The new U.S. Space Force is building an arsenal of as many as 48 ground-based weapons over the next seven years designed to temporarily jam Russian or Chinese communications satellite signals in the opening hours of a conflict.
The first system, made by L3Harris Technologies Inc., was declared operational last month after years of development, and the Space Force has taken delivery of 16 of them. The service is also developing a new system, known as Meadowland, that’s lighter-weight, capable of adding updated software and able to jam more frequencies.
Since its formation last year as the sixth branch of the U.S. military, attention has focused on the Space Force’s defensive duty in safeguarding U.S. satellites and on organizational questions about its budget and its relationship with the Air Force. Less has been disclosed about its offensive role, which centers on Meadowland.
“Nothing else we’re doing in Space Force is offensive in nature, where we are actually going after an adversary,” said Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Brogan, a unit head in the combat systems branch of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, which is managing development and procurement.
L3Harris, based in Melbourne, Florida, is already developing four Meadowland systems projected for delivery around October 2022. By this December, the Space Force plans to open a competition for 28 more, with funding starting in fiscal 2021 and systems projected for delivery from late 2023 to early 2027.
As of now, Brogan said in an interview, the jamming systems are designed to interfere with communications satellites and not those for data relay or taking photos.
U.S. defense officials long spoke against turning space into a battlefield, much less fielding weapons that could demolish targets and add more hazardous space debris.
The Space Force said in a statement that “China and Russia have weaponized space with the intent to hold American space capabilities at risk,” and the U.S. has the inherent right of self-defense.
Russia’s test launch on Wednesday of an anti-satellite missile is “further proof of Russia’s hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control proposals designed to restrict the capabilities of the United States while clearly having no intention of halting their counterspace weapons programs,” the Space Force said in a separate statement.
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The new jamming system can be used early in a conflict and won’t create “space junk” because it emits energy designed to cause temporary, “reversible” interference, Brogan said.
The Air Force said in a separate statement that the jamming can prevent an adversary’s “ability to accomplish command and control, early warning and propaganda” across “multiple frequency bands.”
Advocates of preserving space as a weapons-free domain say the new U.S. jamming system risks escalation, even if it’s not designed to destroy satellites.
“There are going to be those — let’s call them ‘U.S. competitors’ — who will find the development of any explicit counterspace system to be inflammatory and provocative, whether it is reversible or not,” saidVictoria Samson, the Washington director of the Secure World Foundation, which publishes an annual overview of military space activities.
“Competitors who have their space assets interfered with at times of crisis don’t know if/when it will stop; it is possible that they will have to assume that it’s irreversible and go from there,” she said. “Are we signaling that we are OK with officially targeting space assets?”
According to the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, China and Russia rank behind the U.S. in the number of orbiting satellites. As of late 2016, Russia had about 40 communications satellites in orbit.
“Over the next several years, Russia will prioritize the modernization of its existing communications, navigation, and earth observation systems, while continuing to rebuild its electronic intelligence and early warning system constellations,” according to the DIA.
China is pursuing parallel programs for military and commercial communications satellites and owns and operates about 30 of those for civil, commercial, and military satellite communications, the DIA said last year. Beijing also operates a small number of dedicated military communications satellites.
The new Meadowland system has two racks of equipment instead of the 14 on the one deployed last month, saving 10,000 square feet of storage space and making the systems more compact and easier to deploy, Brogan said.
Unlike the current model, Meadowland will use more open architecture software for updates that allow for a “additional capability to go after more satellites, using more techniques as they are developed,” Brogan said.
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