Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, speaks about space and cyberspace at the Air Force Association Air Warfare symposium, on February 21, 2014.

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, speaks about space and cyberspace at the Air Force Association Air Warfare symposium, on February 21, 2014. U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash

America's Top Threats in Space Are Lasers and Nukes

The threats to U.S. space dominance are many and dazzling. By Patrick Tucker

The U.S. thought it won the space race long ago, but no victory lasts forever. On Tuesday, Gen. William Shelton, the commander of Air Force Space Command, speaking at the Atlantic Council, said that U.S. dominance in space will be confronted by some real threats in the years ahead. When Defense One asked what those threats might consist of specifically, he replied jammers, lasers and tactical space nukes.

The nature of these threats hasn’t evolved much since the publication of this 2001 report by the Commission to Assess Untied States National Security Space Management and Organization, chaired by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. One of the chief findings of the commission was that U.S. reliance on space was going to grow—making U.S. satellites and space assets an increasingly attractive target for those who mean us harm.

But while the threats themselves haven’t changed in some 13 years, the technology behind them has made some more likely. Let’s take a look at each.


Long before the global positioning system was helping people find their cars in mall parking lots, it was helping the U.S. find its nuclear submarines. The U.S. currently flies 31 GPS satellites at all times providing continuous coverage. To destroy GPS, a hostile force would have to attack individual satellites in the constellation. Jamming is a more attractive attack.

Jamming a signal to a particular GPS receiver on Earth requires the jammer to create a competing signal capable of overwhelming the original from the satellite. But the jamming device gives itself away in doing so. You can jam communication to the GPS system, called uplink jamming, but GPS attacks are easier when they disrupt the signal to Earth, referred to as downlink jamming.

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The U.S. hasn’t really experienced any GPS jamming threat on the battlefield, but that doesn’t mean that messing with GPS is without geopolitical significance. In 2012, North Korea launched a series of jamming attacks against the South, reportedly effecting the navigation equipment of hundreds of planes as well as ships (but with no crashes).

In fact, we’ve grown so reliant on GPS that any disruption in service would likely cause immediate alarm for millions of people. In the past several months, the Russian version of GPS, the GLONASS system, has incurred service problems— particularly in April —which quickly “got a lot of people’s attention,” said Shelton.

Radar and GPS jamming is a growing area of concern for the military, a point that the Department of Defense emphasizes in the Electromagnetic Spectrum Strategy document it released last year. The Army issued its first combined electromagnetic spectrum cyberwarfare field manual this year as well.

Directed Energy Weapons, AKA Lasers

High-energy-directed weapons to attack U.S. assets in space would come in two varieties, according to Shelton. The first would be a laser that fires a beam to disrupt a satellite’s ability to take pictures, or as Gen. Shelton put it “lasers that would dazzle an optical sensor.”

Yes, the effect is referred to as “dazzling.” Here’s a video of marines testing a weapon to dazzle a staged enemy:

This too is not a new issue, but a growing one. The FAA has considered delinquents with laser pointers and their potential to blind pilots a threat to air traffic for years.

Dazzling a camera can be a bit more tricky. But in 2006, a team from Georgia Tech demonstrated a laser that could automatically detect camera lenses (via the reflective properties of the charged coupled device) and then fire a beam into the lens. The effect for digital cameras was that all the capacitors in the bed received the same high charge, resulting in a picture of whiteness.

But can you send a light beam to space at high enough energy to blind a camera? In June, NASA demonstrated how this could work—but in reverse, when it beamed a 1,550 nanometer, 2.5-watt laser from the International Space Station to Earth in order to test a new, space-based communications technology called Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS).

"It's incredible to see this magnificent beam of light arriving from our tiny payload on the space station," Matt Abrahamson, OPALS mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) remarked in a press release.

Getting a light beam coming from Earth to achieve the same effect upon reaching a satellite would be a matter of scaling up, which would be easier to do on the ground without the size, weight and other logistics complications imposed by operating in space.

The difference between a “dazzling” laser and one capable of actually destroying a satellite is energy. It has long been an area of fascination and concern for the U.S. government, and not without reason.

Since at least 1977 , the former Soviet Union had a robust space laser program to test methods for shooting down American space assets. The most recent iteration of that project, the so-called Sokol-Eshelon (Falcon-Echelon), was ongoing as recently as 2012, according to Russian media sources.

As for arming space craft with lasers to shoot at Earth, the U.S. military stopped considering it back in 2002. However, the Defense Advanced Projects Research agency, DARPA, is currently funding a program called the High energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System, HELLADS , to outfit a plane with a defensive laser weapon to fight drones. And they just awarded funding for research into a reusable spaceplane, one that can serve the role of the defunct space shuttle at much less the cost. The winner of the latter contract was The Boeing Company (working with Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin , LLC) Masten Space Systems (working with XCOR Aerospace) and Northrop Grumman Corporation (working with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic)

Below is a video from DARPA:

Cram all of that research together and a picture emerges of laser-armed military space ships—built by Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson—fighting a Russian Death Star.

What would the Russians target with their laser? The most valuable military prizes the U.S. has in orbit are probably our four Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites. These make novel use of the electromagnetic spectrum to send emergency communications. “This is the constellation that the President would use in existential circumstances, to command and control nuclear forces and to ensure continuity of the United States government,” said Shelton. “If an adversary were to take out one, just one satellite in the constellation, a geographic hole is opened and we potentially have a situation where the president can’t communicate with forces in that part of the world.”

Of course, you don’t need a laser to take out an important satellite when a missile will do. Here, too, the U.S. was put on its toes back in 2007 when the Chinese successfully tested an anti-satellite missile. “Everyone was stunned by the boldness of the test, as well as the technical acumen it demonstrated,” said Shelton.

Space Nuclear Weapons

The loss of an advanced emergency communications satellite would look much less serious than a nuclear explosion in space. This, too, is a contingency the U.S. has long feared and anticipated, however unlikely.

“A high altitude nuclear burst… has prompt effects if you happen to be in the area but sustained effects because of what it does to the Van Allen [belts]. It pumps up the magnetic field around the Earth with charged particles and potentially, everything in low-Earth orbit has its electronics fried,” said Shelton.

The Van Allen belts are the penultimate and ultimate rings of electromagnetic radiation that encircle the Earth, full of highly-charged, fast-moving particles. Blasting the belts with charged electrons via a nuclear bomb explosion would increase the amount of ambient radiation that communications satellites in low Earth orbit are exposed to, potentially causing widespread failure. The United States discovered this the hard way in 1964 when they set off an atomic bomb blast in space, temporarily disabling as many as one third of the U.S. and Soviet satellites in low Earth orbit. The radiation could haunt the earth’s magnetic field for years, which would complicate satellite replacement.

Virtually any country with medium-ranged intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear capability could pull off such an attack. Today’s military satellites would be mostly unaffected. They’re required to be able to survive a nuclear event and ground assets aren’t considered vulnerable to an this sort of attack. But the effects of a space nuke on civil communication could have immediate, global and terrible financial consequences.

Shelton was careful to point out to Defense One that enough satellite redundancy is built into the system that no space-based attack would be crippling for the nation—neither in terms of intelligence gathering, the global positioning system, nor for military communications. But he did sound the alarm about “a potentially dire fiscal outlook for our space programs,” the result of continued pressure of sequestration. He said that he has already cut $1 billion from the budget in FY13 and FY14 combined and didn’t look forward to future cuts.

While a permanent position in space remains the domain of organized nation states, accelerating technologies could affect any and all of these areas. The space race isn’t a race that ever ends. It just gets faster.