The US Air Force Wants More Money to Defend Its Satellites

The 2019 budget for Air Force space equipment and R&D, including new satellite defenses, represents a 9-percent increase over 2018.

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Feb 16 2018, 1:00pm

Image: US Air Force

The US Air Force wants to spend around $8 billion in 2019 on harder-to-destroy satellites and other space equipment as it prepares for a possible orbital showdown with Russia and China.

But the military should also consider talking to its orbital rivals in order to head off conflict, one expert advised.

The 2019 budget for Air Force space equipment and R&D, including new satellite defenses, represents a 9-percent increase over 2018.

The Air Force, which controls most of the military's spacecraft and accounts for the majority of the Defense Department's space spending, warned of other countries' "ability to counter US space superiority."

In recent years both Russia and China have launched miniature satellites whose main job is to inspect damaged spacecraft, but which could also maneuver close to American spacecraft and disable them. Russia and China also possess powerful electronic jammers that can block the signals from GPS satellites, potentially disrupting US forces' navigation and precision bombing.

"We are in a more dangerous security environment than we have seen in a generation,” Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, the Air Force budget director, told reporters when the administration rolled out its spending blueprint on February 12.

Congress ultimately controls federal spending and could add to, or subtract from, the military's budget proposal.

With 2019 funding, the Air Force wants to spend nearly a billion dollars adding "resilience features" to communications and infrared-monitoring satellites currently under construction. Likewise, the flying branch wants to invest $1.5 billion in new GPS satellites with more powerful signals that could be harder for Russia and China to jam.

The resilience features on comms and infrared satellites might include better thrusters, allowing the spacecraft to maneuver more quickly in order to avoid attack. They may also include extra sensors on the spacecraft that act as a sort of orbital home-security system, monitoring the approach of potential assailants, according to James Oberg, an independent space expert and former NASA mission control specialist.

"Now that autonomous minisatellites can approach other satellites, sometimes without detection from the ground, space-based detection must be installed on the potential targets," Oberg told me. The sensors could include cameras, radars, radio-signal detectors and "sniffers" that can track the energy from other satellites' thrusters, Oberg added.

"There is no down side to hardening space assets against hostile interference," Oberg said. But Laura Grego, a space expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Massachusetts, cautioned against relying entirely on technology to protect America's spacecraft.

"Resilience can take you some way to keeping space secure and reliable," Grego told me. "But resilience and planning must be coupled with robust limits on the most dangerous technologies and behaviors in space."

In other words, international agreements and treaties such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bars weapons from long-term Earth orbit. The Outer Space Treaty has many loopholes. For one, a satellite that has peaceful uses but could also, with the flip of a switch, attack other spacecraft is generally considered legal under the treaty.

Grego advised combining defensive space technology with stronger legal limits on orbital weaponry. "Otherwise you may just be facing other types of threats that aren’t so easily dealt with and will be doing nothing to help keep at bay the risk of space activities sparking crises."

Diplomacy "is necessary for a long-term future in space and I think we shouldn’t waste any time," Grego added. "We should be engaging other countries now rather than later."

Correction: This article previously stated that James Oberg is a former astronaut. He is a former NASA mission control specialist. Motherboard regrets the error.

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