ANALYSIS: Space Leaders Really Want to Spill Their Secrets

By Stew Magnuson

Image: iStock

Military space leaders over the past month have made it clear: they don’t want to be opaque.

At least when it comes to U.S. space weapons.

The message was first delivered at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs in late August. Rear Adm. Michael Bernacchi, director of strategy, plans and policy, J5 at U.S. Space Command, said over-classification and secrecy about U.S. offensive capabilities went against deterrence theory.

“On a submarine, everybody knows we have torpedoes. That’s not a secret. Obviously, we have some highly classified systems on a submarine, but the enemy understands that we have advanced torpedoes that will kill them. In space, I can’t say anything” about U.S. capabilities, he said.

The thinking is that if competitors such as China and Russia don’t know what the U.S. military is capable of, then they won’t be afraid to use weapons against U.S. assets.

Meanwhile, space leaders have not been recalcitrant about the offensive capabilities of other nations. They have talked about satellites that move around and sidle up to others. This is most likely to take a closer look at what they are doing, but the assumption that some kind of grappling hook could be deployed to damage the other spacecraft, or in some scenarios, maneuver themselves directly at another satellite in a kamikaze style attack.

There are laser dazzlers — a space or ground-based weapon to blind spy satellites. There are jammers that also can be deployed to interfere or block communication satellite signals. Cyberattacks can also be launched from anywhere in the world against spacecraft or the ground systems that support them.

“Nesting dolls” are spacecraft within a spacecraft. Something that may look like an ordinary telecommunications satellite may have a second spacecraft inside poised to attack.

And there is nothing secretive about anti-satellite missiles. In 2007, China used such a weapon to destroy one of its own defunct weather satellites, a pivotal moment that served as a wake-up call for U.S. military leaders that space was no longer a safe haven.

So, that poses the question: if that’s what U.S. rivals can do, what can the secretive U.S. space enterprise do in kind? U.S. space officials are clearly itching to tell the public — and by extension — their rivals.

At the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber conference, senior space leaders continued the declassification drumbeat.

“We have to be able to talk more about the capability we have if we are going to deter,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, commander of Space Operations Command.

“Classic deterrence theory still applies here: We want to be able to pose costs and we want to be able to make sure that we can deny benefits when somebody attacks us. And if they're going to believe that there is a cost, then they need to understand what some of those systems are,” he said.

“We've made some progress over the last several years,” Whiting added. “If I had been here four or five years ago, I could not have said the words ‘space electronic warfare.’ … Now we can talk about that because we talk about it in other domains and everything they're doing.”

Lt. Gen. Michael A. Guetlein, commander of Space Systems Command, said he didn‘t want to give the impression that space leaders want to divulge sources and methods. “That is not the case,” he said.

The secrecy is “compartmentalized” and he pointed to cases where one of the three other senior leaders on the panel had to step out of the room during a meeting because something secret was being discussed.

“That’s absolutely ludicrous,” he said. If one part of the space enterprise doesn’t know what the other is doing, how can there be a unity of effort to build systems that can compete with adversaries? he asked. That openness should extend to industry, academia and allies, he added.

“We need to be able to show more,” Whiting added.

In 2008, less than a year after the Chinese A-Sat test, the Defense Department did show the world what it could do. In Operation Burnt Frost, the Navy launched a Standard Missile-3 from one of its ships and brought down a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Organization satellite in space. No one in the Defense Department would admit that the test was in response to Chinese actions, instead, insisting that the spy satellite was out of control and had poisonous hydrazine fuel that posed an environmental hazard.

One wonders what they would say about the purpose of the launch today?

There has to be a “happy medium” between preserving secrecy and letting opponents know what kind of punch the U.S. can deliver in space, Bernacchi said.

— Additional reporting by Jon Harper

Topics: Space

Comments (1)

Re: Space Leaders Really Want to Spill Their Secrets

There is some movement towards re-examining the classifications that have been put into place but there is so much that makes no sense that could be easily fixed. So if there is a desire to remove silly classifications where are the changes? For instance, the Satellite Catalog does not release some orbital parameters for some "national security" missions. So why does the Satellite Catalog not have parameters for a Japanese upper stage, object 41941? What secrets would be revealed if that orbit was public? There are many examples like that, they make no sense at all.

Charles Phillips at 11:23 AM
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