War in space is becoming a real threat
Among the memorabilia in Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein’s office is a fragment of the Wright brothers’ first airplane. But the most intriguing items may be two small plastic satellites on sticks that can be maneuvered to simulate a dogfight in space.
Space is now a potential battle zone, Goldfein explains in an interview. The Air Force wants to ensure “space superiority,” which he says means “freedom from attack and freedom to maneuver.”
If you think cyberwar raises some tricky issues, get your mind around this next big threat worrying the Pentagon. Similar problems exist in both the cyber and space domains: U.S. commercial and military interests are interwoven but deeply suspicious of each other; the technologies are borderless but are being weaponized by hostile nation-states; and attacks on satellites and other systems may be invisible and difficult to attribute.
Today’s digital world hangs on the satellite networks that invisibly circle the globe. They’re the wiring system for many commercial and military operations down below, and they’re highly vulnerable to attack. Russia has jammed GPS reception in Ukraine; China has hacked U.S. weather satellites; North Korea has jammed signals over the demilitarized zone.
The cloud overhead is thickening: As of mid-2016, the Union of Concerned Scientists counted 1,419 satellites orbiting the globe, including 576 from the United States, 181 from China and 140 from Russia. More than half are in low Earth orbit; most of the rest are geostationary, about 22,000 miles from Earth. Roughly 350 satellites, or 25 percent of the total, are for military use. At least 12 nations now have space-launch capability.