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As the US military shifts from existing SBIRS missile-warning satellites to a new architecture, it cannot overlook the importance of resilience amid growing ASAT threats. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

The critical importance of resiliency for US missile warning satellites

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The first force design from the Space Warfighting Analysis Center (SWAC) includes a transition to a proliferated missile-warning (MW) & missile-tracking (MT) architecture. Thus far, announcements about the design have been focused on the promise of resilience in the new architecture, while little is known about the more urgent and important resilience during the transition to the new architecture. Let’s hope that the center will soon shed light on how to make the currently vulnerable MW constellation resilient during the transition, which will persist throughout this decade and likely into the 2030s. Otherwise, China, our pacing challenger, will have plenty of opportunities, including seizing Taiwan even without firing a shot well within this decade.

However, while proliferated architecture is an excellent idea and should necessarily be implemented, it is insufficient for resilience.

At a retirement ceremony for Gen. John W. Raymond, first Chief of Space Operations of the US Space Force, on November 2, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recognized that the general has “laid the foundations for the culture and the traditions that will define this service for decades to come.” In this article, I highlight one of his illustrious achievements: through the SWAC, he has offered practical, insightful guidance to redress former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. John Hyten’s serious concern that DoD has not “achieved a resilient space architecture,” even after the vice chairman worked hard at it for two years.

In November 2020, Gen. Raymond released his Chief of Space Operations’ Planning Guidance, in which he ordered the establishment of the SWAC for developing “future force design options.” In April 2021, the SWAC was activated, and then three months later, Gen. DT Thompson, Vice Chief of Space Operations, quickly heeded Gen. Raymond’s plan by announcing that the Center’s first force design activity is “missile warning, missile tracking, missile defense.” On September 21, 2022, DoD officials said that the Pentagon plans to end procurements of very large geosynchronous (GEO) satellites that provide initial warning of ballistic missile launches. Over the coming years, DoD will start transitioning to a proliferated architecture of smaller and cheaper satellites in medium Earth orbit (MEO) for missile warning and low Earth orbit (LEO) for missile tracking. Space Development Agency Director Derek Tournear added that “the path the Space Force is marching towards is that we won’t rely on those [GEO satellites] in the future.” However, while proliferated architecture is an excellent idea and should necessarily be implemented, it is insufficient for resilience, as other types of satellite protection, such as warning/self-defense zones and bodyguard spacecraft, would also be needed.

For describing the different roles of missile warning and missile tracking, missiles can be classified into two groups. Group One consists of traditional ballistic missiles, which have long been used by various countries. Group Two consists of a mixed bag: rapidly emerging hypersonic ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as traditional cruise missiles. The Group Two missiles include various features, such as flight in an Earth-hugging path, dim infrared signature, high speed, and widely maneuverable capability, that require low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites for defense. Only from a LEO position can satellites closely monitor these missiles to track their flight paths to targets and defend against them.

This article will focus on how the current course of actions will continue to keep our missile warning architecture vulnerable and thus unable to provide timely warning against the traditional ballistic missiles throughout this decade. Resilience of missile-tracking will be addressed in a future article.

Traditional ballistic missiles have no or limited post-boost weapon maneuverability. They can carry nuclear and high explosives, as well as chemical and biological munitions, and their range varies from short to intercontinental distance. Missile-warning satellites are some of our most important space assets, as they provide the earliest detection and warning when every minute counts. For example, should an adversary launch a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) at a US mainland city, MW satellites operating 24/7 can use infrared capability to detect the missile launch the quickest, and next is the ground-based radar detection. The North America Aerospace Defense Command can then assess the information and alert the White House of the attack, allowing the President, advisors, and launch officers to respond as soon as possible with evacuation orders to move people into shelters and execution of retaliatory missile strikes. Anticipating the possibility of US nuclear response might well deter an adversary from initiating a nuclear strike in the first place.

The SWAC should follow Gen. Raymond’s guidance in developing a timely defense to protect the missile-warning architecture during the transition.

Also, during the Gulf War in August 1990 to February 1991, these MW satellites were used to detect Iraqi launches of Scud tactical ballistic missiles and provide timely warning to downrange users. Since then, MW satellites have found uses in conventional conflicts, the most prominent recent case on January 7, 2020, when Iran executed its “fierce revenge” shortly after the US assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a January 3 drone strike. With timely warning from the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), our current MW constellation, the US and coalition forces in Iraq were able to seek cover, and no one was killed despite Iran’s attack of more than a dozen ballistic missiles.

Thus, regardless of nuclear or conventional contingency, missile warning is critical to deter and defend against traditional ballistic missiles, which will remain in use by our adversaries, as well as the US and its allies, well into the 2030s.

The SWAC should follow Gen. Raymond’s guidance in developing a timely defense to protect the missile-warning architecture during the transition. He emphasized that “recent resurgence in deployment of modern direct ascent and co-orbital ASAT [antisatellite] capabilities require us to develop and deliver offensive and defensive options in the near-term, while we transition to a resilient architecture able to mitigate attack, assure capabilities, and rapidly reconstitute in the mid- to long-term.” (Emphasis in original.) In other words, in order to develop specific offensive and defensive options to protect the MW constellation during the transition, he advised starting with assessment of the timing and severity of specific threats such as the co-orbital ASATs. Moreover, he said that “our force design must reflect data-driven, threat-informed choices that are stressed against the forecast capabilities of potential great power adversaries.” Thus, he also wants us to show that our protective options during the transition are adequate to counter the forecast capabilities of the contemporaneous threats.

Let’s see how following his guidance can help the center ensure resilience for the MW architecture during the transition.

The current MW constellation, SBIRS, is composed of six satellites of about $1.7 billion each in GEO and four payloads in highly elliptical orbit (HEO). These satellites and payloads are projected to last two more decades.

The follow-on to the SBIRS will be the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared Program (Next-Gen OPIR) with three GEO and two HEO (polar) satellites costing more than $1 billion each. The three in GEO are scheduled for launch between 2025 and 2028, and will be in orbit well past 2050. The two in HEO have not yet transitioned to production. On the other hand, Space Systems Command projected in March 2022 that the first HEO satellite will be launched in 2028.

Just a day before Tournear’s announcement, Sam Wilson at the Aerospace Corporation released his 2023 budget analysis of the new architecture, which consists of 16 MW satellites in a semi-proliferated MEO and 135 MT satellites in a proliferated LEO.

In sum, during this decade, DoD will rely on ten SBIRS satellites and payloads and, at best, all five Next-Gen OPIR satellites for missile warning of traditional ballistic missiles. Even in the most optimistic but highly unlikely case that all 16 MW satellites in the new architecture were accelerated to be launched before the year 2030, the total number of MW satellites in this decade would be increased to 31 at maximum.

Tournear and Wilson did not mention whether any of these 31 satellites would be defended against the co-orbital ASATs, a serious issue to Gen. Raymond.

In truth, China does not currently have the ASAT capability to disable a sizable number of our satellites in quick succession. Perhaps that is why many space officials and experts consider a proliferated architecture of many inexpensive satellites to be the silver bullet in curing satellite vulnerability, as China and Russia cannot disable enough satellites to appreciably degrade the mission performance of such a constellation. However, the rapidly emerging dual-use spacecraft (R-spacecraft or space stalkers) capable of rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO), the very co-orbital ASATs of concern to Gen. Raymond, is likely to be the ASAT of choice for a surprise multi-satellite incapacitation, a strategy that China has been developing since 2008. At present, there are no guidelines or rules that prevent China from pre-positioning, during peacetime, as many R-spacecraft as they wish as close as they wish to as many high-value targets as they wish. The result would be an ever-present threat of sudden, bolt-from-the-blue attacks on vital space assets—and worse, on many of them at once.

How many of our critical but vulnerable satellites can China attack in quick succession with this game plan? Based on information from developmental tests of China’s R-spacecraft’s RPO capabilities, the success of Shijian-21 in docking and towing, China’s ability to rapidly produce small satellites, and President Xi Jinping’s order to accelerate attaining the operational capability to seize Taiwan from 2035 to 2027, we project that by 2026 China can produce on the order of 200 R-spacecraft for ASAT purposes; these can be used to attack a similar number of our critical satellites in all orbits in quick succession, unless there are rules and measures, such as zones and bodyguards, to prevent zone-invading satellites from reaching our satellites.

Of the five tenets of responsible behavior set forth by Defense Secretary Austin in July 2021 to guide DoD space operations, the fourth—“maintaining safe separation and safe trajectory”—is most relevant to the zone concept. Moreover, as all five tenets have been formally adopted in DoD’s updated space policy effective August 30, 2022, the fourth tenet is one step closer to becoming an operational rule. Unfortunately, this tenet has remained largely undefined, and little in the current dialogue focuses on zone specification. As for bodyguard spacecraft, DoD has yet to mention it.

Since China’s successful direct-ascent antisatellite test in 2007, we have come to realize that all our legacy architectures, consisting of a small number of expensive and undefended satellites, are vulnerable.

As described above, the maximum number of MW satellites in this decade would be 31. In a scenario of China taking Taiwan by force, 200 Chinese R-spacecraft could, on the eve of an invasion, threaten or attack all 31 MW satellites and all 36 or so GPS or its follow-on satellites and still have plenty left over to threaten other critical satellites at GEO and HEO such as Advance Extremely High Frequency satellites for communications in nuclear-disrupted and conventional environments, other communications satellites, imagery satellites and meteorology satellites.

The loss of many of these target satellites would severely handicap US space support capabilities during military engagement, thus leading to a protracted and/or bloody war. Presented with this scenario, a US president could decide not to intervene. In turn, its allies and partners could follow suit, and even Taiwan could surrender. The consequences of US passivity would be disastrous for both Washington and its allies in East Asia, and potentially for the credibility of US defense commitments around the globe. As for China, after decades of failing to take Taiwan at the negotiation table, providing itself a second-best option to take Taiwan without having to fire a shot might well be a key motivation for China to develop and deploy a fleet of ASAT R-spacecraft under the cover of their justifiable peaceful development and uses. We must supplement proliferation with other practical measures such as zones and bodyguards in space, concepts that are ubiquitously applied with success on land, at sea, and in the air.

Since China’s successful direct-ascent antisatellite test in 2007, we have come to realize that all our legacy architectures, consisting of a small number of expensive and undefended satellites, are vulnerable. It is natural that during a transition to a new architecture, vulnerability will remain as kinks are worked out. Let’s hope that the SWAC and others will continue to follow Gen. Raymond’s guidance “to develop and deliver offensive and defensive options” to protect the transition to the all-important proliferated missile-warning & missile-tracking architecture. Moreover, this first new architecture will set a groundbreaking model for the transition of other vulnerable satellite systems. Such an accomplishment will aptly show our appreciation to his 38 years of service, especially those as the first chief of space operations.

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