Jeffrey LewisBX-1 Panic

You can see an animation of the BX-1 companion satellite at 1:57 into the clip.

Anybody remember that really boring paper I wrote, in 2004, calling for “rules of the road” regarding autonomous proximity operations? (That’s when satellites maneuver around one another.) Me neither, but according to the internet, I said:

The launch of a Chinese micro-satellite with the capability of SNAP-1, let alone the XSS-11 or DART, would generate concern in many quarters of the United States. If the Chinese were to conduct a proximity maneuver near a U.S. satellite, the reaction would be apoplectic.

So, four years later the Chinese put up a small micro-satellite, BX-1, on a recent Shenzhou launch. It maneuvered near the ISS (sort of). Cue the apoplexy:

Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the Washington DC-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, and the author of a new book, China’s Military Modernization, Building for Regional and Global Reach, is not surprised that there has been no official US statement or response to this puzzling episode.

“We do not know how close the BX-1 actually approached the ISS. But for me, at closure speeds of 3.1km/second, the Shenzhou-7 was already too close at 45 kilometers. I expect that in time leaks or questions from the Congress will lead to revelations of more data about the BX-1 pass-by of the ISS,” says Fisher.

This is precisely why we need rules. As it turns out, the Chinese were operating safely. But with few or no rules, what seems safe to a Chinese aerospace engineer may be way too close for Rick Fisher’s comfort. Without any rules defining legitimate behavior in space, BX-1 is an inkblot.

What you see says more about your personality than the Chinese space program. Peter Brown sums it up nicely:

BX-1 could well be little more than a peaceful probe merely engaged in “close proximity” operations with cameras and transmission equipment aboard. Or it could be a prototype satellite attack dog, a space surveillance and Space Situational Awareness (SSA) platform with anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, all rolled into a single menacing platform ready to pounce.

If you are the sort of person who likes to make decisions based on information, here is my recommended reading list on the BX-1 and proximity operations in general:

— Michael Katz-Hyman, Proximity Operations in Space, The Case for a Code of Conduct, INESAP Bulletin 26, June 2006.

— Jeffrey Lewis, Autonomous Proximity Operations: A Coming Collision in Orbit?, March 2004.

— Brian Weeden, China’s BX-1 microsatellite: a litmus test for space weaponization, The Space Review, October 20, 2008. (I think Brian mean inkblot, since litmus is an objective indicator of whether a solution is acidic or alkaline.)

— David Wright and Gregory Kulacki, Chinese Shenzhou 7 ‘Companion Satellite’, Union of Concerned Scientists, October 21, 2008.

Comments

  1. yousaf (History)

    Do we actually know that BX-1 came within 45km of ISS? The satellite toolkit folks have a simulation up, but I don’t know that their orbital parameters are necessarily the correct ones — they say it came within 23km of ISS.

    What details are known from the amateur observers?

    In any case, your point is well-taken: the innocuous BX-1 trial — even if it approached ISS — was a perfectly legal exercise, absent a code of conduct for space operations.

  2. Brian Baldridge (History)

    Actually, reading the exact point at which a solution turns acidic from a basic condition, or vice versa, is notoriously difficult. Thus, the use of the litmus metaphor may be even more apt than is immediately apparent.

  3. Mark Gubrud

    No reasonable code of conduct would have restrained China from flying BX-1 past the ISS at 3 km/s relative velocity and 10s of km closest approach. This is not a coorbital configuration, so concern about coorbital ASATs are not relevant to the ISS flyby, and even assuming the BX-1 were completely out of control, the risk to the shuttle would have been less than one chance in a million of an accidental collision.

    If you assume the Chinese might have been interested in testing BX-1 either as a coorbital inspector/ASAT or as a high-velocity KE ASAT, the ISS would have made a poor test target, being relatively huge. The proximity operations it conducted around SZ-7 are more relevant, but only to the possible use in a coorbital mode (the high-speed impact is a more stressing mission).

    That said, the BX-1 is not a Rorshach test. It is a system with certain definite capabilities. With certainty, those include its possible use as a coorbital inspection/ASAT warhead, capable of damaging a foreign satellite by low-speed impact. It can be considered a tested weapon system component. Ditto the American XSS-10, XSS-11, MiTex, DART, and upcoming ANGELS and other programs.

    A “Code of Conduct” or “Rules of the Road” will do nothing to stop this continuing development and testing of what are defacto antisatellite weapons, and the attendant slide into a defacto space arms race. We need much more than an agreement to be polite as we develop and deploy space weapons.

    What is needed is, first of all, a treaty that bans not only harmful interference with space objects, but also the development, testing and deployment of weapons for such interference. Then, in order to allow peaceful development and use of space technology including autonomously maneuvering microsatellites, nations must be required to account openly for their testing and use of such systems, their capabilities and numbers, their purposes, and whether they are cost-effective for their purposes. Nations must be required to answer challenges alleging that the systems appear to be more suited for offensive purposes than for their declared peaceful purposes.

    What I am suggesting is a regime similar to the NPT and IAEA, except that it would treat all nations equally instead of dividing them into space weapon haves and have-nots.

    Barack Obama has pledged that “The Obama-Biden administration will restore American leadership on space issues, seeking a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites.” http://change.gov/agenda/defense_agenda/ [17Dec08] If he is serious about that, then this is what will need to be done.

  4. MiTEx

    What about USA188/189 known as MiTEx A/B? These microsats have a history of moving around a lot… how is BX-1 fundamentally different?

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Mark:

    You are completely missing the point — the point of a code of conduct would not be to prevent the BX-1 maneuver, but rather to set rules that would have clearly defined acceptable and unacceptable distances.

  6. Mark Gubrud

    Jeffrey:

    Please do not accuse me of “missing the point.”

    Sure, if a Code existed which said it was okay to fly past another space object at 20 km or greater distance, one could have cited this in response to Richard Fisher. But Fisher’s suggestions that the flyby either endangered the ISS or that the ISS was being used as a test target were ridiculous in any case, for the reasons I pointed out above.

    The more important point, it seems to me, is that the American and Chinese microsatellite programs are not Rorshach tests, they are actual hardware development and testing programs, and what they are developing are, as you yourself have pointed out, “excellent antisatellite weapons.”

    Yes, these vehicles may have other uses (the Chinese used BX-1 to photograph their spacewalk, bravo). But seeing the military implications is a matter of awareness, not personality. These programs are being watched by lots of people who do see their implications very clearly.

    This is becoming an actual, ongoing, space arms race. It needs to be stopped, and the kind of Code of Conduct that you and others are discussing would do almost nothing to stop it. Maybe that was the best anyone could imagine possible under the Bush regime. But Obama has pledged to seek something that goes much further, requires much more, and is worth much more.

    People like Richard Fisher will always be able to make more silly insinuations, but the course of a space arms race, in tests and hardware, can and must be blocked.

  7. Coyote Smith (History)

    Jeff and Company,
    Something must be added to the discussion. How do we get around the laws of armed conflict (LOAC)? For all intents and purposes those laws require that satellites must be negated in lieu of destroying satellite ground stations and killing their occupants or striking adversary forces at large when simply negating a couple of satellites can dislocate adversary forces. This can render them combat ineffective without destructive force being applied. Isn’t it better to use the endless collection of satellite jammers, dazzlers, and other non-destructive/non-lethal methods currently available to most states rather than using destruction and killing as the alternative? In view of the law of proportionality, how can you prohibit negating unmanned systems in the remoteness of space when the alternative is lethal strikes on people and facilities on Earth? Moreover, can we reliably trust non-governmental terrorists/freedom fighters and rogue states to abide by the rules or codes you propose? What will be the cost in human lives for preserving space as a sanctuary? It seems the only way to prevent war in space is to prevent war on Earth. This is a great moral question that is not being addressed.

  8. Mark Gubrud

    Coyote raises a number of interesting arguments.

    If we agree the LOAC require us to use minimum lethal force to achieve given objectives in combat, does this imply that we are required to develop and deploy whatever weapons may turn out to enable such less lethal actions, in whatever scenarios one may imagine arising, even if this leads to destabilizing technological arms races and then to otherwise avoidable wars?

    Does Coyote mean to justify China’s development of ASAT technology so that the Chinese can, with minimal force, disable American interventionary forces and terminate hostilities in a future Taiwan conflict with the least loss of life? Do we think such a strategy is likely to be successful for China? Or would an attack on American space assets be a dangerous step, inviting unpredictable escalation? How would we respond?

    As for “terrorists/freedom fighters” with ASATs, come on. Maybe “rogue states” with laser dazzlers, but again, how would we respond?

    We need to avoid a space arms race in order to prevent war on Earth. The moral dimension here is that space war fantasists are being allowed to place the whole world at risk by creating a new high-noon high-tech standoff, this one in orbit but entwined with the nuclear and conventional military standoff on Earth, and serving as a tripwire for global disaster.

  9. Coyote (History)

    Mark,

    Well put. How do we respond to all of the scenarios you pose? War is certainly a gamble and fraught with the risk of miscalculation and escalation, no matter what form it takes. It is a miserable enterprise, for sure.

    Let’s be careful not to equate negating satellites exclusively with kinetically destructive weapons. Most of today’s satellite-negating space weapons are a matter of relatively cheap, but highly effective electronic jammers and spoofers, or blinding and dazzling lasers. There’s no rubble and effects are usually reversible. Fortunately, there is actually very little military utility in kinetic destruction of satellites for many reasons expressed on this website over the years, such as high costs and universally undesirable debris. Besides, it can be argued that kinetic ASAT tests have done more to advance missile defense technology than the art of negating satellites.

    Yes, terrorists/freedom fighters do have the ability to negate satellites. Jammers and intrusion devices are cheap and simple. The Falun Gong, for example, built and used a cheap, homemade satellite intrusion device that went way beyond mere jamming. They actually succeeded in overpowering state TV broadcasts and inserted their message over the top of the state’s signal. It was distributed widely in China before the state regained control of their satellite. This was not only satellite negation, but it was open piracy. So, do keep an eye out for satellite negation and piracy by relatively small non-state actors.

    Still, the presence of satellite-negating space weapons and multiple incidents of satellite negation has not resulted in a race to put weapons in space, nor has it destabilized the geopolitical situation, or created a high-noon high-tech standoff. Weapons themselves have not proven to be the cause of war. Perhaps they are a symptom of political animosity. However, it does point to a need to protect satellite services from hostile state and non-state actors…and states that use non-state actors to achieve their goals. Unfortunately, arms control agreements between states will not account for non-state actors.

    Please understand that I am not making any form of advocacy for space weapons, weapons in space, or any combination of such words. But we do have to deal with the reality that the ability to negate satellites is proliferating among state and non-state actors. I’m curious what sort of deterrence strategies, defenses, offensive consequences, and arms control methods will be used in the coming years in the face of this darkening reality.

    Our desire to preserve space as a sanctuary seems to be at odds with our ability to make it so—even if all states comply.

    I am still pondering the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and the requirement to minimize human suffering. It certainly doesn’t demand the development of endless categories on non-lethal weapons. However, in view of LOAC, I can’t justify killing people and destroying things on Earth if negating unmanned satellites can accomplish the same war aim. It is analogous to using a cyber attack against an enemy’s military command center instead of bombing that center. It saves blood.

    Your thoughts?

  10. Mark Gubrud

    Coyote, thanks for this engaging and challenging dialogue.

    Although you may not advocate space weapons, you appear to be arguing against arms control which would ban space weapons, on the general grounds that it is either impractical or contrary to the LOAC principle of minimum lethal force.

    My main thought, in response, is that to think clearly we need to avoid conflation and equivocation where clear distinctions can be made.

    Also, given that we face a range of dangers which at first glance seem to require different strategies for their avoidance, we need to realistically assess and balance the gravity of each scenario, and consider which of them represent cul-de-sacs which we would find it difficult to back out of, and which represent problems that could be dealt with in other, perhaps less direct ways, provided we avoid the constraining dead-end traps.

    Certainly “kinetically destructive weapons” (a broader class than kinetic energy weapons such as the Chinese ASAT) represent only one way of “negating satellites.” However, if “satellite negation” means any form of interference with the function of a satellite system, this does not seem the appropriate level of analysis to make a target for arms control. A ban on space weapons cannot reasonably extend to any interference with the use of space systems; if it did, it would proscribe attack on any facility or person who made any use of satellites at all!

    A broad and natural distinction can be made between action upon an on-orbit satellite itself, and action upon some other component of a satellite system, such as a downlink receiver, (e.g. a JDAMS), a launch or control facility, etc. A reasonable target for arms control is a ban on weapons that interfere with satellites themselves, i.e. that project some form of energy, mass, or information, to the physical vicinity of the satellite, which has the effect of interfering with (or negating) its function. This would include uplink jamming, dazzling, and hacking (cyberwarfare), as well as kinetic energy ASATs and coorbital ASATs – destructive or nondestructive, and including systems that are coorbital but do not physically touch the target satellite – but it would not include local GPS jammers, missiles that might target satellite ground stations, or putting a tarp over your construction site.

    You may object that the technology for uplink jamming and dazzling (optical jamming) is so widely available, even to non-state actors, that a proposal to ban such weapons is impractical. However, I think this somewhat overstates the case; actually, dazzling or jamming a US military reconn or comm satellite would probably be more trouble than it would be worth for any non-state actor, and if a “rogue state” did it, their action would be liable to be detected and identified. In the latter case, wouldn’t it be better for us if such actions were illegal under a global convention? And, granted the technology is available enough that almost any state would be able to put together a dazzling or jamming system, still, wouldn’t it be better if such systems were illegal so that nobody was building militarized, miniaturized and ruggedized versions and selling them openly at arms bazaars?

    After all, if Falun Gong succeeded in overriding a Chinese broadcast relay, there must have been minimal or no security (e.g. encryption, cybersecurity) built into that system. We do not want an open market for hacks into US military birds.

    I have to disagree with your claim that “it can be argued that kinetic ASAT tests have done more to advance missile defense technology than the art of negating satellites.” Precisely the reverse is true; for example, the US GMD system (as is well known) is both a potent LEO KE-ASAT system and useless as a defense against any realistic ballistic missile attack, particularly with WMD warheads involved.

    The high-tech high-noon standoff in orbit is one possible future, one that would be extremely dangerous, and I fear, short-lived. Before we get there, if we ever get there, we slide down the path of a spiraling space arms race, with nondestructive ASATs answered by more forceful nondestructive ASATs segueing back to destructive ASATs… satellites targeting satellites, with only seconds of warning and decision time. The United States started this slide during the Clinton and Bush administrations by pursuing KE “missile defense” technology, abrogating the ABM treaty, declaring belligerent policies and doctrines, developing and testing coorbital ASAT technology, and continuing work on high-power ground based (and even air based) laser and microwave weapons… and many other aggressive programs. The Chinese have hardly matched our efforts, but they have demonstrated the ability and willingness to follow our lead in all these areas. Other countries have similarly begun studying, experimenting and staking out their right to pursue military power in space. However, the United States has remained almost alone in rejecting virtually the entire world’s united call for negotiations to put a stop to all of this.

    Against this looming danger of a spiraling path back to the brink of high-tech holocaust, you pose the argument that, in some scenarios, the use of a “satellite negation” weapon might negate an enemy’s military without requiring the direct killing of any of their people. While this sounds desirable in itself, it exemplifies the fallacy of the last move. How would we respond if someone did this to us? Would we surrender? Or escalate? What do we do after we use our satellite negation weapon to disrupt the enemy’s ability to fight? Do they surrender then? Or do we first have to take advantage of the situation to more effectively kill lots of their people?

    Does the Law of Armed Conflict mean that armed conflict is the law, and arms control is illegal? Is peace illegal?

  11. Coyote (History)

    Mark,

    Many thanks for an intelligent discussion. I hope you (and the other readers) had a great holiday season. I really like how you lay out your argument(s) in a very logical and reasonable way.

    I assure you that I am not wrapped around the axle of the “fallacy of the last move.” You are quite right to raise this concern. We all need to watch out for this. This disease is evident whenever the policy and security communities can’t answer the most basic question, “and then what?” before they employ warfare as an instrument of policy. Nothing in war is ever simple and seldom does any action, martial or otherwise, result in total and complete resolution of the causes of that war.

    There is no “last move” in war or the politics that bring it into being. There is just a continuous competition that evolves from the build up of animosities, through covert and open warfare/diplomacy, and it continues in the aftermath of hostilities. Nor is war a linear move-countermove proposition as suggested by the purely theoretical constructs such as deterrence theories and escalation control theories suggest. Both Shelling and Kahn recognized that reality is never as neat and clean as their constructs on paper appeared. We are lucky to have survived the Cold War!

    Simply put, war, even with the tightest politico-military relations, can be described as an irrational act. This frustrates the ability to explain it neatly or to predict when it will occur next. We are constantly surprised when war happens. We were caught relatively off guard by Russia’s move into Georgia, rocket attacks on Israel and the subsequent assault on Gaza. Who would have guessed 9/11 and the US and coalition reaction? War is very difficult to rationalize and vaccinate against to reduce the pain it inflicts, which is at the base of arms control efforts—which I favour, by the way, but as part of broader engagement efforts to promote stability in addition to offensive and defensive measures.

    We have not peeled back the onion far enough to address the real causes of war. The existence of armaments is not the cause of war. Like war itself, they are a symptom of political or social animosity that exists between potential belligerents. Do weapons increase the fear among poential belligerents? Yes, no doubt. But when arms control is needed most—when belligerents march towards war—that is when they are least likely to make-and-comply with such agreements. I put “make-and-comply” together because history is replete with broken treaties made for the purpose of hamstringing the enemy, with no intention of compliance by at least one and often all parties. This was the method of “preparatory diplomacy” used by the Axis powers—most notably by Hitler—to prevent mobilization of their opponents before they attacked them. In other words, as a matter of deception prior to a surprise attack.

    Now we see exponential increases in Chinese and Russian counter-space weaponry at a time when they call for bans on space weapons, or rules of the road/codes of conduct that have similar provisions. While I think we should engage in discussions (if not negotiations), I suspect there are definitional games that they intend to engage in as they seek to arrive at a treaty that gives them an advantage. We watched Neville Chamberlain and Joseph Stalin get suckered into such deals. Engagement is necessary, but due diligence is required. Some among the international community are already exerting pressure to arrive at a weapons ban, but it is easy for them to do so, since they comparatively have very little at stake, whereas US security and economic dependence on space is well known. To maintain stability, space-based defensive systems are required to protect the sovereign interests of the US, its allies, and the rest of the spacefaring actors in space. Treaties or laws provide no assurance of freedom of action in space for all lawful and non-hostile users.

    Negating space capabilities is really an opening move which really can’t wait long when engaging in combat against a space-enabled adversary, whether it is the US or any other actor. It is necessary to slow down an adversary, isolate their forces, and in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict, do so in the least destructive manner that minimizes human suffering. Carefully planned and executed space strikes (as well as cyber strikes) can help do this. There are any number of reasons to negate satellite capabilities, which could range from a single non-destructive and temporary strike to negating large numbers of space capabilities using permanent and destructive methods. Fortunately, most permanent and destructive methods of negation do not turn a satellite into rubble.

    Part of the problem we face with an arms control approach to space weapons (going beyond the definitional roadblocks) is that space weapons are very, very easy to hide in full view or in secret. Most are systems that are employed daily in some benign way, but can also be used to negate satellite capabilities either directly or indirectly. Their use is exceptionally difficult to detect. It is even more difficult to attribute the effects they create to a hostile attack, and it is usually impossible to attribute attacks to the correct perpetrator with any sense of confidence.

    For example, a few years ago we endured jamming of one of our communications satellites from the Iranian embassy compound in Cuba. That took us a while to figure out! Fortunately, the jamming lasted long enough for us to figure it out since it was not being done to secure a brief window in time for other attacks in different venues. The potential for the US to wrongly attribute the jamming to Cuba was quite high, but fortunately, we had the opportunity to take a deep breath, count to ten, and solve the problem.

    Most problematically, even if arms control measures were implemented, the weapons would still exist. Their use as weapons would be nearly impossible to detect and attribute correctly, and unless the perpetrator openly takes responsibility for attacks, there is practically no legal path to judicial recourse. Without the ability to verify compliance or impose a cost for violating an arms control agreement there is little value in the agreement.

    All of this means that verification of compliance with space-related arms control is very, very difficult. It is unneeded during peacetime and irrelevant during wartime. Once war breaks out, every actor is subsequently free to use their abundant latent capabilities to openly attack satellite capabilities under the unwavering inherent right of self-defense. This largely compels actors to field defensive systems, passive and active. It seems unlikely that we would be willing to amend the clauses on the inherent right of self defense, proportionality, and minimizing human suffering simply to retain space as a sanctuary.

    However, I definitely favour engagement between Russia, China, and the US and would welcome dialog on space weapons issues. We need to implement space debris management measures, for sure. We also need to employ space debris removal systems and work towards planetary/asteroid defenses. These have definite weapons implications, but the work is as necessary as it is practically unavoidable. I suspect working together towards these greater goals (competing against greater natural threats) will alleviate some underlying tensions and provide a measure of transparency that will help reduce security dilemmas.

    I understand you concerns about missile defense and ASAT, although I don’t agree with them. That’s fine. We shall simply disagree and still look forward to having a beer together at the bar.

    Cheers!

  12. Mark Gubrud

    Coyote,

    When you write that “we see exponential increases in Chinese and Russian counter-space weaponry”, it seems that you are still conflating downlink (e.g. GPS) jammers with all other types of “counter-space weaponry”. Otherwise, how would you justify the phrase “exponential increases”?

    China has tested one KE interceptor and one proximity-maneuvering microsatellite that could plausibly serve as the basis for a space weapon. The United States has tested dozens of KE interceptors (ostensibly as missile defense) and a dozen or so proximity vehicles over the past decade. Russia is not known to have undertaken any such work, other than continuing its use of the Soyuz vehicles for relaying supplies to the ISS. The US is also, meanwhile, developing and testing high-power compensated lasers with ASAT potential, and pouring $billions into other space war-related research and development programs.

    So, it is the US, and not China or Russia, that is leading the path towards war in space with exponential increases in its space war programs. China and Russia have proposed negotiations toward space arms control, while simultaneously demonstrating that they will, if need be, develop or maintain the technology base required to deny America’s most grandiose ambitions for “space dominance” or “space control.” We stand today at the threshold of a dangerous new arms race, a situation that is the direct result of a quarter century of misguided US policy, particularly under the current administration.

    It is natural that cheap GPS jammers will be built, sold, used, and blown up by American anti-radiation missiles; after all, nobody really wants a JDAM finding its way to their front door. These systems interfere with the signal sent from a satellite, and you call them “counter-space,” but I think this is really a distraction from the issue of space weapons, which are conventionally understood as weapons based in space or attacking targets in space.

    So again, a reasonable target for arms control is a ban on the use, posession, development or testing of weapons that interfere directly with space objects, i.e. that project to the vicinity of a space object any form of matter, energy or information whose direct action upon the space object interferes with its intended function, coupled with a ban on weapons carried aboard space objects, where again “weapon” is understood as a device which projects some form of matter, energy, or information whose direct action upon another object in space or on Earth is harmful or interfering. Perhaps this is not yet an airtight formulation, but I am not sure what further “definitional roadblocks” you think will be encountered, that cannot be easily overcome with some further addition or modification to the foregoing.

    I want to conclude by responding directly to a few of your remarks:

    “There is just a continuous competition” – There is also, actually and hopefully, continuous cooperation and evolution toward a structure of global security to make major war a thing of the past; business and trade are a big part of this, and so are global culture and travel, international law, treaties, and global institutions. The laws of armed conflict are a poor substitute for the rule of law in international affairs. If it is true that arms control may be abandoned or ignored when it is most needed, this is no less true of the rules of politese in mayhem. We are living half a century beyond the point where avoiding war between major powers became requisite to human survival.

    “Negating space capabilities is really an opening move” – In what war? Who would initiate it? For what plausible reason? How would it end? More pointedly, what is the list of countries possessing satellites which might plausibly be negated as “an opening move” which do not also possess nuclear weapons or the capability to produce them?

    “…space weapons are very, very easy to hide in full view or in secret. Most are systems that are employed daily in some benign way, but can also be used to negate satellite capabilities either directly or indirectly. Their use is exceptionally difficult to detect.” – Which “space weapons” do you mean? What makes them easier to hide than other types of weapons? Again, let us not conflate the most dangerous aspects of the emergent space arms race with issues that are both less serious and harder to address by arms control measures. The only example you give is “jamming of one of our communications satellites from the Iranian embassy compound in Cuba. That took us a while to figure out!” However, I believe this was a commercial satellite. Jamming was easy because the satellite was unhardened, and sorting out who was doing the jamming took a while because there was no system in place to detect and pinpoint the source. Highly directional atennas and strong encryption, as well as higher-frequency and laser communications, can make jamming a much harder proposition, and in any case, it is relatively easy to provide the needed means to pinpoint the source of any uplink jamming.

    “…even if arms control measures were implemented, the weapons would still exist” – Again, which weapons? The most dangerous possibilities for space weaponry have not yet been realized. Arms control that forbids the development and testing of antisatellite weapons would enable the United States to secure its space assets through countermeasures, redundancy, and responsive replenishment, but an unrestricted space arms race would lead only to universal vulnerability and first-strike instability.

    “Their use as weapons would be nearly impossible to detect and attribute correctly” – I do not see the justification for such a claim. Actually, anything you do in space you do in full view of anybody who is equipped to see it, and given arms control which limits the development and testing of new forms of weaponry, we can develop systems which will detect and attribute any form of attack based on existing capabilities.

    “Once war breaks out, every actor is subsequently free to use their abundant latent capabilities to openly attack satellite capabilities” – But again, if war breaks out between spacefaring nations, the survival of civilization will hang in the balance. We must do everything possible to prevent such an event from ever occurring, and avoid doing anything to make it more likely, such as going down a road that will surely lead to it.

  13. coyote (History)

    Mark,

    I’m pretty sure you and I are locked-up on definitions, and I suspect negotiations between states will lock up on this issue as well.

    A “space weapon” can be defined as anything that negates a space capability from being delivered to a user. This includes anything that negates a satellite, a data link, the ground control segment, or the users themselves.

    You are right that simple and cheap systems that effectively jam GPS receivers are becoming more common. They are not what I am talking about. I am referring specifically to systems that directly negate satellites on orbit. The greatest threats are uplink jammers and other directed energy systems. This is the threat that is proliferating and causing alarm. Their use is exceptionally difficult to detect and attribute.

    Is the US single handedly causing other states to proliferate this threat single-handedly? Is it because our allies and we have become reliant/dependent on space for military and economic success? I largely agree with such an argument. At the same time, other states would be negligent, incompetent, and derelict if their security communities did not aggressively purse counter-space capabilities. Conversely, the US would be just as bad if it didn’t develop ways to secure its interests in space. Such is the natural order of things.

    I’m not really concerned with kinetic kill devices that explode satellites into massive debris. They are too obvious and way too expensive—very little utility in war. That is why occasionally shooting down a satellite does more to test your missile defense capabilities than establish a counter-space capability. Jammers and other directed energy weapons are equally effective without creating debris. Moreover, this is a relatively cheap and easy technology for non-state actors to obtain and employ. Hardening satellites and employing fancy jam and spoof resistant technologies are nice, but they can be defeated.

    If you want to ban kinetic destruction of satellites, that’s fine. It won’t prevent the direct negation of satellites by non-kinetic means, but it will prevent the creation of debris. Is the prevention of debris your primary concern? This seems to be the case with the space weapons ban being proposed by the Russians and Chinese. Their proposal does not ban negating satellites, just space-based and kinetic methods—as if their real intent is merely to ban space-based missile defense.

    There is a worry that if all states ban space weapons, then only non-state actors will have space weapons… as well as those states that think they can get away with it.

    More importantly, however, we need to put systems in space, in concert with some on earth that will clean up space debris. This will require a system of radars, lasers, and tug sats. Could these be used as weapons? Yes. But so can every other satellite on orbit. We also need systems that can kinetically deflect asteroids. These, too, can be called weapons. But we need them.

    The only way to prevent war in space is to simply prevent war on earth. If you relieve the causes of war between antagonists on earth, then you never need to fear war in space. Have we arrived at the end of history where war is out of the question? The news today suggests not.

    Cheers!

    Coyote

  14. Mark Gubrud

    I don’t agree that we are locked up on definitions, nor will negotiations between states lock up on definitions, if there is a will to make progress toward agreement. Rather, when there is no will to get an agreement, getting locked up on definitions is one way to avoid making progress.

    Of course we do need definitions, and we must define terms in ways that are useful. A definition of “space weapon” including anything that could be used to kill a satellite user would not be useful, unless your purpose is to argue that space weapons cannot be banned or controlled. But if you insist on defining “space weapon” as “anything that that negates a space capability from being delivered to a user,” then please tell me what term you would use for the class of things I described as a reasonable target for arms control.

    Thank you, though, for clarifying your concern about uplink jammers and dazzlers. It is not at all difficult to attribute the source of any such attack, since the attacker provides a beacon to his location. The needed facilities to pinpoint the sources may not always be available at present, but they can be provided at relatively low cost compared with current US expenditures on space war preparations. A space weapons treaty that banned such attacks would support responses ranging from international civil suits to sanctions to military action. A ban on systems optimized for such uses would slow their proliferation to rogue states and non-state actors. However, in any case, this is the least dangerous form of “space weapon” from an arms race perspective. I do not believe that uplink jammers and dazzlers can be entirely controlled by treaty, but their inclusion in a comprehensive space weapons ban seems both necessary to the logical coherence of such a treaty, and beneficial to the United States and other major satellite users even if not completely effective.

    I agree with you that kinetic energy weapons that create lots of debris are unlikely to be the next major area of growth in the space arms race. Rather, the technology of greatest interest at present is clearly coorbital maneuvering microsatellites which can be used to inspect foreign satellites and hold them at threat, and on command, interfere with them either destructively or non-destructively. The US has led the way in this technology over the past decade, and now China, with BX-1, has shown that it is able to develop a similar capability. This technology needs to be monitored and regulated, as I suggested above. Under such a regime, it will be possible to deploy debris-clearing systems, as you suggest, without creating a dangerous military standoff in orbit.

    Clearly there is still war in the world, but we should remember that in the entire 45-year history of the Cold War, the main US and Soviet military forces never directly engaged one another in combat. If they ever had, I think it is very unlikely that civilization would have survived the logic of escalation. When we talk about a possible arms race in space, when we talk about wars involving real space weapons, we are talking about a new strategic arms race, and wars between nuclear-armed powers. This we absolutely must prevent.

  15. coyote (History)

    Mark,

    I thank you again for taking the time to help me think through these issues. This is what separates armscontrolwonk.com from other sites. I seriously hope we meet someday and can carry on our conversation over an adult beverage!

    Your point on definitional games being a way of preventing progress in negotiations is quite true. Of even greater worry to many of us is the reinterpretation of terms after the treaties are signed! Although I am hopeful, I suspect progress towards space arms control or categorically banning certain actions in space will prove illusive—at least during first attempts to negotiate, but we have to start somewhere.

    As I think I mentioned earlier, I believe stability in space is predicated on three aspects of activity that is common to the other environments; defense, offense, and engagement. Arms control is certainly part of the engagement equation, along with confidence building activities, cultural exchanges, partnering on various projects, etc. Defense and offense is predicated on active and passive systems, of course, but need not result in irrevocable damage to the space environment in the form of debris creation.

    No one wants debris, except those who intend to hide covert military systems in such physical exclusionary zones. I think early successes will come in the form of debris mitigation, shared space situational awareness, and debris/maneuver notification. These are not arms control measures, but they start the process of successful engagement. What do you think?

    This raises the controversy of kinetic physical destruction for missile defense versus anti-satellite weaponry. I think we both agree that physical destruction of satellites is of very little military utility—certainly over the long run. With so many non-destructive counter-space options that are much, much cheaper, we are left to wonder what purpose testing kinetic destruction of satellites serves. What is interesting is if you can destroy a satellite traveling in excess of 17,500 mph, it becomes much easier to destroy an ICBM traveling at maximum velocity of around 11,000 mph. So, it seems ASAT testing is a great way to test missile defense acquisition, tracking, and engagement systems. This is consistent with everything in space being dual-use, if not as a means of sharing technology, then as a means of using different pots of money to fund programs. As presidential administrations change, and priorities change as well, dual-use allows projects to continue that have fallen out of vogue.

    You are way over estimating the ease of detecting and attributing attacks from jamming, dazzling, and other directed energy methods. The use of narrow spot beams makes it practically impossible to detect such weapons from the terrestrial environment. In fact, depending on how narrowly the beam can be drawn, it can even be difficult to detect the source of attack from any position other than that of the satellite under attack. Focusing such an attack into a spot beam is relatively simple and is easy to do using commonly available stuff. If the attacker goes to a different country and covertly attacks space systems from there it becomes even more difficult to attribute the attack to the proper source. It only takes a few minute of “on-buzzer” time to negate a satellite that could otherwise detect intelligence flags, or warnings and indications of attack. This worries me most.

    I am not sure how to get around three problems. First, every satellite on orbit and every ground control system that commands them can be used as weapons against other systems in space. In addition, just think of the ease of using ordinary television satellite uplink vans to jam satellite uplinks in UHF, specifically S-Band, X-Band, Ka-Band, and Ku-Band. They hide in full view. Second, regardless of what treaties are signed, the inherent right of self-defense always remains in effect and all actors are subsequently free to negate satellites they believe threaten them. Finally, the Law of Armed Conflict requires the minimization of human suffering, which, in the case of defeating adversary command, control, and other information systems, is often best done by negating satellites, not only because no one dies, but also because such actions have the broadest and most effective results (not as a matter of the last move, but as a means of reducing the killing and conserving lethal means for other attacks).

    As for so called space mines, parasite satellites, or other relatively stealthy close proximity systems, these have utility in a number of ways. First, as method of improving space situational awareness including more accurate space object identification, improved element sets, eavesdropping on data streams, etc. Second, they may be satellites performing necessary missions, but are using stealth and maneuverability simply to prevent their negation by an adversary. In other words, stealth and maneuver as a method of defense. Yes, of course, this also confers an offensive capability—such is the natural ebb and flow of armaments in all of the operating environments. I suspect such systems will not be explosive or create debris. Instead they might simply foul the sensors on the target satellite. That is cheaper, easier, deniable and entirely effective. Treaties will have little value against such systems due to the inability to verify or observe.

    I’m not sure the US is investing in counter-space systems with the zeal you suggest. The recent Young Commission concluded similarly to the Rumsfeld Commission that literally nothing is being done to sufficiently protect US space systems. This is the same assessment from the UK Space community in a recent report titled, “Space Secures Prosperiy.” Here in the UK and within the EU the growing concern regards dependence on American systems for both security and economics. Meanwhile, it is apparent that the US has done practically nothing to protect its satellites that the world has become dependent upon. With such reluctance by the US to protect its space systems (instead preferring to invest in systems for so-called “support to the warfighter), the global community is driven to field it’s own space systems that are protected/defended.

    Here’s an interesting thought: It is clear that we need space debris removal systems and planetary/asteroid defense systems. By any definition, however, these will require space weapons. What language would you propose to allow such missions?

    Cheers!

    Coyote

  16. Mark Gubrud

    Coyote,

    This lengthy discussion is in danger now of being lost in the archive, but we have got down to a number of technical points where we may disagree on questions that perhaps could be resolved by more in-depth research. It is certainly useful to list these, and I am going to try to give my responses as briefly as possible, stating where I am less than quite certain and of my own knowledge and assessment.

    Arms control is not only a matter of diplomatic engagement, but also an aspect of limiting offensive capabilities, and sometimes defensive ones as well. It can be part of a structure of security, from a military as well as political perspective. For example, space arms control can be used to effectively limit
    ASAT development, testing and deployment, constraining the threat and thereby providing a measure of assurance of access to and survivability of space resources, provided we undertake defensive measures sufficient to cope with the limited offensive threat that may endure under the arms control regime.

    Debris mitigation does provide a powerful source of common interest which may lead to a destructive ASAT testing moratorium or ban, but unfortunately such a regime would do little to constrain the most dangerous current technological thrust in space weaponry, which is the development of robotic, autonomous, miniaturized vehicles capable of rendezvous, proximity maneuvers and destructive or nondestructive interference with targeted satellites. Whether you call them coorbital space mines, maneuvering microsatellites, guardians, parasites, or some other name, those responsible for the development and testing of such vehicles, whether on the technical or bureaucratic side, are well aware of their implications and potential as space weapons. At a time when this dangerous program is well under way in the United States and beginning to take shape in China and elsewhere, I am less impressed by the potential for early success in obtaining international cooperation on debris mitigation, SSA, and maneuver notifications, measures which should also be taken, of course. Barack Obama has pledged to “restore American leadership on space issues, seeking a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites.” I want to see him fulfill that pledge.

    Obama also pledges to “thoroughly assess possible threats to U.S. space assets and the best options, military and diplomatic, for countering them, establishing contingency plans to ensure that U.S. forces can maintain or duplicate access to information from space assets and accelerating programs to harden U.S. satellites against attack.” You note the failure of the US to emphasize such defensive countermeasures until now, but this hardly negates the aggressive space doctrines declared and potential offensive weapons technologies developed and tested under Bush.

    A ban on weapons does not have to mean a ban on closely-related technologies used for nonweapons purposes, but in order to make the former meaningful, while allowing the latter, a regulatory regime is needed. The IAEA and NPT make a good model to begin with, allowing that the case of space technologies such as autonomously maneuvering microsats will differ in many ways from nuclear energy technologies. I’m not sure I’m able to propose detailed language, or even the details of how such a regime would work, right at the moment, but at a minimum I would ask that all such missions be declared, including characteristics of the vehicles such as their gross weight, fuel fraction, thrust capability, orbital elements and mission profile, optical, infrared, and radar signatures. The types of sensors, rendezvous/docking facilities, and effectors on board should be declared in relation to possible capabilities for hostile interception and interference. The puposes of such missions should also be declared, and nations launching them should be required to explain why the particular capabilities are needed for the particular mission, to show evidence that the mission is or can reasonably be expected to be cost-effective in comparison with less potentially threatening alternatives, and to answer questions and criticism of such claims.

    I would question the need for, and practicality of, stealthy maneuvering of spy satellites, whether for Earth observation or “eavesdropping on data streams,” but such activities need not be absolutely banned by a space weapons treaty; in fact, to some extent they might be explicitly or implicitly recognized and legitimized. I suspect that in any case the United States would prefer a keep-out zone around its satellites to being allowed to install parasites on other nations’ birds. It is not unreasonable for satellites of many kinds to be allowed a limited amount of maneuver capability in addition to normal stationkeeping. I would only require that the basic function of the satellite be declared, along with the parameters of its maneuver capability.

    If there is to be an effort in the future to use maneuvering vehicles to clear debris from orbit, I would like this to be undertaken cooperatively by an
    international space agency, or perhaps by state or commercial contractors acting on behalf of an ISA.

    Technical points:

    The fact that satellites in LEO orbit at 17.5 kmph relative to Earth’s surface compared with 11 kmph typical for an ICBM does not mean that the missile defense interception is easier to accomplish. Apart from operational issues, such as that one generally knows when a satellite will be found within the window for interception, whereas missile defense must be continually ready, the main factors to consider in comparing the difficulty of the missions are the target physical cross-section (it’s easier to hit a bigger target), radar and infrared signatures (easier to see a bigger target), countermeasures, and relative closing velocity. In the case of head-on intercepts, the closing speed for the missile would be lower, but typical intercepts are carried out at broad range of angles, which reduce the relative closing speed. Even a “tail chase” is possible, in which the closing speed can approach zero. Thus the range of closing speeds for satellite and midcourse missile intercepts almost completely overlap. In all other respects, the ASAT mission is almost always much easier than missile defense. Warheads are usually physically smaller, have lower radar and IR signatures, and can be effectively hidden in clouds of decoys and other countermeasures, which only need to function for a few minutes for an ICBM to complete its mission. While similar countermeasures might be used in some cases to reduce the effectiveness of a crude ASAT such as the Chinese interceptor, it is difficult to see how they could be permanently deployed and effective in the long term for protecting satellites, whereas it is well known that countermeasures in midcourse can completely frustrate BMD radar, optical and infrared sensors.

    I agree that it would be hard to ensure detection and attribution of optical
    dazzling other than by the provision of sensors onboard targeted satellites which are capable of detecting and pinpointing the source; however, the satellites that are most vulnerable to this type of “negation” are photoreconn birds which by definition are already equipped with such sensors! Star trackers for navigation and attitude control and optical comm links would also be potential targets for dazzlers, but just as the width of an optical beam can be kept small enough to prevent its observation from another angle, an optical sensor that does not need to look in the direction of the dazzler can be made quite insensitive to it.

    In the case of radio-frequency jamming, just as it is harder for a receiving antenna to completely null out an interfering off-axis signal, as compared with optical dazzling, it is also much harder to prevent detection of the interfering signal from off-axis surveillance facilities such as a sigint satellites. Interferometric measurements can in principle be used to locate the source to within the order of a wavelength. You assert that commercial uplinks can be used as jammers, but I believe (here I am not entirely certain) that this would be limited in effectiveness to commercial satellites that use insecure signal coding. Modern spread-spectrum techniques used by the military (and increasingly commercially) make jamming a much harder thing to do, unless you either know the codes used or can overload the receiver front-end – and the latter is not something I would expect you can do with commercial satellite uplink transmitters. Downlink jamming succeeds because the jammer is local and the satellite signal source is remote, but uplink jamming against securely coded spread-spectrum communications fails for the same reason, unless the jammer is either very high power or generates a very tightly focued beam, both of which are inconsistent with low cost and portability.

    In conclusion, for both optical and RF jamming, the provision of warning sensors to detect an attack is simple, passive hardening can be very effective, and in case of high-power attack scattered radiation will be visible from many angles. The latter will not suffice to locate the source, but provides another potential source of warning and evidence of an attack.

    Space arms control may not be able to entirely prevent the proliferation of dazzling and jamming capabilities, but neither will space weapons be able to negate this threat, and again, a ban on such systems as weapons would limit the proliferation of militarized versions optimized to defeat our defensive countermeasures (such as just described). I really don’t think it is going to be that easy for people like the Taliban, Hamas or Iraqi insurgents to use orbital element databases and point laser dazzlers or powerful jammers at American satellites with any regularity that would give them a meaningful tactical advantage.

    I think it is something between falsehood and a gross exaggeration to say that “every satellite on orbit and every ground control system that commands them can be used as weapons against other systems in space.” Leaving aside the idea that ground control systems might be used to send disruptive commands to other satellites, which is or ought to be a matter of “cyberwarfare,” the suggestion seems to be that one satellite can simply be directed to crash into another. I’m not sure if this is even possible, but for it to have a reasonable chance of working, at a minimum the kamikaze satellite would need to be equipped with some type of sensor to enable terminal homing on its target. The maneuver capabilities of most satellites are quite limited, which means that only targets along the same orbital track would be reachable and not in any short, responsive time frame. The “crash” would take place at low closing speed. It would be relatively easy to equip critical satellites with countermeasures to such limited capabilties for attack. If this is all we have to worry about – and one purpose of a space weapons treaty would be to ensure it is and remains so – then by combining defensive measures with arms control limitations on offensive weapons, we can have reasonable hope of engineering a robust regime of space security.

    Cheers!

  17. Mark Gubrud

    Coyote,

    This lengthy discussion is in danger now of being lost in the archive, but we have got down to a number of technical points where we may disagree on questions that perhaps could be resolved by more in-depth research. It is certainly useful to list these, and I am going to try to give my responses as briefly as possible, stating where I am less than quite certain and of my own knowledge and assessment.

    Arms control is not only a matter of diplomatic engagement, but also an aspect of limiting offensive capabilities, and sometimes defensive ones as well. It can be part of a structure of security, from a military as well as political perspective. For example, space arms control can be used to effectively limit ASAT development, testing and deployment, constraining the threat and thereby providing a measure of assurance of access to and survivability of space resources, provided we undertake defensive measures sufficient to cope with the limited offensive threat that may endure under the arms control regime.

    Debris mitigation does provide a powerful source of common interest which may lead to a destructive ASAT testing moratorium or ban, but unfortunately such a regime would do little to constrain the most dangerous current technological thrust in space weaponry, which is the development of robotic, autonomous, miniaturized vehicles capable of rendezvous, proximity maneuvers and destructive or nondestructive interference with targeted satellites. Whether you call them coorbital space mines, maneuvering microsatellites, guardians, parasites, or some other name, those responsible for the development and testing of such vehicles, whether on the technical or bureaucratic side, are well aware of their implications and potential as space weapons. At a time when this dangerous program is well under way in the United States and beginning to take shape in China and elsewhere, I am less impressed by the potential for early success in obtaining international cooperation on debris mitigation, SSA, and maneuver notifications, measures which should also be taken, of course. Barack Obama has pledged to “restore American leadership on space issues, seeking a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites.” I want to see him fulfill that pledge.

    Obama also pledges to “thoroughly assess possible threats to U.S. space assets and the best options, military and diplomatic, for countering them, establishing contingency plans to ensure that U.S. forces can maintain or duplicate access to information from space assets and accelerating programs to harden U.S. satellites against attack.” You note the failure of the US to emphasize such defensive countermeasures until now, but this hardly negates the aggressive space doctrines declared and potential offensive weapons technologies developed and tested under Bush.

    A ban on weapons does not have to mean a ban on closely-related technologies used for nonweapons purposes, but in order to make the former meaningful, while allowing the latter, a regulatory regime is needed. The IAEA and NPT make a good model to begin with, allowing that the case of space technologies such as autonomously maneuvering microsats will differ in many ways from nuclear energy technologies. I’m not sure I’m able to propose detailed language, or even the details of how such a regime would work, right at the moment, but at a minimum I would ask that all such missions be declared, including characteristics of the vehicles such as their gross weight, fuel fraction, thrust capability, orbital elements and mission profile, optical, infrared, and radar signatures. The types of sensors, rendezvous/docking facilities, and effectors on board should be declared in relation to possible capabilities for hostile interception and interference. The puposes of such missions should also be declared, and nations launching them should be required to explain why the particular capabilities are needed for the particular mission, to show evidence that the mission is or can reasonably be expected to be cost-effective in comparison with less potentially threatening alternatives, and to answer questions and criticism of such claims.

    I would question the need for, and practicality of, stealthy maneuvering of spy satellites, whether for Earth observation or “eavesdropping on data streams,” but such activities need not be absolutely banned by a space weapons treaty; in fact, to some extent they might be explicitly or implicitly recognized and legitimized. I suspect that in any case the United States would prefer a keep-out zone around its satellites to being allowed to install parasites on other nations’ birds. It is not unreasonable for satellites of many kinds to be allowed a limited amount of maneuver capability in addition to normal stationkeeping. I would only require that the basic function of the satellite be declared, along with the parameters of its maneuver capability.

    If there is to be an effort in the future to use maneuvering vehicles to clear debris from orbit, I would like this to be undertaken cooperatively by an international space agency, or perhaps by state or commercial contractors acting on behalf of an ISA.

    Technical points:

    The fact that satellites in LEO orbit at 17.5 kmph relative to Earth’s surface compared with 11 kmph typical for an ICBM does not mean that the missile defense interception is easier to accomplish. Apart from operational issues, such as that one generally knows when a satellite will be found within the window for interception, whereas missile defense must be continually ready, the main factors to consider in comparing the difficulty of the missions are the target physical cross-section (it’s easier to hit a bigger target), radar and infrared signatures (easier to see a bigger target), countermeasures, and relative closing velocity. In the case of head-on intercepts, the closing speed for the missile would be lower, but typical intercepts are carried out at broad range of angles, which reduce the relative closing speed. Even a “tail chase” is possible, in which the closing speed can approach zero. Thus the range of closing speeds for satellite and midcourse missile intercepts almost completely overlap. In all other respects, the ASAT mission is almost always much easier than missile defense. Warheads are usually physically smaller, have lower radar and IR signatures, and can be effectively hidden in clouds of decoys and other countermeasures, which only need to function for a few minutes for an ICBM to complete its mission. While similar countermeasures might be used in some cases to reduce the effectiveness of a crude ASAT such as the Chinese interceptor, it is difficult to see how they could be permanently deployed and effective in the long term for protecting satellites, whereas it is well known that countermeasures in midcourse can completely frustrate BMD radar, optical and infrared sensors.

    I agree that it would be hard to ensure detection and attribution of optical dazzling other than by the provision of sensors onboard targeted satellites which are capable of detecting and pinpointing the source; however, the satellites that are most vulnerable to this type of “negation” are photoreconn birds which by definition are already equipped with such sensors! Star trackers for navigation and attitude control and optical comm links would also be potential targets for dazzlers, but just as the width of an optical beam can be kept small enough to prevent its observation from another angle, an optical sensor that does not need to look in the direction of the dazzler can be made quite insensitive to it.

    In the case of radio-frequency jamming, just as it is harder for a receiving antenna to completely null out an interfering off-axis signal, as compared with optical dazzling, it is also much harder to prevent detection of the interfering signal from off-axis surveillance facilities such as a sigint satellites. Interferometric measurements can in principle be used to locate the source to within the order of a wavelength. You assert that commercial uplinks can be used as jammers, but I believe (here I am not entirely certain) that this would be limited in effectiveness to commercial satellites that use insecure signal coding. Modern spread-spectrum techniques used by the military (and increasingly commercially) make jamming a much harder thing to do, unless you either know the codes used or can overload the receiver front-end – and the latter is not something I would expect you can do with commercial satellite uplink transmitters. Downlink jamming succeeds because the jammer is local and the satellite signal source is remote, but uplink jamming against securely coded spread-spectrum communications fails for the same reason, unless the jammer is either very high power or generates a very tightly focued beam, both of which are inconsistent with low cost and portability.

    In conclusion, for both optical and RF jamming, the provision of warning sensors to detect an attack is simple, passive hardening can be very effective, and in case of high-power attack scattered radiation will be visible from many angles. The latter will not suffice to locate the source, but provides another potential source of warning and evidence of an attack.

    Space arms control may not be able to entirely prevent the proliferation of dazzling and jamming capabilities, but neither will space weapons be able to negate this threat, and again, a ban on such systems as weapons would limit the proliferation of militarized versions optimized to defeat our defensive countermeasures (such as just described). I really don’t think it is going to be that easy for people like the Taliban, Hamas or Iraqi insurgents to use orbital element databases and point laser dazzlers or powerful jammers at American satellites with any regularity that would give them a meaningful tactical advantage.

    I think it is something between falsehood and a gross exaggeration to say that “every satellite on orbit and every ground control system that commands them can be used as weapons against other systems in space.” Leaving aside the idea that ground control systems might be used to send disruptive commands to other satellites, which is or ought to be a matter of “cyberwarfare,” the suggestion seems to be that one satellite can simply be directed to crash into another. I’m not sure if this is even possible, but for it to have a reasonable chance of working, at a minimum the kamikaze satellite would need to be equipped with some type of sensor to enable terminal homing on its target. The maneuver capabilities of most satellites are quite limited, which means that only targets along the same orbital track would be reachable and not in any short, responsive time frame. The “crash” would take place at low closing speed. It would be relatively easy to equip critical satellites with countermeasures to such limited capabilties for attack. If this is all we have to worry about – and one purpose of a space weapons treaty would be to ensure it is and remains so – then we can have reasonable hope of engineering a robust regime of space security.

    Cheers!

  18. coyote (History)

    Mark,

    Sorry for not responding sooner, but I’ve been working to meet a couple of deadlines with my PhD work. I’m taking a break to get back to our excellent discussion.

    One of the major problems with the arms control approach is that it merely provides the illusion of security, rather than real security.

    I imagine the Obama administration will change its tune in “seeking a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites” as soon as they receive the briefings waiting for them on this topic. Oh, I imagine the public message will stay the same, but like President Clinton—the man who pushed for missile defense more aggressively than his predecessors and delivered it in time for his successor—actions will not likely match the words. No administration is likely to fall into the current rhetoric trap set by the Russians and Chinese on the space weapons ban. I don’t think for a minute that Secretary of State Clinton will fall for it. I’m sure there will be talks, but I doubt we’ll get past the definition deadlocks in their proposals.

    That said, I think it will be easy to ban kinetic destruction as a means of negating satellites. There is very little military value in turning any space object into rubble when so many other cheaper, easier, and deniable methods of negation are already on the streets. So, let’s agree to ban kinetic ASATs that leave debris. Perhaps the only benefit of such an attack is the ability to verify that a satellite has been rendered permanently inoperative, but that is a thin argument.

    This is easy, like banning chemical weapons. Chemical weapons also had little military value due to the difficulty of producing, transporting, storing, and employing them. When employing chemical weapons those forces usually suffered casualties of their own. Entire battle plans were often scrubbed due to a wind change. The analogy applies to weapons that create space debris—friendly assets could suffer undesirable consequences in the aftermath for decades. In addition, the destructor may face constant lawsuits for creating debris that damages other operator’s satellites.

    I recommend the Obama administration focus on achieving such a ban and being satisfied. Taking arms control methods much further will merely give a false sense of security in space. As Bruce W. MacDonald states regarding crisis instability and fighting in space, going first (cheating) pays big dividends, but going second (complying with arms control agreements until it is too late) does not.

    I most respectfully disagree with your assertion that robotics and close proximity operations represent a significant threat to satellites. Yes, there are lots of tricks that can be played, but do not underestimate the entirely cheap, easy, and effective means of using ground-based systems to negate satellites. Furthermore, I am no more concerned about kinetic destructive space mines or “parasite satellites” than I am about kinetic kill ASATs for mostly the same reasons. So, let’s add space-based kinetic destruction ASATs to our list of things to ban.

    Hey, that’s pretty good. We’ve eliminated a couple types of space weapons already.

    I know I’ve pointed out that there are cheap, easy, and effective means of using ground-based systems to negate satellites—many that terrorists could easily acquire and operate, but I’m not going to explain that any further because I’m not in the business of helping people to design counterspace systems or developing effective tactics, techniques, and procedures for negating our satellites or anyone else’s. Just keep in mind that the security community is well aware of the technical challenges you raised and have addressed them.

    When it comes to missile defenses, the typical complaints from arms controllers and MAD adherents is that 1) they are too expensive, 2) they won’t work, and 3) they will destabilize relations with the Russians and Chinese. However, they have proven far cheaper than rebuilding New Orleans (which is over $1 Trillion in recovery, including insurance pay outs). Recovering a city following a nuclear or other WMD strike would be much higher, let alone if multiple cities were struck. Missile defense systems have proven reliable in testing, especially when used in higher speed ASAT engagements, although detractors always claim that somehow the military didn’t give it a fair test, as if they are a bunch of dummies. Not true. Finally, the Russians and Chinese like missile defenses so much that they both have them. The Russians are even selling their modern generation surface to air missile systems as having terminal phase missile defense capabilities. Why is it only destabilizing if the US has missile defenses? It is not. It is a failed argument. Indeed, missile defenses provide increased stability because the only response after deterrence fails is no longer “nuke ‘em.”

    Going back to robotics and proximity operations, those are key capabilities that we need to advance our civil and commercial spacefaring capabilities. There are many programs in particular that require such capabilities. Among them are:

    First: space debris removal systems.
    Second: space-based solar power satellites.
    Third: on-orbit satellite repair systems.
    Fourth: on-orbit refueling and station-keeping systems.
    Fifth: in-space object inspection and treaty verification systems.
    Sixth: asteroid mining systems.
    Finally: asteroid/planetary defense systems

    Of course, there are two kinds of conspiracy theory adherents. The first thinks none of the aforementioned systems should ever be developed because they are obviously part of some veiled space weapons program. The second thinks these would be fine as long as the evil American empire doesn’t get involved with such programs. Personally, I would like NASA to lead such efforts in broad partnerships with other international space agencies.

    So, here are opportunities for space partnerships with the international community that the Obama administration should rush to explore. More engagement is good. Right?

    We’ve banned two space weapons and created seven partnership programs. Not bad work.

    I am really fascinated by the division you create between cyber warfare and space warfare. Transmitting commands or other electromagnetic energy at a satellite can still negate that satellite. Perhaps this is part of the definitional problem that we face. If using the electromagnetic spectrum against a satellite is not space warfare, but merely cyber warfare, then are we to be happy with satellites being negated that way? Keep in mind that cyber attacks can be used to 1) Destroy, 2) Degrade, 3) Deny, 4) Disrupt and 5) Deceive satellites, or discrete parts and signals on satellites.

    Let me ask how you personally differentiate space warfare from cyber warfare. We might just be able to allow Obama to achieve his ban on “space warfare” and still accomplish our war aims at a lower cost of human lives by simply negating satellites by cyber attack. It accomplishes the same thing?

    What do you think, my friend?

    Cheers!

    Coyote

    P.S. I hope we get the chance to discuss all of this over an adult beverage sometime!

  19. Mark Gubrud

    Coyote,

    I am very concerned by this remark of yours:

    I imagine the Obama administration will change its tune in “seeking a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites” as soon as they receive the briefings waiting for them on this topic.

    You seem to be saying that the military will talk him out of it. However, they will be directed by the President to cooperate with arms control analysts and negotiators in developing an American proposal and negotiating strategy that fulfills Obama’s promise to “restore American leadership on space issues, seeking a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites.” Those will be their marching orders.

    If, instead, the military intends to advocate against Obama’s declared policy on seeking an ASAT ban, the military will be acting unconstitutionally and in defiance of public will as expressed by the 2008 elections.

    I am not saying that individual military officers are not entitled to express their own views privately nor that they are not professionally obligated to express their best judgements to the President in conference. But they must not work against the policies set by the President. I think this is a pretty simple matter.

    You mention “the current rhetoric trap set by the Russians and Chinese on the space weapons ban”, but as I am suggesting, Obama’s promise to “restore American leadership” implies an American PAROS counter-proposal, which the military should be involved in crafting. I don’t see the “definition deadlocks” in Russian and Chinese ideas, but at least the English translation of their proposals are so minimal that they cannot be taken as cast-iron ultimatums – any real global convention on space weapons or space security is going to be multi-volume product of a serious multiparty negotiating process. The way to get on with this process is to make an American proposal, as Obama pledges to do.

    The American position cannot be one that simply allows the United States to continue doing exactly what it wants to do in space, including possible space-based weapons, while banning types of weapons the US no longer wants, but fears others may be more willing to use to deny American access to space resources.

    As you point out, “There is very little military value in turning any space object into rubble,” but if American satellites are so vulnerable to “deniable methods of negation… already on the streets” then I wonder why we don’t give up and make every effort to develop pseudolites and UAVs so we don’t have to rely on satellites at all (since they won’t be available).

    In reality, our military satellites are today not terribly vulnerable to negation by any means – certainly not jamming from the ground, nor is that so easy to hide or deny. However, for those who can reach physically into orbital space, interference with satellites is simple and can be carried out in many ways, more or less deniably. This has everything to do with robotics and proximity operations, so I find it hard to understand your respectful disagreement that these “represent a significant threat to satellites.” In reality, this is the frontline of the technological space arms race which the US under Bush unilaterally declared, and which American hawks are increasingly concerned has been joined by China (and to some extent by other spacefaring nations).

    Your denial of the latter centers on your unsubstantiated assertion that “entirely cheap, easy, and effective means of using ground-based systems to negate satellites” are “already on the streets” including “many that terrorists could easily acquire and operate.” So, I really have to call you on this. You did not respond to my points about the unlikelihood of using, for example, typical commercial satellite uplinks to disrupt American military communications, let alone photoreconn, EM surveillance, GPS or any other vital military function.

    Does the military use unsecured civilian bandwidth to carry live video from Predator and Reaper drones in Afghanistan and Iraq? I have seen some of that video, and I am not worried about the Taliban hijacking a BBC mobile unit and jamming the satellite. I know the military will fix this if it needs to.

    I am not making drawing an artificial line between “space war” and “cyberwar,” but apart from formally banning cyberwarfare or hacking against satellites, along with jamming and dazzling, there is little that either arms control or space weapons could do to either prevent hackers from trying to break into military and commercial security systems or to secure or deter against such attacks. The military, and increasingly commercial operators, need to see to their cybersecurity standards. Arms control can help in suppressing physical threats, including high-power jamming, but even the mightiest military power is vulnerable if it is thoroughly penetrated by spies and agents.

    To conclude, I agree with your listing of the roles, other than as space weapons, that autonomous maneuver, robotics and proximity operations can play in future space development scenarios. However, it seems that at present the only role for which such systems are cost-effective is your #5: “in-space object inspection and treaty verification” – which is obviously related to possible hostile action should the results of an inspection prove unsatisfactory. Whether such systems are really cost-effective for inspection of own satellites (whether they can reveal the cause of the failure of DSP-23, for example) is open to question. They are certainly the cost-effective, operationally flexible, and versatile means for SSA and space warfare today and in the near future. So, this needs to be addressed as part of the space weapons ban, and the use of such systems for peaceful purposes needs to be subject to sunshine and regulation.

    Cheers!

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