I’ve been incorporated into every branch of the US military on several occasions – in war zones and on bases – but nothing quite resembles an inside look at the new US space force. The Space Force “Guardians”, as they are called, do their jobs hundreds – if not thousands of kilometers – from the front lines of the conflicts they fight.
And yet every Guardian we spoke to described their fight as just as hostile as any other front today.
“Space is a combat domain,” said Col. Matthew Holston, commander of Space Delta 8. “That’s why we created the United States Space Force as a separate service. every day we train our operators to prevent conflict, but if deterrence fails, to compete and win in space. “
My team and I visited Mission Control at Buckley Space Force Base in Aurora, Colorado, where the Guardians fly the nation’s missile warning satellites. Using infrared sensors, these satellites, orbiting 22,000 miles above Earth, roam the planet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, looking for missile launches and nuclear detonations.
“We never stop, always vigilant and we have never failed,” Lt. Col. Michael Mariner, commander of 2 Space Warning Squadron, told me. “And there’s a reason for that. And that’s because that’s how important this mission is to our nation. We are providing decision-quality data to tactical fighters on the ground to save their lives.”
In January 2020, these satellites went into action – detecting several Iranian missiles targeting the Al-Asad air base in Iraq where US troops were stationed. Before these missiles rained down, within minutes, the Space Force had issued a life-saving warning to American units on the ground.
“It’s lightning fast,” Space Force 4 specialist Sally Stephens, who was on duty that day, told me. “We don’t get reminded very often of where our data is arriving, and that night was a shocking reality. “
Missile warning satellites are just a fraction of the hundreds of US government and commercial satellites monitored and defended by the Space Force Guardians today.
The problem is that space – once considered largely friendly territory – has become a potential war zone.
China is launching “kidnapper” satellites, with grapple arms capable of removing the satellites from their orbit.
Russia is deploying “suicide bombers” capable of striking and destroying US space assets.
And Russia has a new weapon that the Space Force is dubbing the “Nesting Doll”
General John “Jay” Raymond, chief of space operations for the US Space Force, told us about one of the most alarming episodes of a growing arms race in space.
“In 2017, Russia launched a satellite, and you can imagine it kind of like this doll,” he said. “It opened and another satellite came out. And it opened and a projectile came out. This projectile is designed to kill American satellites. So in 2019 they did the same thing, but this time around. they put it next to one of our satellites. It opened, the second doll came out, and we started talking about it. “
“Talking about it” meant, in effect, warning Russia.
As General Raymond told me, “we described what safe and professional behavior [is] — it is important. Today there are no rules in space. It’s the wild Wild West. “
A potential front
Russia and China also have directed energy weapons, which can damage or disable US satellites from a distance. The era of lasers in space has already arrived.
Space Force is now an independent branch of the US military due to this alarming new reality: Space – once relatively peaceful territory – is now seen as a potential front in any modern warfare.
The United States has many more satellites than any other country: some 2,500, compared to 431 for China and 168 for Russia, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
And a whole range of military technologies depend on it: Satellites help warships and planes navigate and communicate … help smart bombs and guided missiles hit their targets … help fighters monitor threats on land, at sea and in the air.
“There is nothing we do as a joint force, be it humanitarian aid, disaster relief or combat that is not made possible by space,” Raymond said.
More than many Americans realize, civilian technologies also depend on space.
The nation’s GPS satellite constellation, flown by the 2nd Space Operations Squadron at Space Force Base Schriever in Colorado Springs, is the backbone of several critical infrastructures.
“The standard American people will probably use space 20 to 30 times between waking up and having breakfast,” said Col. Miguel Cruz, commander of Space Delta 4.
In what way precisely? Holston, the commander of Space Delta 8, explained.
“If you just look at everyday life, the financial industries rely on positioning and timing information for accurate banking transactions and transactions, with financial markets synchronizing all of these operations, our transportation industry for positioning. and timing, air, land, sea, and rail all depend on the Global Positioning System to be able to run our critical infrastructure, ”he said.
Raymond described the importance of space to American life saying, “The United States is a space nation. We have long understood that space constitutes the basis of all our instruments and of our national power.
This dependence on space is one of the reasons Space Force was established as a separate branch of the military in December 2019. This step, in practice, makes “a significant difference,” Raymond said.
“The target is on your back”
“It has allowed us to attract more talent, to develop that talent in a way that we haven’t been able to do in the past,” said Raymond. “It has helped us to strengthen our demands. It makes me a member of the Joint Chiefs. It allows me to integrate space into joint combat constructions. It also puts me on par with the international leaders I deal with. , allowing us to strengthen our partnerships. “
The task of defending the nearly three dozen GPS satellites falls on a remarkably small team: ten Guardians on duty at any given time, almost three times the number of the half-billion-dollar satellites they fly.
Schriever Space Force Base controls multiple constellations of US satellites, each constellation with dozens of satellites, each providing capabilities, such as GPS, secure military communications, and – increasingly – situational awareness in space, that is, surveillance for adversaries and weapons targeting US space assets.
The danger for the United States is that greater dependence on space equates to greater vulnerability.
“Our biggest challenge is to stay on top, isn’t it? Said Mariner, the commanding officer of 2 Space Warning Squadron. “When you’re at the top, when you’re at the top, the target is on your back, everyone’s shooting for you. So they’re developing better technology.”
New satellites are designed with greater maneuverability, armor to block directed energy weapons, and resilience so that the loss of one or a few does not disable the system.
Space Force commanders welcome the entry of the private sector into space, as it creates more and cheaper options for entering orbit. In June of this year, the last GPS satellite was mounted on a SpaceX rocket.
“I would bet on the American industry any day,” Raymond said. “It’s a huge advantage that we have.”
As for the militarization of the United States, Space Force wants to avoid an arms race in space.
“We would prefer the domain to remain conflict-free,” Raymond said. “But as in any other field, air, land, sea and now space, we will be ready to protect and defend.”
Opponents have already attempted to use space weapons to temporarily deactivate US satellites, using lasers and directed energy weapons to blind or “dazzle” them.
Space warfare is not science fiction, but a battle already underway today.
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