Pentagon Wants Satellites That Can Dodge Incoming Fire

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As China and Russia move to weaponize space, the U.S. military is working to give its constellations a “fighting chance.”

In the event of a shootout in space, the Defense Department is working to create satellite constellations that can dodge missiles or even satellite-based weapons, according to U.S. Air Force officials.

“We have to give our mission systems an opportunity to participate in their own defense, give them a fighting chance,” Michael Dickey, who runs the Enterprise Strategy and Architectures Office at Air Force Space Command, said at a Mitchell Institute event on Capitol Hill on Friday. “We’ve begun to introduce changes.”

Col. Russell Teehan, Portfolio Architect of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, added: “We are doing a lot of work in that area.”

The remarks come a little more than a week after the Defense Intelligence Agency warned that China and Russia are developing space-based lasers and other weapons.

Those nascent threats mean that future U.S. satellites will have to be able to maneuver much faster and more artfully. “It’s not hard to imagine, if someone is shooting at you, you would maybe like to get out the line of fire and so creating some agility with our space systems becomes very important,” said Dickey. “Maneuverability takes fuel and thrusters and all of that. You’ll start to see that in the next round of modernization.”

But there are limits to how well satellites can dodge and weave in space. They fly far above the atmosphere that allows fighter planes to maneuver, and they are too small to carry much rocket fuel. “Our satellites aren’t pulling nine Gs, right?” Dickey said. observed, referring to gravitational force. He described the maneuvering as something of a slow-motion glide, “kinda like a Keanu Reeves thing in 'The Matrix.'”

One key to helping satellites avoid attack is moving them out of what Teehan called “predictable orbits.” These include geosynchronous earth orbits, which keep satellites above a particular spot on the Earth’s surface, and low earth orbits, in which they zoom around the world. Teehan said people are coming up with ways to move satellites from high orbits to low ones to provide a year of intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capability. “Imagine the dynamic architecture you can create if you can create maneuver in the domain?” he said.

Another key is getting better situational awareness data off those satellites and then sharing it with more people, faster.

Said Teehan, “A lot of this is: who else is watching what’s going on? And can I synchronize forces? Because if Johnny goes to the right, and Sally goes to the left, if we work just at the tactical level, you will not synchronize forces. It’s not just on board, it’s synchronizing the sensors and data flows to operate as an enterprise organization.”

Recent attention has focused on more exotic solutions, such as arming satellites to ward off incoming missiles or other enemy weapons. The Defense Department also has a program to put robotic arms on satellites to do repair work. In theory, a satellite could use a robotic arm to defend itself from an enemy space weapon that was getting too close.

At the breakfast, the officials declined to rule out either possibility.

“We have a lot of things we can do,” said Dickey.

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