What the Coming Space Conflict Will Really Look Like

A former member of the military's "Star Wars" program games out the next battlefield.

March 16, 2018 5:45 am
International Space Station (Universal History Archive/ UIG via Getty Images)
International Space Station (Universal History Archive/ UIG via Getty Images)
UIG via Getty Images

President Donald Trump raised a few eyebrows and prompted no small amount of scorn online when, in apparently off-the-cuff remarks, he proposed creating a “Space Force” as a separate military branch to do battle among the stars.

“My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea,” Trump told U.S. Marines at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Tuesday before appearing to veer off script. “We may even have a Space Force, develop another one, Space Force. We have the Air Force, we’ll have the Space Force … You know, I was saying it the other day, because we’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space, I said maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it Space Force.”

It all may sound far-fetched, but there are three important things to know about the fight for the heavens. First, the idea of creating a Space Force — separate from the Air Force, whose Space Command currently has responsibility for all things celestial — is not new and has been debated by lawmakers and military officials.

Second, a conflict in space is coming, and sooner than you might think, according to top U.S. national security officials.

At the 2018 Air Warfare Symposium last month, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told his fellow airmen, “It is time for us as a service, regardless of specialty badge, to embrace space superiority with the same passion and sense of ownership as we apply today to air superiority.”

“Air and space are a continuum. As it must be within our Air Force,” he said. “Because I believe we’re going to be fighting from space in a matter of years. And we’re the service that must lead joint war-fighting in this new contested domain. It’s not only our destiny, it’s what the nation demands.”

When briefing lawmakers on the major threats faced by the U.S. in 2018, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said “space warfare could be a major issue for us.”

“We need to look to the heavens, as well as to the earth in terms of threats to the United States,” he said.

Third, get images of TIE fighters and Death Stars — or many of the space lasers from the Bond universe — out of your head right now. That’s not what the near-future space conflict will look like.

“I don’t think a war in space is going to be a shooting war,” retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Latiff, author of the new book “Future War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield,” told RealClearLife. Rather, Latiff said, it’ll be a battle to “blind” the American military back on earth.

“Space is just another area of operations, just like an enemy will try to attack our supply lines… they’re going to attack our eyes and ears,” he said.

Satellites Detect Heat From Missile Launches and Other Very Important Things

Latiff, who retired from the Air Force in 2006, has been thinking about space conflict for decades, having served in the 1980s in the military’s Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as then-President Ronald Reagan’s starry-eyed but ultimately failed “Star Wars” missile defense shield.

“With more money than we knew what to do with, we started all sorts of interesting and scary programs, such as nuclear-pumped space-based lasers,” Latiff writes in his book. “In theory, a nuclear weapon detonated in space would energize multiple lasers to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles. It was all exciting and career-enhancing, though it didn’t take much to realize that it wasn’t going to work.”

According to Latiff, when government officials talk about near-future space war today, what they really mean is a major power — almost always China or Russia in these hypotheticals — attempting to interfere with or destroy orbiting American satellites with what’s known as ASAT, or anti-satellite, systems.

On its own, that doesn’t sound too bad and maybe even distinctly unsexy, until you realize that American satellites are responsible for services that are absolutely essential to modern war-fighting on the ground like GPS, secure communications and imagery and signals intelligence.

“That intelligence is critical to the military,” he said. “Satellites do a lot of things for the military. If someone were to interfere with them, it’d be serious.”

And those eyes in the sky are not just important in a general sense, but also in the specific, crucial moments before enemy missiles start to rain down on American troops or civilians — something America’s sensitive satellites can foresee.

“What our satellites do is they’re kind of like telescopes, and you can see the amount of heat that’s coming off one of these missiles, and it will differentiate them from, say, the exhaust coming out of your car,” Senior Airman Matthew Gregor said in an Air Force promotional video in 2015. (Watch the video below.)

“We report on every missile that we see to troops downrange and civilians downrange so they can duck and cover,” Senior Airman Mitchell Montepagano added.

Degrading that capability and others would make American troops more vulnerable to surprise attacks and would pretty directly cost American lives.

The Many Ways to Mess With a Satellite

As to how an enemy would attack what forward-thinking Air Force officers call the “high ground” in orbit, ASAT systems come in four varieties: kinetic (actually, physically attacking the thing), non-kinetic physical (using things like lasers to “blind” the satellite’s sensors), electromagnetic (such as jamming the transmission of data between the satellite and ground-based receivers), and cyber (targeting the data itself for interception, manipulation or destruction).

The U.S., Russia and China have each already shown they’re capable of the first type of attack. As recently as 2007 China destroyed one of its own weather satellites with an ASAT assault that resulted, due to the debris from the blast, in what NASA called at the time “the single worst contamination of low Earth orbit (LEO) during the past 50 years.” (China reportedly may have tested another ASAT weapon in 2014.)

NASA image that supposedly shows the space debris from the China ASAT test.

The next year the U.S. Navy blasted a defunct American satellite out of the sky.

U.S. officials have testified, and Latiff agreed, that Russia and China have only continued the development of their ASAT capabilities across the board.

In September, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission wrote that China, in particular, “has pursued a robust and comprehensive array of counterspace weapons, including ground-launched ASAT missiles, ground-based directed energy weapons, ground-based satellite jammers, computer network operations, and co-orbital ASAT systems.”

Last month a Russian official reportedly boasted to local media that the Russian military had developed a plane-based anti-satellite laser.

For what it’s worth, Latiff said he doesn’t expect World War III to start in space. But he could imagine it starting elsewhere, like the South China Sea or Eastern Europe, and spreading until space was among the fighting fronts. There, he predicted the conflict would intensify in relation to conditions on the ground.

“I would expect it would start more by interference. They would try to interfere with our imagery satellites, communications satellites, to keep them from operating properly,” Latiff said. Actually destroying an American strategic satellite, he said, would be a significant escalation on its own.

The U.S. Is Ahead in Space, But That’s Not All Good News

In his remarks to the Marines at Miramar, Trump said the U.S. was “way behind” in space capabilities, but “we’re catching up fast.” Latiff, who spoke to RealClearLife before Trump’s remarks, would likely disagree. China and Russia, he said, have been racing to catch up to America’s “really classy” satellites. (Coats testified that the U.S. currently enjoys a “significant advantage” in space.)

But Latiff acknowledged that America’s prosperity in space is also its vulnerability. In the same way that the U.S. is especially susceptible to cyber attacks because it is one of the most connected nations on the planet, the country is heavily dependent on satellite operations — meaning it has a weak point not necessarily shared by its adversaries yet.

Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, acknowledged this security paradox when he testified before a Senate committee beside Coats earlier this month.

“…[W]hen you look at the kind of near-peers, whether it’s Russia or China, they understand the dependencies that we have on space and so they’re developing capabilities for how to counter that,” he said. “So they’re looking at strategies and how they develop really kind of a layered approach to deny us that capability.”

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., then asked Ashley perhaps the most consequential question there is about the new space race: “Last question: Better at it than we are?”

After a pause, Ashley’s non-answer was an answer on its own. “Sir, they’re in the development stage at this point,” he said.

P.S. About Those Space Lasers

You’re still here? Oh, well, in that case, I suppose we can briefly discuss space lasers, as in the three (three!) that feature in James Bond movies. These are the ones, like the GoldenEye satellite, that blast a laser from orbit down to a target on earth to wreak some havoc.

Latiff chuckled when asked about this possibility. He said that no nation currently has that capability and doubts it’ll happen anytime soon for a litany of math-related reasons.

First of all, he said, such a weapon would require an enormous piece of glass to focus the laser’s energy — which degrades with every mile it has to travel — which would mean expending a huge amount of energy (and therefore money) to get the glass into position space and then more to create the actual beam.

Even then, he said, one blast “wouldn’t do it.” For lasers to be effective, they have to remain on-target for at least a little while. That, in turn, brings up questions of orbital patterns and satellite altitude.

Overall, a good illustration of how difficult this all is can be seen in the U.S. Navy’s recent work on anti-watercraft lasers. They do work to a point, but that technology has only matured to baseline functional in the last few years, and that is a drastically smaller-scale operation than anything a space laser would be called on to do.

“I don’t know whether it’s ever achievable,” Latiff said.

Lee Ferran is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.

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