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Space War

Starting, As We Must, In Congress

In Congress-speak, an “authorization” is different than an “appropriation,” in that money must be “authorized” by Congress to be used for a particular purpose first, which is different than “appropriating” it. Appropriations are what actually fund a program after it has been authorized. An annual ritual of Congress is the passage of a bill that is always called something similar to “National Defense Authorization Act.” Because it it basically has to pass or else the military doesn’t get any money, and because it only authorizes rather than appropriates money, it’s a pretty safe place for Members to stuff all sorts of pet projects and ideas.

This normally arcane bit of legislative ritual has grabbed some headlines thanks to the actions of the Chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Mike Rogers. His idea is to create a Space Corps, which will be a distinct subdivision of the Air Force, much like the Marine Corps is a distinct subdivision of the Navy. The idea is not original to him; some trace the concept back to at least the 1990’s.


Space Marines? Are You Kidding Me?

Hey, this is not a silly idea. There are a multiplicity of assets already in space upon which other segments of the military rely. GPS satellites. Communications relay satellites. Surveillance satellites. Having the ability to communicate and access information anywhere in the world represents a tremendous advantage to all segments of the military. It’s what allows U.S. pilots in North Dakota to fly their craft on missions in Iraq and Afghanistan well out of harm’s way, while the enemy is forced to confront live ordinance. War is not a sportsmanlike exercise, after all.

So if a war ever takes place against a sophisticated enemy — Russia, China, or some other nation with its own spacefaring capability — it’s pretty obvious that this enemy would want to reduce or eliminate the ability of the U.S. military to rely on this advanced technology, and one way to do it would be to disable the ability of terrestrial assets to access the rich flow of information those satellites provide. It seems all but inevitable that this will become a sphere of military activity.

What would this eventual sixth branch of the U.S. military actually do? It’s certainly cool to think about video-game type stuff. Massive fleets of spacecraft vying to outshoot one another, Space Marines in armored space suits, seizing enemy spacecraft and satellites, shooting frickin’ laser beams at each other:

James Bond Moonraker – Space laser fight scene

But I think we all know that this isn’t particularly realistic, at least not for the bulk of our lifetimes. The reality of it is, satellites and space stations are pretty fragile things. And, very few of them are all that far outside of the measurable atmosphere. “Space” is mostly thought to begin at 100 km above the surface, when aerodynamic lift no longer keeps an object aloft, a demarcation called the Kármán Line.


Assets and Targets

From there, there are three tiers of orbital distances: 180-2,000 km is “low earth orbit,” which is where most satellites are (it takes much less fuel and therefore a lot less money to put satellites there). This is where most of the action in any outer-space military activity will take place. Because equipment and supplies necessary to sustain human life are particularly heavy from a space-travel perspective, the International Space Station and any reasonably imaginable other space station with life support systems would also be in this range. Bear in mind that a space station like the ISS will be particularly fragile when thought about from a military perspective because of the life support systems.

satellite photoGeosynchronous orbit, to keep a satellite apparently stationary above a particular longitude on the planet below, is at 35,780 km, which is the demarcation point between “mid earth orbit” and  “high earth orbit.”

“Mid earth orbit” is interesting because that’s where the bulk of the GPS tracker satellites are, and as far as I can tell, the 2,000 km demarcation line is derived from some arbitrary decision about how eccentric (that is, how far away from truly circular the elliptical orbit’s shape is) the satellite’s orbit needs to be to remain stable at that distance from the earth.1

That’s where the targets are. Basically, communications relay and surveillance satellites will be in low earth orbit, the network of GPS satellites will be in mid earth orbit, and the best surveillance satellites focused on areas of particular strategic interest will be in geosynchronous high earth orbit. Scientific research satellites would almost certainly be of little interest to any military action.


Environment and Weapons

Space isn’t like other areas where military activity has taken place. Things move at terrific speeds: an object in low earth orbit moves at a rate of about 27,500 kilometers per hour (relative to the Earth’s surface). I’m no physicist, but I know that F=ma. When each object’s velocity is 27,500 kph2 if you line up your vectors right, you aren’t going to need a lot of mass to do a lot of damage.

Distances are also huge. The volume of the areas that are within low earth orbit is about 571 billion cubic kilometers. By comparison, the total area of the earth’s atmosphere is about 52 billion cubic kilometers.

Freedom of movement is much greater in space than in the air or worse yet, on the ground or in water. In the microgravity and low-resistance environment of space, a satellite with appropriate equipment can change its attitude and spin at will relative to the path of its velocity. Put another way, unlike an airplane that has to face forward as it travels, a satellite (equipped with thrusters, which basically vent something like compressed air in a controlled direction) can move in one direction, look in a different direction, and spin around an axis chosen in three dimensions as it chooses. Also unlike naval or aerial operations, once a desired velocity is attained, no further effort need be expended to maintain that speed. Once you’re going as fast as you want, you turn your engine off and don’t use it again until you want to maneuver. Way back in the 1990’s, the CGI artists who created space battles on Babylon 5 did a pretty good job of illustrating this.

So you don’t need to make frickin’ laser beams to take out a satellite. Something the size and mass of a bullet that you might fire from, say, a .50 caliber rifle would work just fine. It won’t need a nuclear warhead, just some appreciable mass. At the kinds of relative velocities we’re talking about, it probably doesn’t matter all that much how the target is armored. The trick is getting your bullet to hit its target at all, in the vast, empty reaches of this 1,900 kilometer wide battle zone.

Getting your bullet, or missile, or whatever other projectile you wish to deploy to intersect the satellite you wish to destroy, is something a human being simply cannot do. So you’ll need to rely on a radar detection system to find your target and a guidance system to get your projectile to travel to where the target is, preferably along an opposing vector to transfer the huge power of orbital velocity to your projectile’s impact on the target.3

And that means that guidance systems are going to be what space combat is all about. As it happens, a problem of this magnitude currently confronts missile-defense systems in R&D as we speak — the challenges of shooting a missile out of the sky are not all that unlike the challenges of shooting a projectile at a satellite. An ICBM’s re-entry velocity is about 6 kilometers per second, compared to the velocity of a low-earth-orbit satellite of about 7.8 kilometers per second. To my knowledge, guidance systems are approaching the point of being able to do this, at least in controlled circumstances, so while they aren’t quite there yet they are approaching the point where orbital interception will become a possibility.


Rods From God

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I saw that episode of The X Files too. Among other things, it depicted a satellite-launched weapon of indeterminate description. We don’t know if it was a frickin’ laser beam or a rail gun or a missile, but we were told that the Baddie shot some kind of a satellite-launched weapon at Agents Mulder and Scully in a cargo container yard. Good fun on those dateless Friday nights back in the 90’s.

The principal satellite-to-ground weapons system that has been talked about in real life, “Project Thor,” involves positioning a group of very high density tubes, proposed to be made out of tungsten carbide with a core of depleted uranium, that would be braked out of a satellite, to then drop from orbit down onto their targets. Easy to see how that would get really destructive — that portion of the projectile that survived atmospheric re-entry would have a very high terminal velocity due to its high density and aerodynamic shape.

At the practical level, though, we encounter some problems. First, there’s expense: In order to have a useful projectile survive atmospheric re-entry, it would need to be about the size of a telephone pole upon launch. Then, you have to somehow transport this really heavy piece of ammunition to the launcher satellite. We could do that, I suppose, but it would be really expensive.

Then there’s the matter of guidance. Even assuming advanced guidance systems capable of doing satellite-to-satellite interception, such a projectile would almost certainly not be able to use them on its re-entry path. After a few kilometers of picking up friction during re-entry, the entire tungsten carbide log would develop a sheath of plasma. Which would look really awesome, but which would also pretty much prevent any way a guidance system could function. So the target would have to be known and programmed upon launch, and once launched, there’d be no way to steer it. Perhaps that wouldn’t matter, if the initial targeting were good enough. Before I published this, our man Oscar Gordon suggested to me that an ablative shell with a terminal guidance system could mitigate this issue, at least until the ablative shell ablates4 on its way through the atmosphere and towards the target. And the shell would add still more weight and expense to each shot the weapon fires.

Note also that the satellite that mounted these weapons would require a lot of maintenance because unlike communications or observations satellites, it would necessarily have a lot of internally moving parts. Sending a software update to a satellite is one thing — sending an astronaut to go maintain it is something else.

For now, this sort of weapon is beyond our grasp — although as with the advanced guidance system, it seems plausible enough to imagine developing the ability to create it in the foreseeable future.

It strikes me as a poor cost-to-benefit choice though. Pretty obviously, the satellite(s) that had such a weapon would become a high-priority target for our hypothetical spacefaring enemy. We couldn’t really hide the thing. The satellite itself would be large, and the maintenance trips would have to be frequent enough that they’d be tracked, so it would be pretty easy for our potential enemies to detect where the Thor platform was. So Thor would become a locus of missile/anti-missile efforts for the Space Corps of both combatants, consuming already-expensive resources that could be used to protect or attack other assets.

This sort of thing would be a long way away, if it ever happens at all.


We Have So Many Things That We Have To Do Better, And Certainly The Cyber Is One Of Them

Remember that the basic goal of space warfare is to protect our own ability to use information from satellites and to deny our enemy that same ability. So here’s the real rub: the enemy might be able to deny us our use of satellites without launching a single missile. Hackers could pretty conceivably figure out how to do the same thing from the comfort of any dacha with a sufficiently robust internet connection.

Right now, this sort of thing is the province of the U.S. Cyber Command, which works juxtaposed with the National Security Agency. I’m less able to make inferences about what is or is not within a military’s cybersecurity capabilities, but I mention this in the context of thinking about a Space Corps because all of the magnificent technology we’re ruminating about here could be rendered moot at the electronic level, and Space Corps would need to be deeply concerned about that.


Where Would Space Corps Fight?

Sure, the idea sounds silly. The name, unfortunately, mirrors elements of not-to-be-taken-too-seriously-science-fiction stories exactly. Nevertheless, whether it gets started this year or next or next decade, I feel confident predicting that within most of our lifetimes, a part of the U.S. military will make shooting missiles at satellites and other missiles its bread and butter mission.

With that said, calling this new realm of military activity “Space Corps” is a bit of a misnomer, because it seems exceedingly unlikely to me that a human Space Corps warrior would probably ever need to leave the ground. We’ve been using airplane-launched missiles to destroy satellites since 1985, and nowadays the launcher airplane can fly and land itself. The work that would need to be done to fulfill this mission requires speeds and technologies faster than human beings could realistically handle.

There will not be Space Marines shooting frickin’ laser beams at one another in orbital infantry actions. But there will be ridiculously fast and scary missiles aimed at tiny, hard-to-hit, fragile, and high-value pieces of orbiting hardware. Welcome to the future.


Thanks to Oscar Gordon for taking the time to school me up on some of the physics and technology here. Any errors or mistakes that have persisted despite his best efforts to explain rudimentary physics to a lowly liberal arts major are strictly my own.


Images by numb3r and HJ Media Studios Notes:

  1. There are a couple other interesting places to consider, like four of the five LaGrange Points, but these are very distant from the Earth and to my knowledge, only populated or useful for by devices used for scientific research that would be of little concern during a war. []
  2. About 17,000 miles per hour if you don’t care to do the metric conversion. []
  3. If your guidance system is good enough to hit your target head-on, the relative velocity at impact would be 55,000 kph. So you see why I don’t think armoring satellites is going to do a damn bit of good. []
  4. Is that a verb? It is now. []

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Pseudonymous. Practices Law. Lives in Southern California. Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. Homebrewer. Atheist. No Partisan Preference. Likes: respectful and intelligent dialogue, good wine, and puppies. Dislikes: mass-produced barley pop, magical thinking, and insincere people. Follow him on Twitter at @burtlikko, and on Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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30 thoughts on “Space War

    • It seems like an international agreement that says, “If you detect somebody messing with satellite navigation systems and trace it to its origins, you’re allowed to bomb that site with no questions asked,” might be a good way to nip this in the bud. People who mess with critical navigation infrastructure are why we can’t have nice things.

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  1. Wouldn’t it be a lot cheaper and more innovating if we didn’t invest in the institutions that perpetuate warfare?

    Good work Burt, you navigated a lot of interesting physics pretty accurately.

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  2. For me, the thing that I wonder about with regards to this branch would be whether there would be PT requirements.

    This is an Air Force town so here are the Air Force fitness requirements.

    Don’t want to click? Okay, fine.
    Run 1.5 miles
    Males: 12.54
    Females: 15:21

    Males: 44
    Females: 27

    Males: 46
    Females: 42

    Abdominal Circumference:
    Males: 37.5 inches
    Females: 34 Inches

    And those are the *MINIMUM* standards. That’s “passing with a 75%.”

    (I’m sitting here thinking “I don’t meet those. I don’t meet those other ones either.”)

    (And, on top of that, I understand that the Marines laugh at these standards. *LAUGH*.)

    If there’s going to be a Cyber Division… are they going to have PT?

    Because, and I don’t mean to stereotype here, if they’re going to have PT, this is going to be a branch of the military where you walk into any given room and there’s one officer, one enlisted guy, and eight contractors.

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      • My experience with aerospace engineers at my ex-wife’s company suggests geeks come in all physiques.

        The Air Force, however, has a maximum waist circumference of 37.5 inches for males and 34 Inches for females.

        If we are limiting acceptance to the Geeks who are only in that particular corner of “all physiques”, we’re going to find ourselves with a smaller pool of geeks to choose from before we’ve so much as turned a computer on.

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      • There will be physical equipment to handle, for sure: launcher aircraft and missiles at least.

        Manipulating sizeable masses in free fall is a whole different ball game. Far more likely that it’s done by some form of robotic manipulator than by human muscle.

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        • Moving things about in low or zero gravity (or freefall) still requires strength, but size and agility are much more important than raw strength. Think gymnast over body builder. It will be a long time before someone the size of Dwayne Johnson is an ideal Space Corps recruit.

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              • In USAF’s defense, it’s not like there are loose banker’s boxes full of documents hanging around unsecured in the cockpit of your typical C-135 while it’s in flight on a typical mission. And those airmen aren’t out walking down the length of runways every morning for PT. So USAF isn’t ignorant about the damage loose objects can do and preventing that damage from happening.

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                • The real trouble with the USAF taking on the role of the Space Corps is the fact that they don’t have the cultural mindset that can let them truly operate in space. It’s hard to explain, but it’s the difference between commanding a plane, and commanding a ship. The plane has one or two crew, typically (the pilots). Larger planes might have up to 7 crew (the big AWACS platforms). Ships have hundreds of men & women. Totally different command structure and culture.

                  Then there is logistics, lifestyle, and how you fight a plane versus a ship, etc.

                  Toss in things like the Navy already has a large corps of people used to operating in incredibly hostile environments (Divers, EOD, SEALs) where the air is canned and suit integrity is important, and ships crew are already training on keeping the hull intact, etc.

                  The USAF is just fine for the in-atmo & LEO stuff, anywhere where they can get back to their logistics base safely and before they might miss a nap. You want to get out there, you’ll need the Navy.*

                  *This was the one problem I had with the show Stargate, in that during the later seasons, when they started deploying actual star ships, the show pretended the USAF had any kind of clue what the hell it was doing.

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                  • Absolutely no argument — the Navy has the mindset for a (relatively) closed environment that has to be self-sufficient for months.

                    OTOH, relative to a previous remark, I want no seapersons (apologies as needed in either direction) who have been corrupted by the experience of moving a 25 kg box around in a one-gee field on my spaceship. I want people who know, deep down inside, that the situations where Newton’s first law don’t apply on a straight-line basis are the exceptions. That if you lose your grip on that box, it continues in a straight line down the corridor, taking out the thermostat, then bouncing and taking out the LED light fixture, then cracking the glass port in the hatch at the end. If you want to move it, you bring the robot arm that’s fastened to the track on the floor, and whose grip on the box can’t slip, and runs software that won’t let you accelerate that box at rates or to velocities that it can’t handle. In short, f*ck PT other than what’s needed for general health purposes and whatever Gs are pulled — don’t care about pullups or pushups or how fast you can run 1.5 miles in a one-gee field.

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                    • I want people who know, deep down inside, that the situations where Newton’s first law don’t apply on a straight-line basis are the exceptions.

                      Technically, Newton’s first law applies most consistently in space. It’s deep in the gravity well where ballistics are a governing concern.

                      As for crew, the first step to becoming a space sailor is to learn how to move yourself around in freefall. Fastest way to internalize the laws of Mr. Newton is to experience them physically. Once you understand that you will not fall to the ground (because there is no ground), you will be aware that nothing else will, either.

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    • For most Air Force personnel, the Air Force has completely abandoned the conceit that they are a branch of the military at all. Sure, there are some AFSC’s (Air Force Specialty Code–think of it as a number corresponding to a job title) that are combat-centric or combat-adjacent–pilots, tactical air control, ROMADS, combat control, pararescue, security forces–but the rest of us barely got trained on which end of the rifle to point downrange, much less being expected to meet exacting standards of physical fitness. My joke was always that if you ever saw me with a rifle in my hand we were screwed.

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      • Well, if we’re willing to say that these standards of physical fitness are going to be ignored, I have marginally more hope for this branch (or sub-branch).

        Marginally. If the E-5 with the 44-inch waist will occasionally get called into the boss’s office one day and get released the next for reasons related to physical standards, the physical standards will be seen as a sword of damocles to be used against those who can’t play the political game with the boss.

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        • That’s exactly what the physical standards are for all branches. Failure to meet those standards can result in varying degrees of disciplinary action, largely depending on the branch of service and the commander’s discretion, but they can include reduction in rank or separation.

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  3. The only meaningful thing that a Space Corps might do differently from what the USAF is already doing quite well is ensure continuity of management on the DoD customer side.

    Right now, USAF tends to rotate people through duty stations pretty quickly, which means that between initial proposal and on-orbit you’ll have four or five different USAF Program Managers. Customers don’t like this because they think it lets contractors snow-job the new guys who don’t know anything about the technology and don’t have time to learn. Contractors don’t like this because the new guys either A) don’t know anything about the technology, recognize this, and decide to be hardasses about everything to make sure they aren’t getting snow-jobbed, or B) don’t know anything about the technology, don’t recognize this, and latch on to unfeasible solutions or difficult requirements because they don’t know what they’re asking for.

    So…maybe a Space Corps would help with that? Seems like you could solve that issue by having the USAF declare satellites to be air bases, although that would probably represent a territory claim (which is against the Outer Space Treaty)

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    • DD,
      More you want to declare satellites to be ships, and subject to most maritime laws.
      It makes a better analogy, and when the next StateActor decides to shoot something down, well, you’ll at least have rules of civilized engagement.

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      • We have international conventions on satelites and other space stuff that treats them more or less like vessels in international waters (rather than airplanes over flying a country. Which was the other legal model proposed at the beginning of the space age, but discarded because of lack of practical enforcement and the desire for both the US and USSR to have freedom of navigation in the space domain)

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  4. This isn’t exactly on point, but it’s a space link and I guess deliberate Kessler Syndrome may be a weapon of war in the future. Enjoy this video of somebody doing amazing things in Kerbal Space program.

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  5. Scientific research satellites would almost certainly be of little interest to any military action.

    It is worth noting though that the scientific research satellites of today were the military satellites of yesterday. We can thank Bill Clinton and Al Gore (for real) for loosening the tech and data restrictions and bringing a lot of formerly secret space squirrel stuff into the open dissemination domain.

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