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The Pentagon Is Betting Big on Space Warfare — Against China and Russia

The US Defense Department is pouring money into an extraterrestrial arms race at a time when China and Russia are increasingly asserting themselves in space.
Photo via Flickr

The US Defense Department has asked Congress for $108 million to fund a new facility in Colorado dedicated to drawing up plans and running experiments for war in outer space, as anxiety grows about the possibility of extraterrestrial conflict with China or Russia.

"Potential adversaries are rapidly developing capabilities to deny the US and its allies' use of space during a conflict," US Air Force Major General Robert D. Rego, the US Strategic Command official responsible for the center, told VICE News.


The facility he'll run is called the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center, which goes by the awkward military handle JICSpOC (pronounced jick-SPOCK). Its job, he said, will be to "better integrate our space operations in response to these threats."

The funding request follows Defense Secretary Ash Carter's preview last week of the Pentagon's budget for fiscal year 2017, which he promised would enhance America's "ability to identify, attribute, and negate all threatening actions in space."

'Space was seen as a sanctuary. New and emerging threats make clear that that's not the case anymore.'

In the budget proposal, published Tuesday, the Defense Department also requested $1.8 billion in funding for space launch activities, as well as hundreds of millions for research into "space technology" and things like "counterspace systems." Congress had last year already authorized an additional $5 billion for Pentagon space programs through 2020.

There's a good reason why Washington is pouring that kind of money into space.

"The US, Russia, and China are engaged in an arms race in space," explained Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC who specializes in 21st Century security issues. "Ash Carter isn't just announcing billions of dollars of spending in space because he saw the new Force Awakens movie."

Related: The Pentagon's New Defense Budget Is Going Long on War Foreplay


Military analysts said that the new funding reflects continuing unease about the vulnerability of America's satellite network at a time when China and Russia are increasingly asserting themselves in space.

"At times in the past, space was seen as a sanctuary. New and emerging threats make clear that that's not the case anymore and we must be prepared for the possibility of a conflict that extends in space," Carter remarked. "For so many commercial space endeavors, we want this domain to be just like the oceans and the internet: free and safe for all. There are some in this world who don't want that to happen."

China and Russia's "sophisticated military uses of space services" and "counterspace weapon systems to deny, degrade, or disrupt US space systems" were also part of a "litany of doom" outlined by US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in a speech to Congress on Tuesday, laying bare the strategic challenges at stake.

"We… remain concerned with growing space capabilities around the globe, particularly those of China and Russia," said Lieutenant Colonel Martin O'Donnell, spokesman for US Strategic Command, which oversees the American military's space operations. "Both countries have advanced directed-energy capabilities that could be used to track or blind satellites, disrupting key operations, and both have demonstrated the ability to perform complex maneuvers in space."


War… in space! 
America's vast, orbiting infrastructure of satellites allows the military to project power around the globe, guiding warships across the ocean and sending missiles slamming into remote terrorist training camps. It also plays a critical role in communications, reconnaissance, and the piloting of drones.

But the country's reliance on this constellation of fragile, multimillion-dollar flying computers may also be an Achilles heel, presenting potential enemies with targets that are hard to defend and nearly impossible to repair.

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"The US military is the most reliant on satellite capabilities of any military in the world," noted Theresa Hitchens, an expert on space and cyber security at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. "Russia and China look at US space capabilities and say, 'You know what? That's a vulnerability.' "

A potentially devastating vulnerability.

Taking out those satellites would throw American forces back into the "pre-digital age," Singer said. "After that, the battles may look more like the battles of WWI or WWII, where you're struggling to find the enemy first, and they're struggling to find you."

The US military is looking to forestall that scenario and envision the battleground of the future.

In December, US military and civilian specialists gathered at the Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado for a large-scale war game set in outer space in the year 2025. The event brought together 200 experts from 27 US agencies as well as representatives from the UK, Canada, and Australia.


While details are classified, a statement by the US Air Force Space Command said the game "included full spectrum threats across diverse operating environments that challenged civilian and military leaders, planners, and space system operators."

The goal of a war in space would be for each side to take out its competitor's satellites as quickly as possible — using any means available.

A blinding assault on enemy satellites could well be the very first step of a military conflict between great powers, said professor Bhupendra Jasani, an expert in the militarization of outer space at the department of war studies at King's College London.

Some satellites would be jammed by radio waves. Others might be blown to smithereens by rockets fired from earth. This kind of kinetic attack has enormous implications for space debris. It could be a relatively trivial matter to create enough debris to set off a chain reaction of collisions that could eventually clear out an entire orbit.

Attack drones might also spray paint onto surveillance satellites, blinding their lenses. Kamikaze space-bots might collide into satellites, ramming them off course.

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Lasers and directed-energy beams would likely be used in space combat to blind surveillance equipment or fry satellite components. Actually mounting laser weapons on spacecraft is probably no more than a decade away, according to Jasani, but until then they would probably be fired from the earth's surface. Russia, China, and the US are all thought to already have this capability.


Another element of assault would be to hack or reprogram an opposing military's satellites and use them to send false signals to its forces, sowing chaos. An attacking army could slip past enemy lines on the ground as early warning systems give false all-clear readouts to defenders.

Compromised satellites could even allow an enemy to redirect deployed missiles against the side that launched them, said Singer.

A prime target for any would-be adversary taking on the US would be the Global Positioning System, or GPS, which lets users pinpoint exact locations on the earth's surface.

GPS is a network of satellites developed and maintained by the US Air Force. The same system that helps college undergrads road trip during spring break is also used to drop bombs on the heads of Islamic State militants in Syria.

That's one reason China set alarm bells ringing in the halls of Washington, DC in 2013 when it launched a rocket 30,000 kilometers into space — far enough to hit one of the GPS satellites, which hang in orbit about 20,000 kilometers from earth, or other key communications satellites even farther out.

China had previously knocked one of its own satellites out of the sky from a height of 865 kilometers using a missile launched from earth in 2007.

"China needs to be more forthcoming about missile tests that appear to be more focused on the development of destructive space weapons," US Admiral Cecil D. Haney told the US Senate Committee on Armed Services last March.


That time America almost nuked the Moon
Concern over an arms race in space dates back to the Cold War, when the US and the Soviet Union eyed each other's extraterrestrial ambitions warily.

In the late 1950s, American military planners drew up a plan to detonate a nuclear weapon on the surface of the moon to intimidate the Soviet Union, which had just launched the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957.

The top-secret plan was codenamed Project A119 and referred to as "A Study of Lunar Research Flights." Military officials intended to explode a bomb just behind the visible ridge of the moon, so that the blast would be brilliantly illuminated by the sun as terrified Soviet citizens watched from below.

Related: North Korea May Be Giving a Space Program Another Try

"It was clear the main aim of the proposed detonation was a PR exercise and a show of one-upmanship," said Dr. Leonard Reiffel, the physicist who directed the project and later detailed it in an interview with Britain's The Observer in 2000. "The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on earth."

But the idea was never carried out.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan scared Soviet military planners half to death by unveiling plans for a space-based anti-missile system called the Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars. While that program didn't survive either, historians have said it spooked the Soviets into ramping up military spending, further unbalancing their already-teetering economy.


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Today, analysts and press reports suggest America's real military spending on space programs could well be much bigger than the $5 billion through 2020 announced last year. A recent report on CBS's 60 Minutes citing documents from the White House put the figure at $25 billion a year, including money for spy satellites and other space-related projects.

"The bottom line is the United States does not want conflict in outer space," Frank Rose, assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, told Scientific American last summer. "But let me make it very clear: we will defend our space assets if attacked."

Yet some analysts said that kicking off an arms race in space would serve to make the planet less secure. An incidental collision between a satellite and an asteroid could be misinterpreted as an attack, kicking off a chain reaction of escalation, confusion, and danger.

"Even if conflict never breaks out, there's still a certain sadness in all of this," said Singer. "Reaching into space is one of human kind's greatest accomplishments. The fact that we can't leave our conflict behind us shows we have a long way to go."

Photo via Flickr