligence organisations in the '60s or '70s would have paid fantastic money to get their hands on. And yet we know the Americans can probably do far better.

And in part that's because back in 2019 Donald Trump tweeted this image. This appears to be a photograph of a printout of an image of an Iranian rocket launch test site after a launch failure. As you can tell, the zoom and resolution is quite a bit better than what we were just looking at. It's an image that may provide a clue as to at least the minimum level of capability of some of America's satellites.

And for once this information was made available publicly on Twitter. I can only assume because this was 2019 and we had not yet established the rule that said that all valuable intelligence can only be released on random Discord servers. The People's Republic of China put their first artificial satellite into orbit in 1970, and now absolutely represent a major and rising orbital power. In terms of mass being put into orbit every year the Chinese are currently running second only behind the United States. And like the US, they're believed to possess a full suite of satellite-based capabilities, communication, reconnaissance and of course their own navigation system.

Because if you are trying to compete with the United States, relying on GPS isn't a particularly sustainable solution. Unfortunately there are still significant question marks over China's space program. They have not for example, been kind enough as to release publicly images taken by their most advanced reconnaissance satellites. And unless we can get senior Chinese leaders playing War Thunder or something in a big way, I doubt that will change any time soon. What is publicly clear is the People's Republic of China takes the idea of competition in space very, very seriously.

Officially the country advocates for the non-weaponisation of space. But in the absence of some sweeping international agreement, that doesn't preclude preparing for serious space-based competition. According to the US DIA, the People's Liberation Army views space superiority through the lens of "informatised warfare". Where it's an imperative to control space to deny your opponent access to their space-enabled information sphere, and to maintain possession of your own.

Many of the PLA's most notable apparent capabilities rely on space-based assets to make them work. While the Chinese in turn seem to believe that if the US was denied access to its space-based assets, it would reduce the US's ability to do things like deploy precision guided munitions. In 2015 the Chinese created what is called the Strategic Support Force. This is a force that reports directly to the Chinese Central Military Commission, and it brings together among other things, space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities. Which gives you something of a clue as to how valuable China sees those capabilities as being, and how important it is that they be used in a cohesive manner. The final thing to note is just how rapidly China's capabilities in this area are growing.

In 2022 the DIA assessed China's ISR capabilities as being second in quantity only to those of the United States. While also noting that China had roughly doubled its in-orbit systems between 2018 and 2022. There are other players too of course, and I promise we'll look at them in far more detail in the near future.

The Europeans for example are huge players, especially when they are viewed as a unit. Europe has for example its own GPS equivalent, Galileo. And if you go through the list of military satellite assets controlled by each individual European country you'll quickly notice a theme.

Individually they tend to have some capabilities, but there's also a lot of integration built into the overall system. France and Italy for example, outright share satellite infrastructure. So just as in many other fields, the Europeans are generally notable when considered individually, but a major player when looked at as a collective. As for others, there are many we could talk about, Japan, Canada.

India definitely deserves a mention as well. Not just for establishing its own sovereign local navigation system, but especially on its ability to run a space program on a fraction of the budget often made available to other state programs. And while India may not possess the full suite of capabilities that a country like the United States or the PRC does, at least not yet, they are not strangers to the idea of shooting down satellites which is exactly what we are about to talk about. Because now that we finally understand the stakes, the basic fundamentals, and who might be involved, it's time to start talking about how a country might hypothetically choose to contest the orbital battle space.

That means talking about anti-satellite or ASAT weapons. And just in case you're ever in the market for a weapon system capable of destroying or degrading an enemy space-based capability, today using a couple of worked examples I'm going to take you through a couple of the primary types of ASAT weapons, their strengths, their weaknesses, and what countries may, or may not, be choosing to develop and deploy them. Now in illustrating how a system might be employed, it always helps to have a mission in mind. And so we return once again to the brave nations of Emutopia and Kiwiland. And today, after many episodes of being threatened or attacked, the Kiwilanders are planning their revenge. Now obviously the people of Kiwiland are fundamentally peaceful, they don't want to start an all-out war, they don't want to invade Emutopia, but they do want to make a point.

And so the government of Kiwiland has given you, the Defence Minister of that brave country, a mission. Because you see every year for one day Emutopian society comes to a halt as citizens around the country gather around their TV screens to watch the season Grand Final of some random sport that they play that no other country on the planet does. For some reason these broadcasts are entirely dependent on a small network of low earth orbit satellites. And your mission is to send a message by finding a way to disrupt those broadcasts. And so you have to look at the different sort of anti-satellite options that may be available. Kinetic, directed energy, soft kill systems, decide how our nation should spend its limited available budget and plan that final operation.

And really hit the Emulanders where it hurts without ever setting foot inside their territory. And as we go through the different sorts of anti-satellite weapons, it makes sense to start with the most intuitive. These are kinetic or explosive based solutions that operate on a simple and well understood principle, if you would like to destroy something, shoot it with another object that's moving at a very high speed. Now the kinetic approach is by far the most tried and tested method of satellite destruction.

After all, humans have been routinely destroying things using guide missiles since the early Cold War. And given how fragile satellites are and how fast velocities tend to be in orbit, we're not going to have to hit them with something particularly big in order to cause catastrophic damage. Instead, the primary challenges from an engineering perspective are probably just going to be having a good track on the target we're trying to engage, and then lifting whatever our interceptor is into orbit and hitting it.

With hitting it probably being the key operative word there. Because when you are talking about hitting one hyper-velocity object with another hyper-velocity object in orbit there isn't really a huge margin for error. Now during the Cold War the US did consider this issue of precision. Because it was the Cold War, the first solution they came up with was, "Well, how about we just nuke them?" Because when you are using a nuclear warhead you don't really need to get a direct hit, near enough is usually good enough.

And to be fair, at this stage the Americans were also working with nuclear air-to-air missile concepts, nuclear ground-to-air missile concepts, nuclear anti-ballistic missile concepts, so putting a nuclear warhead on an anti-satellite system wasn't exactly a stretch. The science of course was very incomplete, it was an open question as to what a high altitude or space-based detonation of a nuclear weapon would do. And so in 1962 the US conducted a test, Starfish Prime. This was a 1.4 megaton nuclear detonation at about 400 kilometres altitude. The result was a lot more destructive than the planners had been expecting. The fireball was visible for one from Honolulu, that's the image you can see there.

But it was in orbit that the detonation caused by far the most havoc. There the blast contributed to forming temporary radiation belts which caused havoc on satellites in low earth orbit. Three satellites were damaged or disabled almost instantly, including a US Navy navigation satellite. Over subsequent months, 6 additional satellites would again be damaged or disabled, including the first commercial relay communication satellite, Telstar, and the UK's first satellite, Ariel 1.

Ariel 1 was the first satellite to be launched by a country not named the USA or the Soviet Union. And it was in orbit for less than 3 months before getting nuked by its ally. An experience which caused some significant damage to the satellite's solar arrays.

I really do wonder who had to make the "my bad" call to the Brits in relation to that one. Now, you might all be thinking that made the Starfish Prime test a complete failure. Measurements had been affected by the EMP, there was damage in Honolulu, and massive collateral damage to satellites in orbit, most of which were US or allied. Clearly setting off nukes in orbit was a bad idea.

So of course the nuclear anti-satellite missile systems got the go-ahead. There was a short-range stop gap system, Mudflap. But the real solution was Program 437 which was okayed by Robert McNamara in November 1962, after the Starfish test. This program involved keeping two Thor ballistic missiles on standby armed with nuclear warheads to potentially engage hostile satellites. No one apparently saw a problem with this plan, and the program persisted into the 1970s.

Now many of the facilities involved in the program were reportedly damaged in a hurricane in 1972, at which point everyone came to their senses. Nah, just kidding, this is the Cold War so they repaired the site and brought the program back up to a standby status. With the mission only really being given up on in 1974. Anti-satellite weapons got a little less crazy towards the tail end of the Cold War. The Soviets had developed their own anti-satellite system in the 1970s, but it's of a different type, so we'll talk about it in a moment. There are some claims out there however that the Soviets successfully tested their system in the 1970s and this was the first successful anti-satellite weapon.

But to that I would like to remark that the US had accidentally destroyed a bunch of its own and allied satellites in 1962, so clearly they should win. The less insane option that the Americans eventually came up with was an ASAT weapon launched from a jet. This is the ASM-135. Basically an F-15 modified would carry this weapon to altitude, pitch up, and then fire the missile to engage a target in low earth orbit. The US Air Force, eager to pickle off one of these weapons, would succeed in blowing up one of its own satellites in 1985 at an altitude of 555 kilometres. That would be the only destructive test however, as Congress would ban further destructive testing in December of 1985. Now obviously there are a lot of very good reasons underpinning that test ban.

But I do have to wonder if everyone involved in the British space program at the time didn't offer up just the slightest sigh of relief when they heard the Americans were going to stop shooting missiles into orbit. The modern incarnation of weapons like ASM-135 are the so-called direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons. So-called because they ascend directly from Earth to intercept their target. Usually these take the form of either a ballistic missile or an anti-ballistic interceptor missile that has been adapted to the anti-satellite role. As such, while it might pose some difficulties, any country with a sufficiently developed missile or space program should hypothetically be able to use this method. And so far four countries have physically demonstrated their ability to do so, the USA, the PRC, India and Russia.

But it would be a fair assumption to make that other space-going powers, like the Europeans for example, would be capable of launching a mission like this if required and given some warning. Now unlike some of the other options we're going to look at, direct ascent weapons stay on Earth until it's time to engage the target. The missiles remain in their silos. And so if Kiwiland settled on this option to disrupt the broadcast the mission plan is probably pretty simple. We wait until right before the game is going to start, then we open our silos, the missiles fly, they reach orbit, eject their kill vehicles, the kill vehicles intercept the broadcast satellites and the TV screens go dark. Now there are a few advantages and disadvantages of employing this technology.

The first is that if you have an existing space, or rocketry, or anti-ballistic missile program, this is going to heavily leverage technology that you already have, and launchers that you probably already have. That's probably going to limit both development cost and technical risk. It's also probably going to have a significant surprise factor. The enemy is not going to know you are launching this attack until the missiles leave their silos. On the downside - well there are a lot of downsides as well. For one, most ABMs or ICBMs aren't designed to truck objects out to for example, geostationary orbit.

So if your target isn't in the right place in space, this may not be a viable option at all, depending on the rocket you are using. It's also likely to be both limited by your infrastructure and also potentially very expensive. The number of targets you can hit in short order is limited to how many missiles you can fit in silos or launch locations.

Plus if you're using an ICBM potentially to kill a small and inexpensive satellite, this may not be the most cost efficient solution available to you. Another option, instead of using a direct ascent attack, might be to try and kill your opponent's satellites using your own satellites. Here there's two different potential kill mechanisms. In the first version you can have a satellite that rams into an opposing satellite, predictably destroying both. Or you can have your satellite release a kinetic interceptor or a cloud of debris, or something that is going to hit the other satellite and that is going to do the destructive job. The original Soviet ASAT system, Istrebitel Sputnikov, was reportedly one of these systems.

And there are allegations that Russia continues to test these kind of ASAT options. For example in July of 2020 the Americans claimed that a Russian satellite, Cosmos 2543, injected a new object into orbit. Now the only satellite that was seemingly threatened by that release potentially was another Russian satellite. But as a proof of concept that would be a perfectly functional test.

Hypothetically any satellite that is capable of manoeuvring effectively and then releasing another object is capable of performing at least a limited anti-satellite mission. And as you can see from the quote on the bottom of the screen there, the Americans were pretty clear about calling this a potential ASAT test. And you can understand the logic of where they are coming from. When North Korea fires missiles into the ocean that doesn't mean it's not a missile test. It may not be a fantastic utilisation of North Korea's limited GDP, but it is still a weapons test.

Now compared to using the direct ascent option there's a lot of advantages and disadvantages to deal with when you are looking at this sort of satellite-based system. In terms of advantages, you have a lot more flexibility in taking your time to set the system up. As long as your killer satellites have the capacity to manoeuvre effectively, you can launch them up into orbit and then leave them in orbit for a protracted period until the time comes to direct them against their targets.

As a result you might spread the launch of this system over weeks, months, or potentially even years, steadily building up the number of satellites that you have in orbit. And since you have time, you can probably use larger liquid-fuelled rockets, which means you could probably get your satellites far easier out to far distant orbits, like geostationary ones. So if we follow this option we Kiwilanders could say we were just putting a whole bunch of satellites into low earth orbit for "research purposes", and then at the appropriate juncture we could direct them all against their targets and engage all the Emutopian satellites at the same time. And we could do it even though Kiwiland might only have the capacity to launch a couple of liquid-fuel payloads every year. Meanwhile in terms of downsides, well one of the big ones is that everyone is going to see that this is what you might be doing.

You can't hide the fact that you're launching a bunch of additional satellites into orbit. And if you are staging them in positions for easy attacks against enemy assets, well then people might start asking questions as to why all of your "research satellites" seem to be creepily stalking all of their space assets. As well as being a costly approach overall, this is an approach which might invite opposing counter-measures, be it diplomatic or otherwise. And then finally there's the problem that these sort of killer satellites share with direct ascent options.

And that's that some of our orbits are very crowded and also very vulnerable environments. And once you start blowing up satellites, particularly in certain congested orbits, the threat of catastrophic collateral damage becomes pretty high very quickly. The key problem here is debris and fragmentation. Whether you're talking about an explosion or a hyper-velocity impact, the result either way is probably going to be a massive amount of fragmentation as the objects being hit smash apart into various pieces. Now on Earth itself fragmentation after a blast is going to be short-lived.

If you set off a hand grenade the fragmentation will fly a certain distance, but eventually gravity is going to claim it's due, that fragmentation will fall to the ground, and it will stop. In space that fragmentation is just going to go, and keep going. Now at certain lower orbits eventually a lot of that material is going to decay and burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

But the higher you go the more months, years or decades that debris is going to remain up there. And while humans are completely capable of filling space with space junk without ever engaging in a war. I mean, true to form it didn't take us too long after discovering a pristine orbital environment to begin trashing the place to a completely unnecessary and dangerous degree. See the aforementioned 25,000 softballs and millions upon millions of smaller pieces of debris I mentioned earlier. Collisions or satellite destructions are particularly traumatic when it comes to debris creation. If you look at a history of the growing number of tracked objects, debris and otherwise in orbit, there were a couple of events that stand out.

Perhaps the most dramatic is the test of a Chinese anti-satellite weapon in 2007 at an altitude of more than 850 kilometres. Remember, the higher the altitude of the orbit, the longer the debris is going to stay in orbit. There was also an Indian anti-satellite test in 2019, and a collision between a defunct Russian satellite and an active American one, Kosmos and Iridium, which from memory I believe occurred in 2009.

Because again remember, space is the kind of environment where if you throw your garbage out the window, or in this case a defunct satellite, it's just going to keep going, and going, and going until it eventually burns up or it hits something. Look at the chart of the number of objects greater than 10 cm in size that are in low earth orbit and you can see what I'm talking about. That massive jump in 2007 is the Chinese anti-satellite test which generated thousands of new 10+ cm fragments.

And LEO wouldn't really get a break because the Kosmos/Iridium collision in 2009 would spike the figures again. Now all of this is part of a massive and growing space junk problem, just the amount of crap we have left in our own orbit. But the bit that scares a lot of people is not the prospect of slow linear growth as we keep putting more material into orbit, it's the possibility of runaway growth.

The issue here is some pretty simple maths. The more fragments that are out there, the greater the possibility in any given unit time that one fragment hits something else. If two fragments or two objects hit each other, there's a chance that collision will generate more fragments. Which in turn increases the probability of further collisions, which generates more fragments, and you can see how this is going to get very bad very quickly.

The term often used for this is Kessler syndrome, the runaway growth of space junk rendering orbits partially or completely unusable. Because let's just say you lose satellites to the debris and you decide to launch more satellites in order to make up for the losses. Well, those might get hit and turn in turn into more fragments, just making the problem worse. You saw what just a few tests and collisions did to the amount of debris that was being tracked in orbit.

Now imagine if instead of talking about one or two tests or collisions, we were talking about dozens as major powers duked it out to destroy each other's LEO assets. Whoever won, you can guarantee there'd be a pretty good chance that we all lose. Sure, the Emus might not get to watch their Grand Final, but at the same time for potentially years we may have rendered certain orbits essentially no-go zones.

Depending on which orbits were ruined and how badly, this might have significant impacts on everyday life for people around the globe. Technologies or conveniences that we have come to rely on or take for granted, could be rendered out of reach for years or even decades. Indeed for some orbits decades may instead be centuries. And as of yet we have no easy technological way to clean all this debris out of our orbit. And so instead it might be worth pushing not to develop these sort of weapons, but to consider banning or restricting them. A number of countries, including the United States, already have self-imposed bans on destructive anti-satellite testing.

But despite the potential for collateral damage, there's no current international agreement that prohibits their development or employment. Now when you propose banning a weapon system, you do have to be realistic. It's pretty hard for example to ban a weapon that has immense, unparalleled utility. So outright banning the nuclear bomb for instance would be incredibly difficult. Because there's nothing quite as destructive, and if everyone gave up their nukes then the first country to secretly develop them again would have a crushing advantage.

But here however, there may be room for negotiations. For one, these kinetic anti-satellite weapons that would create heaps of debris aren't the only option for neutralising opposing satellites that are under development. And unlike some of those systems, they do have the characteristics of other weapon systems that we've banned in the past. Namely persistence, that is they continue to impact the area well after you finish deploying the system. And they have an immense ability to potentially cause damage to innocent bystanders as well as the intended target. In that way they're very loosely analogous to something like for example, a biological weapon.

Once you fire it you might be sure that you'll kill the intended target, but you can't really be sure who you'll affect from that point on, including, and this is critical, potentially yourself. And if a strike goes wrong, you can imagine there would be significant diplomatic blowback. No one wants to be the country that launches an ASAT mission successfully against an enemy satellite, only to see the fragments or debris also take out the Hubble Space Telescope or the International Space Station. Now obviously this is a complicated one that we should probably leave to the politicians. But given generally that Kiwiland seems like the kind of nation that would care a lot about the global community, we're probably going to have to take a pass on kinetic anti-satellite weapons. And instead look at systems that won't make low earth orbit look like a junkyard crossed with a hyper-velocity minefield.

And here perhaps the most prominent options are also the most stereotypical of sci-fi weapons. Why not pin our hopes on directed energy weapons like lasers? And here I want to talk about two different types of laser system, those that are based on Earth and those that are taken into space. Most existing ground-based laser systems are believed to be ... what are referred to as "dazzlers". This means they are not powerful enough to destroy a target satellite or melt it for example.

You are talking about trying to project a lot of energy through an atmosphere and then onto a target in orbit, no easy feat. Instead what they can do is the high-tech equivalent of shining a torch in someone else's eyes. When a satellite with sensitive optics comes over to make a pass, the laser can be directed towards those optics, either temporarily blinding them and preventing them from doing their job, or potentially doing damage to the optics or sensors. Remember an optic that is good enough to take photos of Earth from space is going to be pretty sensitive, and so getting hit with a laser weapon is going to be about as traumatic for those optics as a human eye staring into a magnesium flare or reading particularly brain-dead propaganda. Now when talking about these systems, there are a number of advantages.

With the biggest one being the cost per engagement. With these options you're not firing an expensive missile or a rocket at your target, you are just projecting a laser. And so I still wouldn't want to see the power bill associated with one of these facilities, it's still going to be one of the cheapest ways by far to engage enemy overhead assets. On the flip side lasers can suffer from engagement restrictions. For one, lasers have line of sight issues.

They struggle enough with the atmosphere, so you are probably not going to be able to fire them through the Earth's surface. And so if you can't draw a line of sight to your target, you can't engage it. And in the case of the dazzler you may be even more restricted, because there you don't just need to hit the satellite, you need to get the exposed optics. Which may mean you need the optics to be pointed within a few degrees of the emitting station in order to neutralise it. So you might be able to prevent a satellite surveying an area of your country, but you might not be able to stop it doing other surveillance missions. Lasers are also going to get less effective as distances increase.

So once again those geostationary satellites are probably feeling pretty good right now. Now it must be said, this is based on where the technology is right now. It's possible we'll develop much more powerful ground-based lasers, ones that are capable of not just attacking optics or sensitive components but also doing damage for example to solar panels, disabling satellites without destroying them. But for the moment, most of the systems we know about in the public sphere seem to be much less powerful than that.

The US Defence Intelligence Agency has identified the Chinese as possessing ground-based laser weapons that can potentially counter low orbit space-based sensors. And raise the prospect of the PRC potentially fielding higher powered systems that could extend a threat to the structures of non-optical satellites, that is engaging things like solar panels. But don't expect Beijing to be in a hurry to confirm any of those suspicions. At the same time the Russians publicly claim to have deployed their mobile high energy laser system, Peresvet. That system, according to Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov, is capable of engaging enemy satellites at altitudes of up to 1,500 kilometres, and disabling them during their fly past by means of laser irradiation.

However, as far as I can assess, and as far as is asserted by the United States, no evidence of that capability, or anything like it, has ever been demonstrated by the system. So as far as US statements are concerned, it seems like the Chinese have more capability than they publicly disclose, and the Russians have considerably less than they publicly assert. The Russians and the Chinese are obviously not alone in the development of ground-based high energy lasers for potential counter-space use.

The French for example have referred to the existence of their ground-based laser program, BLOOMLASE. Although, as with many of these cutting-edge development projects, there's precious little information easily accessible in the public domain. But if range is a problem, things like clouds and distance getting in the way of our laser beams, why don't we just take the laser to the target satellite? On one hand this instantly resolves some issues.

We can now reach targets that might be out of line of sight. We can address any potential orbit, we can go all the way out to geosynchronous orbits if we want to by putting a satellite out there. But in solving that problem, we've created for ourselves a massive new one. How do you power a high energy laser on a satellite? Now the Americans during the Cold War gave this problem some thought and came up ultimately with a solution. And if you guessed that solution was nukes, then yes, correct, the answer was apparently nukes.

During the late Cold War Ronald Reagan publicly announced the idea of a Strategic Defence Initiative, a plan to shoot down Soviet missiles using space-based weapons. Specifically in some of its incarnations and imaginations, using lasers. The concept explored in the so-called Project Excalibur, was to place a nuclear bomb in orbit, wrap numerous X-ray lasers around the device, and then when the Soviets launched a nuclear missile attack to have the satellite orient its lasers towards the incoming missiles, detonate the nuke, which would, in the brief window before the blast vapourised all of the lasers, generate X-ray laser beams which would neutralise the missiles. So yes, filling orbit with nuclear bomb-powered laser satellites was a legitimate concept that serious people looked at and spent actual money on. That said, for some strange reason countries now instead seem to be more focused on the idea of conventional power sources for their space-based lasers.

The French government for example has publicly talked about wanting to move towards this kind of capability. In the near term they want to demonstrate the concept of agile, manoeuvrable, patroller satellites. We'll talk a little bit more about the concept of patroller satellites later. But essentially they are exactly what the name suggests, agile satellites with a delta-V budget that are capable of moving between orbits and locations in order to provide their operators a closer eye on anything that's particularly suspicious. Then by 2030 the French want to have a space-based laser system presumably also to go along with this patroller concept. That makes a degree of sense, because whereas a patroller satellite could, say, detect a hostile satellite sabotaging or interfering with one of your major communications networks, a patrol satellite with a laser attached to it would actually be able to do something about that intrusion rather than just broadcasting offensive language.

The reason I bring up the French program is because there is some public discussion and disclosure about them, but also because of how France describes the impetus behind them. I was able to find reference to France stating that it believes that it's behind in these sort of space-based capability areas, and it sees programs like this as a way to catch up. So if the French is saying they intend to field this capability by 2030 and yet feel like they are behind, that might indicate they believe some other government somewhere else is working on a similar capability and may be further down the development path. In any case, adopting this sort of system would probably take some significant patience on the part of Kiwiland.

A whole bunch technologies would need to be developed, and then the satellites would have to be launched. But if it worked it might eventually provide satellites that could at a designated moment sneak up on the Emutopian broadcast satellites and then disable them at very close range with a low power laser. If the engagement was precise enough the target satellite shouldn't explode or break up and the chance of any debris would hopefully be minimal.

But most of the counter-space options discussed so far have had at least some destructive component. Even the dazzler could potentially cause permanent damage to the optics of the satellite it's engaging. But if you go back to the original mission, the goal wasn't to destroy or disable the satellite necessarily. That's one method of achieving the potential goal, but as long as the satellite in question is not doing anything to benefit our opponent do we really care as to whether or not it's intact or not? And when it comes to counter-space options, there are a couple that might be available to satisfy those criteria: to deny the opponent the advantage of their space-based assets without taking the unsubtle step of blowing them out of the sky and destroying half of the Starlink constellation in the process.

Electronic attack mechanisms are probably the most common, and they don't operate by targeting the satellite for destruction, but instead targeting the flow of data to or from them. Jamming can attack either the uplink, so data being sent to a satellite, the downlink which is the data coming from the satellite back to Earth. Or in a third mode of attack called spoofing, you can try and trick a receiver into believing that a fake signal produced by you is in fact the real one. Which while nowhere near as destructive as for example using kinetic interceptors to destroy opposing satellites, may be every bit as damaging to enemy capabilities. Because if you can start convincing enemy GPS receivers that they're in fact in an entirely different location, then you just know you're going to end up with that one truck driver who explains that the reason he drove directly into the river is because the GPS told him that was the freeway.

We'll absolutely

2023-05-25 05:00

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