The menace the U.S. confronts from space

News that Russia may have the ability to launch nuclear bombs through space made headlines around the globe, but other world events soon stole the attention — much to our detriment, because what we’ve read and have been told is not even half the story.

The remaining part is much scarier. Not only could a trajectory through space accelerate the speed at which a missile could strike us, it limits our ability of detection and threatens the very satellites that make our modern day lives possible.

Cell phones. Internet. Television. Plane travel. And, most importantly, national defense.

In one strike, Russia could render America dark — and stop our ability to prevent a strike that could take Washington, D.C., and most other cities off the map. We’d be unable to respond in kind, because the systems we use to defend our borders would have been obliterated.

This is not a scare tactic or talking point. It’s not campaign rhetoric, because the nightmare is apolitical. Space has no party affiliation, nor borders. The only silver lining is that it brings attention to a gaping hole in our national defense that we have been warning about for years.

“In space, no one can hear you scream” was a catchline for a famous science fiction movie that at the time seemed prescient. Now, everyone can hear the screaming. But are we listening?

It’s time to start, because this is not the first time Russia has tested our readiness — they have a long history of irresponsible and menacing space behavior. From July 2017 to December 2020, a Russian satellite, alternatively known as Luch or Olymp-K, made a series of belligerent orbital maneuvers after reaching its intended position on sixteen different occasions, even squeezing itself directly between two operational Intelsat commercial satellites.

In February 2020, Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, then chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force, publicly acknowledged that a Russian satellite had repositioned its orbit very close to a U.S. national security satellite. He noted that the satellite separated, or split in two, from the other satellite, like a Russian nesting doll, and purposefully maneuvered very close to threaten the American satellite.

Then, in November 2021, a few months before the Ukrainian invasion, Russia launched an anti-satellite missile and destroyed one of its own satellites, polluting the surrounding orbit with debris that will last for decades. These examples, among other similar space events, clearly send a warning shot across the bow of any space-faring nation that might oppose Russia. It is a stark reminder that U.S. space capabilities are in Russian crosshairs.

And others. Our country’s adversaries know our vulnerabilities and have proven to the intent and ability to take down U.S. space systems both in orbit and on the ground. It is no longer a peaceful, uncontested, low-volume domain. According to every U.S. space leader and the stated doctrine of Chinese and Russian leadership, our adversaries remain focused on the strategic advantage to be gained by disabling U.S. space capabilities.

Our rivals clearly recognize the asymmetric advantages enabled by space systems in modern warfare. As our competitors move quickly from developing advanced concepts to delivering full-scale capabilities that can rapidly disable space and ground systems, U.S. space leaders have sounded the alarm and called for funding to modernize and augment the Satellite Control Network (SCN) for almost a decade.

The satellite network that controls and provides critical operations and support to United States military and intelligence forces is at serious risk. Daily cyberattacks on this network by state and nonstate actors indicate that adversaries are actively seeking to deny, disrupt, degrade or destroy its capability. Russia’s move to develop and deploy nuclear weapons in-orbit near U.S. satellites that are controlled by a brittle network emphatically underscores the clear and present danger of ignoring adversarial intentions to affect our national space capabilities.

The infrastructure we have come to rely on is a system of 19 globally dispersed ground antennas that communicates with and controls U.S. military and intelligence satellites, along with civil satellites and spacecraft. It is a system that has been around for over six decades to provide critical operations and support to Department of Defense, NASA and National Reconnaissance Office satellite functions, including launch. As the major backbone that controls most of our space assets, the SCN operates as a national critical infrastructure that enables mission success across both national security and civil space. Built in the 1950s, its purpose was to support low-volume operations in an uncontested space operations era.

Beyond the adversarial threat posed, within the next three years, the SCN must be ready to support operations for twice the currently supported 200 satellites. Today, the SCN is already taxed at well over the 70 percent industry-standard utilization rate. This leaves precious little time and opportunity to maintain the system or to respond to urgent user needs. Therefore, as more dynamic, highly responsive space operations are envisioned, the SCN must become more resilient, decentralized and redundant.

To successfully spark the needed revolutionary change, the SCN will require national commitment at all levels of government. Any new system must preserve existing and near-term planned capability improvements, while leaving an effective standalone system that can be modularly upgradable to meet existing and planned mission requirements.

This new system must take full advantage of commercial and civil networks to drive improved capability and resiliency through integration of additional modern communication systems. Lastly, any new plan must minimize management complexity to plan, develop, deploy, operate, maintain and sustain the SCN with a simplified contract construct.

We are out of time to talk about the need to improve the Satellite Control Network. The threats posed today by our adversaries demand new thinking and bold action. Space is screaming. It’s time to hear what it’s telling us.

Gen. (Ret.) John E. Hyten, USAF, is the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Roger Teague, USAF, served in executive leadership positions in both the Air Force and defense industry. Gen. Hyten now serves as a senior principal advisor to Elara Nova: The Space Consultancy, where Maj. Gen. Teague is a founding partner.

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