COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—The Pentagon is getting serious about gearing up for potential space combat.
Breaking with a decadeslong policy that stopped short of publicly advocating putting arms in orbit, U.S. Defense Department leaders are calling for faster development of offensive weapons and combat tactics for space, initially to protect the biggest, most expensive U.S. spy satellites from potential attacks.
The extent of the shift was evident at a recent space symposium here, with one senior general after another calling for more-advanced weaponry and updated rules of engagement that—for the first time—specifically would be designed to counter moves by hostile spacecraft beyond the atmosphere.
“We will be threatened in space, and we need to be prepared for that,” said Brig. Gen. John Shaw, deputy director of global operations at Strategic Command, the Defense Department unit in charge of nuclear and other long-range weapons. “There isn’t something special as a space war,” he told the conference, that ought to be considered separately from naval or land combat.
The Air Force is working closely with the National Reconnaissance Office to devise offensive strategies against weapons or satellites of other nations that could blind, jam or destroy in-orbit spy satellites, according to several of the symposium’s speakers.
Issues related to space weaponry, especially technology that can disrupt hostile spacecraft, are among the Pentagon’s most closely guarded secrets. Though research has been under way quietly for decades and military leaders in the past few years targeted billions of extra dollars to ensure space superiority, details are highly classified and companies involved in the effort aren’t public.
Recent comments by Pentagon leaders underscore the growing importance of the topic. Throughout the speeches and panels earlier this month, space was described as requiring major investments to ensure that the U.S. military will be ready to execute the full range of defensive and offensive operations. Traditionally, civilian leaders as well as uniformed commanders have tended to avoid explicit calls for speedy deployment of offensive systems.
In a classified briefing at the same conference, Robert Work, the Defense Department’s No. 2 civilian official, highlighted that all of the Pentagon’s efforts are aimed at deterring attacks, rather than instigating hostilities.
“We’re not interested in getting into [a] fight” in space, Gen. John Raymond, head of Air Force Space Command, told the conference on a different day. “Nobody wins that fight, but we are interested in being prepared for it.”
Earlier this month, Gen. John Hyten, head of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “we must prepare for a conflict that extends into space” through defensive measures, but also by building “an offensive capability to challenge” adversaries. He promised to provide details to lawmakers at a coming classified session.
This week, during a telephone hookup earlier with astronauts orbiting the earth, reporters heard President Donald Trump allude to U.S. capabilities with “tremendous military applications in space,” without elaborating.
Early snippets of such tough talk emerged years before Mr. Trump took office, as uniformed commanders grew increasingly concerned about vulnerabilities of their space systems.
With China and Russia particularly focused on testing antisatellite technologies, the U.S. military started thinking about “hardening” existing satellites, fielding smaller models that would be easier to replace and enhancing in-orbit surveillance and tracking capabilities to provide more effective warnings of dangers.
But current thinking among senior Pentagon planners, according to people familiar with the details, goes further than in previous administrations by categorizing offensive space capabilities as essential components of America’s military arsenal.
Joel Sercel, a veteran aerospace engineer, consultant and entrepreneur, said “the U.S. has the most costly space assets of any nation, and is more dependent on them than any other.” Yet “it’s simply not that hard for an adversary to disrupt or destroy” at least some parts of most constellations, he said in a recent interview.
International treaties prohibit launching nuclear warheads or weapons of mass destruction into space, though they don’t ban antisatellite weapons.
Throughout the Cold War and the global realignment that followed, beefing up satellite defenses was considered the primary means of preventing warfare in space.
But in 2007, China used an antisatellite weapon to blast one of its own aging weather satellites into thousands of pieces. The maneuver, followed by other Chinese and Russian tests over the years, rocked the space world and became a watershed moment for Pentagon brass worried about proliferation of space debris and potential attacks on U.S. satellites.
Some of these concepts were initially proposed by the Trump transition team before the inauguration, according to people familiar with the process, and later were endorsed by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis during his confirmation proceedings. Since then, they have been refined further by commanders.
The Senate Armed Services Committee on April 5 has approved the nomination of Heather Wilson to head the Air Force. Ms. Wilson, a former House member from New Mexico is another strong proponent of offensive space strategy.
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