Artist's rendering of a Defense Support Program (DSP) satellite in orbit.

Artist's rendering of a Defense Support Program (DSP) satellite in orbit. Northrop Grumman

Two Ways to Ward off Killer Spacecraft

One is diplomatic; the other, technological.

If you worry that the recent near-collision between U.S. and Russian warships or Iran’s downing of an American drone could escalate into war, you should be even more worried about enemy actions against our U.S. satellites.

On June 7, an American guided missile cruiser and a Russian destroyer nearly collided in the Philippine Sea. Cmdr. Clay Doss, spokesman for the U.S. 7th Fleet in Japan said the Russian ship came from behind and “accelerated and closed to an unsafe distance” of about 50 to 100 feet. Russian state media retorted that “the US cruiser Chancellorsville suddenly changed its course and crossed the Admiral Vinogradov destroyer’s course some 50 meters [160 feet] away from the ship.” The incident shows that the minimum safe distance of 3,000 feet enshrined in maritime law is necessary but insufficient to keep warships safe; also needed is a transparent rule to promptly determine who is at fault so that the at-fault party can take corrective action to avoid collision and the victimized party, defensive action to protect its ship. 

The drone incident, in which the Pentagon lost a $130 million RQ-4 Global Hawk, “illustrates the costs of focusing on drones that are neither more capable at the high-end — stealthier, faster, able to defend themselves — or cheaper and more numerous, meaning anyone getting shot down is not a big deal,” said Michael Horowitz, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. This is to say: the hefty U.S. investment has produced expensive drones vulnerable to adversaries’ fire.

The Pentagon has already partially absorbed at least the latter lesson. Future military constellations are being designed to work even if some of their satellites are destroyed. However, these resilient constellations take time to develop and cannot be fully deployed until the 2030s. For at least a decade the United States will continue to rely on vulnerable and expensive (e.g., $1 billion) satellites. 

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Yet in the next few years, China and Russia will begin to launch a new kind of spacecraft: robotic mechanics that can repair or upgrade friendly satellites in orbit. Inevitably, these will also be able to use the very same rendezvous and robotic capabilities as killer spacecraft to get close to and disable American satellites. 

In the past year or so, at least five U.S. officials and government agencies have warned about this robotic threat to American satellites:

While losing one warship or drone does not greatly affect our warfighting capability, losing just one early warning satellite could shorten our response time, where every second is needed to execute diplomatic and military responses — not to mention to telling people to get inside the “nearest solid structure” before a nuclear missile arrives.

We can deal with these robotic threats in space with two measures: one political and diplomatic, one technical.

First, the United States should tell China and Russia that, if they do not agree to establish a minimum safe distance (e.g., 50 kilometers at geosynchronous orbits), the United States will go ahead to set up such an agreement with as many western and other countries as possible. In this way, every country can set up a safety zone around each of its critical but vulnerable satellites. Without prior consent, any country’s satellite that enters into a zone of another country is a violation, which is quickly observable and verifiable. Thus, the victimized country will get the needed warning to initiate defense for protecting its targeted satellite. In contrast, there are currently no provision for safety zones, and it is legitimate to station as many killer spacecraft, as an adversary plans, arbitrarily close to our satellites. Then, upon further command, attacks from such killer spacecraft will not offer enough warning for us to save our satellites. Finally, whether China and Russia join the safety-zone arrangement or not, the United States would reciprocate by prohibiting its satellites to stay within the minimum safe distance to Chinese or Russian satellites.

Second, the United States and European Union will be deploying robotic servicing spacecraft by the early 2020s. China and Russia will deploy their servicing/killer robotic spacecraft in a similar time frame. The United States should decide as soon as possible to acquire more of these robotic servicing spacecraft so that some can be used as bodyguard spacecraft during the first half of the 2020s. For use during the second half of the 2020s, the United States should quickly initiate a crash program to develop cheap but effective bodyguards by using small satellites. Bodyguards will be stationed near satellites we want to protect. Then, once there are invaders in our safety zones, these bodyguards will maneuver to put themselves between our satellites and potentially hostile satellites to prevent the latter from reaching our satellites. 

Let’s not be so consumed by our efforts to deal with the space dangers of the 2030s and beyond that we fail to protect against the emerging threats in the 2020s.