From Space, They Say, They Will Be Able To Strike Targets Anywhere On Earth
Air Force Times May 18, 1998
By William Matthews
Already, they can watch their enemies day and night though the unblinking
eyes of orbiting sensors.
Space provides an unprecedented flow of information to troops on the ground,
in the air and at sea, and the flow is increasing. Satellites in space make
navigation easy and bombing with pinpoint accuracy possible.
Space will permit the military to achieve unrivaled battlefield dominance.
Military planners got their first comprehensive glimpse at the potential of
space in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. Many were so impressed they are
Persian Gulf War the first "space war."
Virtually every aspect of the war depended to some degree on the support
provided by space systems. Data from space helped troops find their position
navigate, provided weather and terrain information, was central to
tactical-missile defense, made communications possible, and was central to
surveillance, and target acquisition.
Space provided a vast asymmetrical advantage for the United States. While
U.S. forces knew from space imagery where Iraqi forces were and what they
doing, the Iraqis remained unaware of massive shifts in U.S. forces at the
start of the ground war.
The Global Positioning System and satellite communications kept allied troop
movements synchronized. Bombing isolated and demoralized Iraqi units, which
surrendered en masse.
And space systems have improved dramatically since then, making U.S. forces
more informed, more precise and more deadly, according to Gen. Howell Estes,
chief of the U.S. Space Command and Air Force Space Command.
But space promises to become more of an equal-opportunity medium.
"The Saddams of the future can buy the kind of capability only the United
States used to have," said Brig. Gen. Steve Boone, director of plans at the
Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.
Companies that operate commercial satellites already sell intelligence
photos, communications links and weather data valuable for military
Relatively minor military powers, and even nongovernmental organizations,
soon will have access to militarily valuable services from space.
"The space 'playing field' is leveling rapidly," the U.S. Space Command
warns in a newly released "Long Range Plan."
Nearly 500 satellites orbit the Earth today, pumping the lifeblood of the
postindustrial economy: information.
And in space, the lines between what is military and what is commercial are
becoming increasingly blurred.
The Global Positioning System originally developed as a navigation tool for
U.S. troops now is essential to civil air, land and maritime transportation,
While guiding warplanes to their targets, GPS now also guides fishing boats
to productive angling grounds.
Satellites that once gathered weather information exclusively for military
purposes now share space with satellites that gather similar data that is
on cable television.
Detailed satellite weather information is so widely available, the U.S.
military is transferring control of its weather satellites to the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric
With this merger of commerce and the military in space, potential problems
For example, it may be difficult to deny an enemy access to GPS data useful
for targeting missiles without also cutting the service to airliners, oil
tankers and map
Communications satellites, which make telecommunications one of the world's
fastest-growing industries, also expand the military communications
Ground-surveillance satellites intended for use in agriculture and other
industries soon will produce images sharp enough to show objects as small as
1 meter across.
They will make ideal military reconnaissance satellites.
For spy photos or crop monitoring, commercial transactions or battlefield
communications, recreational weather forecasting or mission planning,
airline navigation or
smart bomb targeting, space has come of age.
"Space capabilities are becoming absolutely essential for military
operations, national commerce and everyday life," the U.S. Space Command
In the next century, U.S. dependence on space will rival its dependence on
electricity and oil, the command's visionaries predict in their 20-year
blueprint for military
Not only will the military depend on space for capabilities such as
communications, reconnaissance and surveillance, but senior military
officials predict that soon the
military will be expected to defend U.S. commercial interests in space.
The global policeman will be getting a bigger beat.
The first threat in space most likely will be to satellites.
Jamming, blinding or destroying satellites could cause billions of dollars
worth of commercial losses and could cripple the military.
Already there have been incidents. In 1996, an Indonesian company jammed the
satellite signal of a rival company from Hong Kong when the Hong Kong
was moved into its Indonesian rival's orbit.
Military and civilian experts say it is unclear whether the jamming was
intentional. But the episode sent shivers through the satellite industry,
where competition for
access to prime locations in space is already intense and growing.
The clash also highlighted a concern of the military's: Jamming is
relatively easy, preventing it is hard.
Protecting satellites against attacks "is an area we need to work on," said
Col. Larry James, a senior planner at the U.S. Space Command. "We are not
today in terms of protecting the systems we have in orbit."
The military depends heavily on satellites for communication, intelligence
gathering, surveillance, targeting, navigation and other purposes that
But the satellites are essentially defenseless.
Satellite operators -- military and civilian -- cannot even be certain their
satellites are under attack.
"Today, if a satellite stops operating, we cannot necessarily be sure why it
stopped," James said. It may have been a victim of natural radiation, a
casualty of space
debris or the target of an intentional attack, he said.
It could take weeks to figure out what happened. The long-range space plan
says the military needs to be able to detect attacks against its satellites
The Air Force is working to develop a generation of satellites that can
sense when they are under attack and take steps to protect themselves, said
Ryan, the service chief of staff. Eventually the Air Force hopes to develop
ways to "actively defend" its satellites against attacks. But exactly how
that will be done, "I
don't know yet," he said.
Military space planners have much clearer ideas about how to attack the
space-based assets of foes.
They call it "flexible negation." It involves jamming, blinding, "spoofing"
or destroying satellites and disabling or destroying ground-based
Spoofing involves confusing satellites with electronic signals.
The United States demonstrated last fall that the ground-based MIRACL, or
Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser developed by the Army, can disrupt --
probably destroy -- an orbiting satellite. The Army is also planning a
kinetic anti-satellite weapon that would be launched to destroy satellites
by crashing into them.
In addition, the military is believed to have high-powered microwave weapons
that can disable satellites in orbit.
Eventually, enemy satellites and space-based sensors may be jammed, blinded
or destroyed with weapons lofted into space by the "space operations
space plane, that is expected to be in service by 2012, according to the
Flexible negation takes less exotic forms as well. A bomb dropped on a
satellite-control center could cut off an enemy's access to intelligence,
navigation and other critical capabilities.
Such low-tech countermeasures to high-tech capabilities should be a prime
worry for the United States, warned John Pike of the Federation of American
A truck bomb could disable a U.S. satellite control center. An Army center
located along a busy highway at Fort Belvoir just south of Washington, D.C.,
particularly susceptible, he said.
The threat is even greater abroad. The long-range space plan acknowledges
the danger in relying too heavily on "vulnerable overseas ground sites."
Defending and attacking satellites in space is likely to be the first
military action in space, but military planners expect it is only the start.
With weapons in orbit, the military can attack targets on the Earth
virtually at will. The long-range space plan envisions the capability to
"hold a finite number of
targets at risk anywhere, anytime with nearly instantaneous attack from
It could be done with lasers, high-powered microwave weapons and even smart
missiles fired from orbit.
For now, U.S. policy prohibits basing weapons in space. But that almost
certainly will change, Ryan said.
"Eventually our policy in the United States has got to step up to the fact
we need to defend our interests in space," he said.
It may take an attack on an American-owned satellite or other interference
with U.S. use of space to change current policy, Ryan said. And, he
predicted, such an
attack "is eventually going to occur."
"I don't think you'll see us moving real fast until some threat occurs -- a
huge threat, a threat that makes a big dollar difference. Then you'll see a
shift in policy" to
permit basing weapons in space.