The Blog

Securing Space

Opportunities exist to work with President Obama on space security.

11:00 PM, Jan 29, 2009 • By ERIC SAYERS and JEFFREY DRESSLER
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Whether or not President Obama will follow through on his broad promise to seek "a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites" is an open question. At the very least, he has been forthright in announcing his opposition to the weaponization of space. Complicating this commitment, however, is the broad range of military and civilian space assets that can be qualified as a "space weapon." The most effective direct-ascent ASAT weapon the U.S. has in its arsenal is the Standard-Missile 3 -- demonstrated by the successful February 2008 shoot-down of an American spy satellite. The dual-use of this weapon will also pose a serious dilemma for getting a space treaty off the ground without also requiring America to forgo its missile defense capabilities. Therefore, whatever the outcome of an international space regime, the utility of the SM-3 and other ASAT weapons as a traditional deterrence mechanism vis-à-vis Chinese ASAT weapons is likely to be downplayed by the Obama administration.

While these unfortunate policy prescriptions are a cause for concern, hope may lie in the possible defensive space measures that President Obama seems poised to embrace. His campaign website and new White House website encouragingly discuss "accelerating programs to harden U.S. satellites against attack" and "establishing contingency plans to ensure that U.S. forces can maintain or duplicate access to information from space assets." One of the most promising initiatives for achieving these duel objectives is Operationally Responsive Space (ORS). ORS seeks to rapidly deliver short-term capabilities to the warfighter that serve to augment space-based national security assets through the use of low-cost Tactical Satellites. The ORS Office, stood up in 2007 at the Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, now stands at the forefront of an effort to revolutionize the way the U.S. builds and deploys satellites.

The standard process by which the military continues to construct satellites emphasizes large, time-consuming programs that maintain a slow generational turnover of 15 to 20 years, preventing an important military asset like space to be exploited at the operational level. Alternatively, miniaturized satellites enjoy both nimble and adaptive qualities. Compared to traditional stand-alone satellite, micro satellites can continuously be outfitted with the latest technological upgrades and be sent to replace their outdated counterparts. More importantly, they can be used to help increase capabilities to meet the demands of combatant commanders. Indeed, the ORS Office is working right now on an ambitious 24 month timetable to supply U.S. Central Command with a satellite to meet an identified gap in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets. Should this effort succeed, it will be a telling example of what the future holds for operationalizing the power of space.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of ORS is the capacity it offers to reconstitute satellites quickly and cheaply. If the administration remains reluctant to pursue active mechanisms for ensuring deterrence in space, ORS could be employed as part of an array of defensive systems to help guarantee U.S. access to space by dissuading and deterring the development and use of Chinese ASAT technologies. If the United States retains the ability to replenish satellite constellations on an as-needed basis, the benefits provided by costly ASAT weapons would be greatly diminished for the PLA.

Of course, this may have the unintended consequence of compelling PLA planners to devote resources to denial-of-service weapons or acquire even more direct-attack weapons in an effort to overwhelm America's reconstitution capabilities. Thus, it will be necessary to develop a multifaceted defensive regime to build reserve micro satellites and stockpile cheap launch vehicles like the Minotaur, harden existing and future satellites against electromagnetic pulse and jamming, and further integrate satellite capabilities with allies.

Considering the benefits of ORS, reports that the budget for the ORS Office may be slashed between fiscal year 2011 and 2014, are highly discouraging. More recent reports now have funding being restored in 2012, but with a likely tightening of defense budgets in the years ahead, the outlook for a program already being targeted to pay Department of Defense's bills is bleak.