What Does the U.S. Space Force Actually Do?


Space Force leaders readily describe their guardians as working toward a state of combat readiness, even as they hope an era of actual conflict never arrives. In October, I went to the Pentagon to meet with Gen. Chance Saltzman, the chief of space operations and the Space Force’s highest-ranking officer. Saltzman remarked that several decades back, when he began working with satellites in the Air Force, the notion that there could be combat losses in space was not part of the conversation. But “those are discussions now,” he told me, “because both the Chinese and the Russians have demonstrated operational capabilities that truly placed those assets at risk.” In 2007, China’s decision to test an ASAT weapon to destroy one of its own satellites sent shock waves through the U.S. military and created a vast field of debris. A similar Russian tactic, in 2021, generated more than 1,500 fragments and led Secretary of State Antony Blinken to describe the act as “recklessly conducted.” The Space Force’s own squadrons, Saltzman told me, were still tracking pieces of junk that date to the 2007 explosion. “You know, the other domains kind of clean themselves up after war,” Saltzman said. “You shoot an airplane down, it falls out of the sky. Ships sink out of the sea lanes. Even on land, you bring the bulldozers in and you move things around. But space doesn’t heal itself.”

Debris has led military strategists to ponder a related issue: In space, it’s difficult to get out of the way of conflict. Right now, Saltzman noted, if you pull up real-time data to see where flights are around the world, the airspace over Ukraine is empty. “You will see a void,” he said. “Commercial air traffic does not want to fly over Ukraine.” The same thing happens in shipping lanes, like the Strait of Hormuz, when the Middle East is in turmoil, as it is now. “So in other domains, refugees, displaced persons, people get out of the way of conflict. Commercial entities move out of the way and avoid conflict.” In space, orbital mechanics take over; machines keep going around and around, following the laws of gravity. NASA satellites may not be able to steer away from a potential combat zone. And commercial entities can’t move — or won’t know where or when to move. “And then potentially every satellite becomes more debris,” Saltzman remarked. “Every peaceful satellite could become a weapon accidentally.”

I asked Saltzman what he and his colleagues had learned from observing the war in Ukraine. With a caveat that the fighting is hardly over — “it could still be a catastrophe on a grand scale,” he said — he pointed to several crucial events. The first was how one of Russia’s earliest endeavors was to deny Ukrainian troops access to a satellite communications system they relied upon, known as Viasat, which is stationed in the distant geosynchronous orbital belt. “And they did it with a cyberattack against the ground infrastructure,” he said. “So you attack the ground network to achieve the space effect you want.” This wasn’t a surprise to him, he said, yet it was a reminder of the potential power of cyberwarfare and how battles to dominate space could still be terrestrial.

Another crucial point came after that attack — Ukraine’s decision to go to a commercial vendor, SpaceX, and use its Starlink system for combat communications. Here the lesson was twofold. First, that what Saltzman called “commercial augmentation” could prove vital in a crisis. As important, he added, Starlink — a configuration of hundreds of “proliferated” small satellites flying in low Earth orbit — has proved hard to bring down. “The Russians are trying to interrupt it,” he said, “and they’re not having very good success.” And the takeaway is that proliferated systems of many small machines in low orbit can be more technologically resilient to hacking and disruption than a few big machines in higher orbits. This seems to fit into Saltzman’s goal of maintaining strength during combat while achieving a larger objective of avoiding conflict altogether. “If I have two or three satellite communications doing nuclear command and control, maybe those are targets,” he explained. “But if I take nuclear command and control and spread it across 400 satellites that are zipping over the horizon [every] 15 minutes, there’s a targeting problem. How many satellites do I have to shoot down now to take out the U.S. nuclear command and control?”


Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *