Of course, claiming that you can doesn’t actually mean that you should.
The Pentagon is raising serious concerns this week over advancements in both Russian and Chinese capabilities in a potential fight in low Earth orbit. While most of the spacefaring nations have been experimenting with the concept for a while now, two of our leading competitors in the space race either have or are close to having the ability to knock out our satellites. The implications for that are both obvious and dire, but if you were looking to start a fight in the 21st century, one of the more devastating blows you could land early on would be to take out all of our GPS and spying capabilities. (Free Beacon)
China and Russia are developing anti-satellite missiles and other weapons and will soon be capable of damaging or destroying all U.S. satellites in low-earth orbit, according to the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.
The Joint Staff intelligence directorate, known as J-2, issued the warning in a recent report on the growing threat of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons from those states, according to officials familiar with the assessment.
The report concludes that “China and Russia will be capable of severely disrupting or destroying U.S. satellites in low-earth orbit” in the next several years, said the officials.
The capability to attack low-earth orbit satellites could be in place by 2020, the officials said.
While this sounds rather dire, particularly the way it’s framed in this report, it’s also not exactly anything new. The Russians were working on similar programs back in the later stages of the cold war. China was a bit later to the space race, but by this point they are full players in their own right. And we shouldn’t pretend that the United States is just a babe in the woods here. The official story was that our ASAT program, started under Reagan, was abandoned some years ago, but that claim is fairly dubious.
This ties back to the recent article I mentioned dealing with whether or not that mystery ZUMA satellite we launched this month was really “lost” or whether it’s up there tooling around right now. One of the possibilities under discussion was that it might be a hunter-killer satellite designed to do to the Russians and Chinese precisely what we’re now worried about them doing to us.
We should keep in mind that none of these systems need to have capabilities along the lines of nukes or even moderate size explosives. As a young man, I spent a few years working in a design lab for RCA where we developed the transmitters for satellites and had to deal with incorporating them into the full-scale birds. Satellites are surprisingly fragile and you don’t need to blow one up to disable it. Some of the earlier ASAT designs included ideas such as launching a wide, metallic net in the bird’s general direction. If you can foul one of them up, mess up their mass distribution so they go into a spin, snap off an antenna or even simply punch a moderate sized hole in them you’ll probably take them offline permanently. Similarly, if you can just shove them out of orbit in a downward direction, the positioning thrusters on most satellites don’t have enough juice to put them back up on station and they’ll probably just burn up in the atmosphere.
In the end, the best we’ll probably do is arrive at yet another MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) scenario where nobody takes out anyone else’s satellites because the other side will be able to do the same to them. And losing all satellite capability would be crippling to most western societies at this point.