Tag Archives: China

“Space War” History

operation_desert_storm

Image hosted on Wikimedia.org.

Scientific American put out an article a few weeks ago about the first advertised use of Global Positioning satellites during the Persian Gulf War. At least it’s the first time a type of space infrastructure was used aside from satellite communications and satellite imagery. We were pretty used to the idea of satellite communications by 1991, but GPS is a bit different, then and now.

What I didn’t realize, since I was going through college at the time, is there wasn’t even the minimum number of satellites the DoD says is required today, which is 24, back then while the U.S. was conducting the campaign. The number of GPS satellites then was only 2/3’s of today’s baseline, with specific time limits in which to conduct combat effectively. Even with that, the U.S. military men and women still managed to do what needed to be done to win the campaign. The story, “GPS and the World’s First ‘Space War’,” is a good story, and worth reading, if you’re into that sort of history.

The U.S. Air Force likes saying Desert Storm was the first “Space War.” But it was more about a different way to use space infrastructure–a very new kind of space infrastructure, to be sure, but infrastructure nonetheless. Otherwise we’d be calling other campaigns the first kind of “Submarine War” because we’d laid cable underwater and used mines. Or the first kind of “Air War” because we used pigeons for communications and observation balloons for reconnaissance. Maybe saying it’s the first “Space War” is just a convenient way to continue funding for the USAF…and it sounds very impressive, right?

It ties in nicely with my previous blog post, “When China Attacks?”  It shows that even if someone somehow took the GPS constellation below the baseline of 24, things would still not be simple for those attacking, and the U.S. military would still be resourceful in using the remaining satellites (or maybe not even having to–there are alternatives, such as pseudolites).

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When China Attacks?

Spacewar1

SpaceWar! screenshot courtesy of MIT through Wikipedia.

It must have been a slow news week last week, because this story gained traction: Space warfare with Russia and China? Pentagon urged to prepare for itIn the story, an unlikely scenario unfolds where China attacks U.S. navigation satellites, the U.S. suddenly becomes helpless, and is at the mercy of the “Red Menace.” My response: really??? Is it really that easy?

First, let’s just look at the numbers. The current number of operational GPS satellites the U.S. Air Force is operating is 31. They have an advertised requirement of 24 satellites in operations (Where are these numbers coming from? Why GPS.gov, of course.). This doesn’t include the number of older backup satellites. So, if China wanted to cripple GPS, they’d have to take the constellation below the 24 required. That’s a lot of anti-satellite missiles. This being space, though, it’s not that simple as the scenario suggests: GPS satellites move.

A GPS satellite orbits in what is known as a medium Earth orbit (MEO), which is about 12,500 miles in altitude. A GPS satellite circles the Earth every 12 hours, which means it is occasionally in view of China’s landmass or the contested ocean areas for perhaps 3 to 5 hours of one orbit. So if China were to take out 8 GPS satellites with missiles, they’d have to be ready to take out more a few hours later. Is this possible? Let’s say it is. The media is quick to talk about earlier anti-missile tests the Chinese military conducted, with the 2007 test creating A LOT of debris in space. Which gets to the next point.

China is launching its own GPS-type satellites into orbit, called BeiDou. At my last count, they have about 20 of their own, and aiming to eventually have over 30 in orbit as well. These BeiDou satellites are in different orbits, with a majority, I think, in MEO. This means there’s the possibility of China shooting themselves in the foot if they shot enemy satellites in orbits of similar altitudes, which might then litter debris in some of their BeiDou satellites orbits. But space is a big place, so maybe not.

Keep in mind this scenario is only for positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellites, like GPS. Adversaries would have to launch a lot more to blind the U.S., especially when you consider there are commercial companies like Planet Labs with over 50 Earth observation satellites in low Earth orbit (they launched over 100 in the past two years). Are they as capable or robust as a DigitalGlobe WorldView, or a government-operated imagery satellite? Probably not. But they would be good enough for government work in case those bigger, juicier, expensive targets were taken out.

Back to GPS. There are more players in the PNT market than GPS and BeiDou. Russia has their GLONASS constellation, with over 20 satellites in orbit. The Europeans have Galileo, which is now quickly building up. The Indians are putting up their own regional satellite navigation system and are expecting to complete it this year. Each one of these PNT operators might have something to say about China launching missiles against U.S. GPS satellites. And if you don’t think China isn’t worried about India, you haven’t been paying attention.

A simpler, cheaper, and possibly more effective way to accomplish this is jamming. I’m ignorant of the power requirements to do this, but I understand the power used in the GPS signal is low, which means a bigger jammer could make sure no GPS signals get through to a particular area. And jamming could theoretically cover a particular area for longer than 3-5 hours. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t even need to have something shot into space.

The U.S. uses drones, and China does, too. An inexpensive, high-altitude drone, or a fleet of them, could deny GPS signals coming in. Imagine how frustrating it would be for the U.S. Navy to expend million-dollar missiles on drones costing thousands of dollars. Imagine how much more frustrating it would be to then see a new inexpensive drone take the place of the one shot down. If space must be involved, cubesats might be able to do the trick, although China would need to put quite a few in orbit to be effective. Oh yeah, wait–China can do that: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2015/09/china-debut-launch-long-march-6/.

So, this kind of wargaming is fun. But let’s get back to the point, which is, sure, the U.S. military relies on space assets to conduct missions. But its assets, while seemingly vulnerable, aren’t as easy to get to as the article paints them. And the act of destroying satellites in orbit, while spectacular, does not help ANY space faring nation in the long run (unless they’ve developed a way to clean up the mess). It’s almost as if an attack on one is an attack on all.

And I mean ALL. If you have a smartphone, especially one bought within the past few years, you have GPS AND GLONASS receivers built right in to the brains of the phone. Let’s see, what apps use GPS? Uber, Yelp, Waze, and Google Maps for starters. Do you think citizens in China, Russia, India, or Europe use similar apps and tech on their phones? They’d be crazy not to.

Is the article’s scenario possible? Sure. Just like nuclear Armageddon is possible. Conflicts are always possible, especially when you have nations like China showing off shiny new muscles like a misguided gym-bro during Spring Break in Daytona, and the U.S. acting like the retired old man yelling at China to stay off of his lawn. But how likely is a conflict? There are cheaper, maybe even more effective ways to cripple a military’s use of satellite services than shooting them down. It’s our politicians job not to let it get that far.

Baikonur Cosmodrome

There’s something kind of beautiful about this old Soviet rocket design. Notice the arms protruding from the ground? Those arms are what hold the rocket up before launch, using the rocket’s weight to “clamp” it into place. Image from Wikimedia.

I found this 2001 Air & Space article during my research about Sputnik-1, the world’s first artificial satellite. It’s a very good first person account of a visit out to the Baikonur Cosmodrome and some of the run-ups and rituals for launching from there. The writer was there for a launch of the first permanent International Space Station crew (which occurred in November 2000). It’s a neat article, because I love reading about some of the traditions established by the Russians that started with Sputnik-1’s launch. The story is four pages long, so if you have time, give it a read.

Overhead look of some of the launch sites in Baikonur. Image hosted on “Stop Frames of the Planet” blog.

Probably like most space nerds, I’ve known about Baikonur for a long time. It’s a big Russian rocket launch complex. It’s also known by another, perhaps less well-known name: Tyuratam (or Tyura Tam). Either way, the Cosmodrome has a place in space history, as well as missile development history. Like Peenemuende in Germany (some history about that here), it is the site that launched a few space history “firsts.” Probably the most well-known is the launch of Sputnik-1 into space on October 4, 1957 from Baikonur’s “site 1.” Sputnik-1 wasn’t very big, just 23 inches (58 centimeters) in diameter and weighing around 184 pounds (over 83 kilograms).

Almost exactly a month later, Laika the dog was launched in Sputnik-2. Laika, unfortunately, didn’t last long, but the satellite the poor dog was ensconced in was massive when compared to Sputnik-1, weighing in at over 1,120 pounds (about 508 kilograms). Both Sputniks were launched on top of a modified R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)–which was a first as well. The R-7, like the traditions at Baikonur, became well-used. It became a heavily modified rocket design used in space launches even now.

Yuri Gagarin was launched from Baikonur. He was “only” the first man in space. Launched into space on April 12, 1961, we still commemorate that event now with “Yuri’s Night” every year in April. By the way, the organization I work with will be hosting a Yuri’s Night this year (2015). We’re going to have astronauts and others hosting the event, and it will be in our little, but fantastic, museum–the Discovery Center. If you wish to attend, you’ll have to pay, though. If you are close by and wish to attend, just go here.

But back to Baikonur. It is the biggest launch complex in the world. It’s probably also the oldest. The Soviets used to own it, building it in the middle of nowhere (for the most part) so their missile tests wouldn’t inadvertently hurt populated areas. Another consideration for it’s placement in Kazakhstan was to keep Soviet activities away from spying US eyes (although it was photographed by a U-2 within the same year the Soviets started testing ICBMs in 1957). It was a part of the Soviet Union, but now is leased for use by the Russian government from Kazakhstan.

Baikonur is the ONLY place right now that launches humans to the International Space Station. Which makes it the ONLY place that gives humans a physical toehold in space exploration and activities. China might also eventually start placing Taikonauts in their own space station, but until Americans once again have a crew-rated space launch vehicle, the Russians, and Baikonur in particular, are both playing important and historic roles for human space launch.

Losing Proposition: Cutting USAF Space Operations

A different Chinese Long March? 🙂 Image from The Diplomat.

The United States Air Force (USAF) looks to be on the verge of admitting it can’t spend the money on its own people to operate its own satellites. They are considering some piecemeal options for moving contractors into what were military positions.   This SpaceNews post describes four studies the USAF will be contracting out to figure out if they should outsource certain space operations:  “operating the service’s research and development satellites; operating its geosynchronous-orbiting satellites; operating a limited number of geosynchronous satellites; and picking up the responsibilities of a single shuttered Air Force ground station.”

Yes, you read that right, the USAF will spend money on contractors to conduct studies about options that would give other contractors more USAF money, to operate equipment owned by the USAF.  Isn’t this akin to hiring contractors to fly the USAF’s fighter jets, because training and maintaining a fighter pilot force costs too much money, too?  And yet, no one in the USAF seems to be bringing that up (and yes–it is the AIR FORCE–I understand that).

Of course contractors have been involved with satellite operations for a while.  I’ve worked with a few.  They’re great.  They typically are very motivated.  And they have a great amount of knowledge to pass on, if anyone bothers to listen.  But they are civilians.  Loyal civilians, but civilians nonetheless.  And the USAF is exploring the options of adding more while diminishing its own stock of space operations expertise.  It’s studies like the ones the USAF is contracting out, that makes me think it’s really time for them to split Air from Space.  Time to have a true space force, one that won’t even think about stripping out their core military space experts, because those are who are needed to win a war.  A space force won’t have to worry about balancing decisions such as how many more fighter planes to buy vs. that awesome new satellite that will give the US an edge in space.

The cutting of military space personnel isn’t new.  The USAF was cutting space operators long before I decided to get out in 2007.  They kept on cutting afterwards, too.  But just how deep is the USAF going to cut before it finds all the space operators it let go sitting in the same positions, but as more expensive contractors?  It’s already happening with certain space systems.  And most of the contractors will need a Top Secret clearance, which the government has noted to be an issue already–too many contractors with clearances.

Sure, it might be cheaper to run space operations (although knowing government contracts and military contracting companies, I seriously doubt it), and day-to-day, the contractors will be fine.  But what happens when ground sites and satellites are targeted?  A GPS-guided cruise missile loaded with the right coordinates would take out possibly half of the contracted space operations expertise for some systems in one strike.  Are there redundant systems, with personnel ready to man such systems?  Listening to the money squeeze the USAF is facing, it doesn’t sound like it.

And while the United States government is seemingly going along with the USAF study proposals, there’s a country watching and likely hoping the USAF will find the ‘efficiencies’ within these studies worth exploring.  If the USAF does that, it will possibly the best thing that could happen for China.  I mentioned yesterday that China is moving ahead and building up their own dedicated space force.  Shouldn’t that kind of news make general officers here in the US think hard about the direction certain elements seem to want to take the USAF?

China seems to be more serious than the United States regarding investing people and money into military space operations.  The idea of a dedicated space force is one the United States Air Force toyed with but never truly implemented.  The USAF actually went in the opposite direction and cut down their space operations force, gutting the expertise of America’s space force.  And with this latest SpaceNews post, it sounds like they’d like to cut some more.

This is not to say the USAF isn’t playing around with their own interesting satellites.  But it seems that China understands it’s not just technology, but also about investing in space expertise in people, and giving their space operators an edge in any space combat scenario.  Meanwhile, certain USAF generals worry about what font is being used on a PowerPoint slide, working on more impactful mission statements, and waiting for study results with that nice, well-used, rubber stamp ready to go.  Who do you think is more ready for a space conflict?

China Sends Up Another ‘Practice’ Satellite

Image hosted on Astrowatch. A Long March (Changzheng) rocket launches with the newest Shijian-11 satellite aboard.

On Sept 28, China, unsurprisingly, launched another satellite in their weird passive/aggressive way.  At least it seems passive/aggressive with China advertising it’s a practice satellite but then keeps its mission secret.  On the other hand, the US does the same thing with its military and intelligence satellites as well.

The newest Chinese satellite is called the Shijian-11.  According to Astrowatch, the Chinese word “Shijian” means practice.  The satellite was launched into an orbit that matches the typical orbit of imagery satellites.  Zarya. info, a website that monitors the activities of certain satellites closely, lists the Shijian-11’s orbit as having an inclination (the angle of the satellite’s orbital path relative to the Earth’s equator) of slightly over 98 degrees.  It also lists the time it takes the Shijian-11 to orbit the Earth as about 98 minutes.  The satellite’s altitude isn’t very high, 687 x 705 km (425 x 438 mi), so it’s definitely a low earth orbit satellite.

It seems to be too soon to tell exactly what the satellite is doing, but it may be to help China’s space corps practice more with taking pictures of places on the Earth.  China does have other practice satellites in orbit, so a new one shouldn’t be too shocking.  But older Shijian satellites have done some interesting things, especially in 2013, when Zarya  was observing the maneuvering capability of particular Shijian satellites and a possible robotic arm on one of them to grab other satellites.

This is just another in a series of steps in which China seems to be moving quickly forward in learning more about space operations.   This post from The Diplomat even somewhat hesitatingly states that China’s government is ordering the People’s Liberation Army to establish an actual space force.  Between the practice satellites and their establishment of a space force, China seems to seriously be working on their space operations skills.  Shijian makes perfect, I suppose.