Space Force Briefing on the Modern Space Domain

In a recent unclassified briefing by the Space Force to Jeff Bezos, a number of emerging factors and threats were discussed. China and Russia’s capabilities were the main focus of the briefing, which outlined how the US is losing a lot of the leads and advantages it has enjoyed in space. China is quickly catching up to the US with the number of satellites deployed and capabilities such as its own GPS network with built-in secure messaging.

Both China and Russia have anti-satellite missile capabilities (ASAT) which they have tested in the past, however, kinetic measures are more and more being viewed as a last resort as the debris can be just as damaging to the attacker who also has a number of resources in orbit. These side effects lead to a number alternative measures being developed. A potential alternative to kinetic measures are energy weapons, energy weapons have long been topics of science fiction, but are quickly approaching reality. While energy weapons may not be physically destructive to satellites today, they can blind or even damage optical sensors on satellites, one could easily imagine a large array targeting all overhead observing satellites in order to block reconnaissance of large land areas. The evolution of technology and the driving need for debris removal in Earth orbit is also fueling the advancement of proximity operations, such as repair or refueling, which can serve as a mask for weaponization of physical satellite attacks, there are already examples of inspector satellites and tugs attaching to other satellites in order to conduct tests and change orbits.

China’s growing space presence is also causing growing concern for frequency jamming making the jump from ground based to space based enabling the blocking of communication over more areas that the adversary may not even be physically present in. The US advantage with the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) system used for classified communications may be coming to an end as jamming makes its way to space. China views space as an economic development area which is causing them to look ahead to what technology needs to be developed to get to where they want to be resulting in significant growth and innovation.

The importance of space cyber security is of particular note in this briefing. Kinetic weapons could end space for everyone through a Kessler syndrome scenario, however digital attacks are harder to trace, more reversible, higher impact with less collateral damage for your resources in space. SMSgt. Ron Lerch, senior enlisted leader of Space Systems Command’s intelligence directorate, who presented the briefing stated cyber warfare is the most difficult topic to discuss in an unclassified forum “because so much of the attribution is what makes it classified.” This means that there can often be a lack of public information on the topic and events. Coupled with the vast functionality space systems are currently used for, we should expect to see cyber attacks being the first shots fired in futures conflicts, there are already prime examples of this with the Russian attack on Viasat before the Ukraine invasion seen as “one of the first real-world examples of how cyberattacks can be targeted and timed to amplify military forces on the ground by disrupting and even destroying the technology used by enemy forces.”. This means that rather than investing in the development of missiles, countries may be heavily investing in offensive cyber capabilities. Given the budgets thrown around on missile and space systems, redirecting some of that towards cyber development could result in extremely advanced capabilities in the future.

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