Defending the Final Frontier

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The capacity to protect one’s own military satellite network while destroying the enemy’s—entirely feasible well within a decade—would relegate an enemy’s military operations to pre-modern levels.

There is no comparison between a military force that commands a panoply of satellites and one that does not. GPS practically eliminates the question “where are we?” People and machines guide themselves and communicate worldwide. Information on whatever radiates or reflects energy in any wavelength on, over—and even in some cases—under the earth is used to direct decisions and weapons.

But even though the United States Government knows that Russia and China have long practiced destroying satellites, it is well aware of the many ways in which satellites can be destroyed. While our military maintains a token capacity to destroy enemy satellites kinetically and continues to harden our own against low-level directed energy attacks from the ground, it is not even considering non-passive measures to defend its own satellite network. It should.

While attacking satellites individually—whether kinetically by co-orbital, counter-orbital, or direct ascent interception—is as straightforward as putting them into orbit, it is impractical to escort each with devices to destroy interceptors that violate keep-out zones around them. Because any rocket that rises above the atmosphere can then target a satellite, the only practical way of defending one’s own satellites against kinetic interception is to control others’ access to orbital space.

Any country that acquires the capacity to destroy launches of which it did not approve would put itself in a position analogous to that which the U.S-British alliance seized during WWII. At that time, the Allies had agents in every major port that inspected cargoes and issued “Certificates of Navigation” (NAVICERTS) to vessels and destinations of which they approved. Ships sailing without NAVICERTS would be sunk. Merely acquiring the capacity to control access to outer space would obviate the need for a similar warning, because all would know that this capacity would be put to use in a crisis.

This capacity is inherent in the deployment of just a few orbit-based laser weapons with power sufficient to destroy space launch vehicles during boost phase (several kilojoules per square centimeter at circa 800km). Not incidentally, the deployment of even one such weapon, even a low-power prototype (one tenth that power) unsuitable for boost phase interception, would be more than sufficient to disable enemy satellites.

In 2000-2001, this weapon’s ground-based version, known as the Theater High Energy Laser (THEL), also known as the Nautilus, shot down 28 Katyusha rockets fired into Israel. The weapon had been designed for deployment in orbit. Political considerations—especially its potential for missile defense—foreclosed its originally intended use. Adapting it for ground use required overcoming technical hurdles. Returning it to its original configuration would be simpler.

Once upon a time, the technologies required to produce this weapon existed exclusively in the United States. That has not been the case in this century. Were Russia or China to launch their version of it, the question would arise of why the U.S. government had let itself be bested in this epoch-making category of military equipment.