Space Superiority: Space Warfare Planners’ Dream OR a Disney Fantasy World?

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Space Superiority: Space Warfare Planners’ Dream OR a Disney Fantasy World?

by Paul Szymanski

Washington DC (SPX) Jul 08, 2022

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There has been a lot of talk lately about the Space Force’s role in military space and what constitutes “Space Superiority”, “Space Supremacy”, or “Space Control”. Actually, these concepts have been around for many decades. See some past definitions of these terms in Appendix A below. I will now attempt to clarify some of the issues surrounding a nation’s attempt to dominate militarily in space:

Vastness of Space

Most of the discussion on Space Superiority foundationally borrows from earlier concepts of Sea (Maritime) Superiority and Air Superiority. In both classical cases, in reality, it’s impossible to control all maritime regions of the Earth, or all world-wide airways. The earth’s oceans contain 329 million cubic miles of water, both on and below the surface. The volume of space between the Earth and the Moon is 4.81097E+16 cubic miles. That means that in order to achieve Space Supremacy, a nation has to “control” 146,230,091 times the volume of the Earth’s oceans. Sounds like an impossible task, at least for this century.

Consider a thought-experiment to illustrate the vastness issue: imagine telling someone to take a basketball and hide it somewhere on Earth and then challenge anyone to find it. Modern satellites can now be the size of a basketball, while space offers a potential ‘hiding-space’ millions of times the size of the Earth. Radars cannot reliably scan such great volumes and the primary manner in which space objects are detected is through optical telescopes, which can be defeated by low observables techniques (Appendix B).

As an aside, I will present a contrarian argument, at least for sea and air supremacy: With the near future (or possibly already existing – I worked this problem in the 1980’s and it was quite technically feasible 40 years ago) space-to-Earth weapons delivered from the world-wide access that space provides, might enable full world-wide sea and air control with an ability to target ships and airplanes from space.

Obscurity of Space

Most people think that because there are no geographic features in space, that satellites cannot hide from Earth or space based sensor networks. In actuality, satellites are “lost” all the time. Just look at the satellite catalog published by the 18th Space Defense Squadron. Close to half of all space objects are classified as “Analyst Objects”, which means they don’t know what they are and who owns them. In addition, there are many means of hiding satellites in space. Appendix B lists many of these techniques that I personally came up with.

An additional problem is fully identifying the targets for your space weapon systems. Are you really sure you have the right country’s assets in your cross hairs? What are the procedures to validate these satellites in a target-rich environment, such as sun synchronous orbits (see Figure 4 and Figure 5 )? Are you certain that a potential satellite for you to target is really a threat?

Complexity of Space

Space is not only a big place, it is also very complex. See Figure 1 to view just a small sample of space systems of interest to military targeteers. Complexity only makes the concept of achieving “total” space superiority that more difficult. Can you really be sure that you have accounted for all possible adversary attack avenues against you (terrestrial-based, space-based attacks, physical attacks, cyber, lasers, HPM, high radiation, etc.).

Space Lawfare

Space warfare by other means includes treaties limiting outer space weapons. However, due to the vast distances involved and obscurity of the true nature of satellites in orbit, none of these treaties can actually be confidently verified. Even with close approach inspections of the exterior of satellites, there is no way to adequately inspect interiors. If an outside inspection shows a “door” on the side of the spacecraft, can you honestly think a satellite inspector can come close and force open this door to inspect the interior while the targeted satellite is wildly maneuvering away and randomly spinning? See Appendix C for a discussion for a possible satellite defense of close inspectors.

Although it would seem advisable to limit the ability of adversaries to attack a nation’s space assets, a treaty banning all space weapons is simply a fantasy of the well-intentioned. Moreover, the verification of any such treaty would be next to impossible because outer space is way too vast to be able to understand everything that is going on to any reasonable level of confidence.

Firstly, very few countries have space surveillance sensors that can form even a small picture of what satellites are up there and what their capabilities are and, secondly, to verify a space treaty the United Nations would have to possess an extensive world-wide network of sensors, which would be very expensive to build and maintain, and would ultimately be imperfect anyway.

An additional space treaty problem is how to define an anti-satellite (ASAT) system. Any innocent-looking ‘test’ satellite can have true ASAT capabilities hidden inside, such as on-board kinetic projectiles or a low-weight, low-power cyber weapon. Even a simple satellite can maneuver to ramming speed to take out a satellite if it has on-board radar or optical systems to track a target and fine maneuvering jets for impact accuracy.

Even a small laser on a satellite can damage sensitive optical components such as Earth-oriented optical imagery sensors, Earth limb sensors or space-oriented star sensors. The laser does not have to be high-tech if employed at short-range, and even consumer lasers that anyone can own have sufficient power (at 7.5 watts) to damage nearby sensitive satellite components.

Another issue is the hidden ASAT. It would not take much to hide a small ASAT inside one of the massive exhaust cones of 1960s-era space boosters that remain in orbit. These boosters have already completed half of their Hohmann transfer orbits, so a hidden ASAT would not require much additional fuel to attack many different space targets. And it is unlikely that any nation would be willing to maneuver their ‘inspector satellites’ to conduct reconnaissance on these thousands of boosters.

Space “Defense”

Hypervelocity is defined as around 6,700 mph. A satellite at an altitude of 500 miles is travelling at 16,672 miles per hour. A satellite cannot defend against a hypervelocity anti-satellite (ASAT) attack coming from space, especially if the ASAT is in retrograde (backwards) orbit with double the velocity difference. If the targeted satellite attempts to move out of the way when the ASAT is far away, all the ASAT has to do is adjust its angle of attack by a fraction of a degree to compensate for the target moving hundreds of miles away.

The targeted satellite cannot even really shoot back, as any “destruction” of the ASAT will simply result in the individual pieces still coming at you like shotgun pellets. No satellite can possess tens of feet of concrete protection to attempt mitigating the effects of hypervelocity attacks. If an adversary has the will to create debris fields and the means to target you in a kinetic style attack, especially from an unusual orbit, you are essentially toast.

Space Wars Are Rapid

The Satellite Attack Warning (SAW) software tool I developed calculates the amount of time and fuel it takes to maneuver to target satellites. I took 100 random satellites and had them maneuver to match the orbits of another 100 random satellites. 95% of these simulated “attacks” were completed in less than 24 hours, and none of these attack orbits were optimized for transit time or start locations. I

believe a space war will be over within a matter of hours, long before we have even known what hit us, verified what country attacked us and for what intent, and figured out how to defend ourselves. Figure 6 shows a typical orbital display of live satellites. It includes an anti-satellite attack in it. Can anyone see which satellite is attacking which target? An improved situational display that can better illustrate such an attack (invented by the author) is shown in Figure 7 .

Having increased space surveillance assets around the world with allied contributions is always a plus. However, any serious space war will be over within 24-48 hours. Any actual “fighting” can only occur with assets in the immediate area, because the ability to make large maneuvers in space takes a lot of fuel and a lot of time. More than likely, an ally’s space assets will be in places around the Earth that are far removed from the immediate conflict.

Also, Rules of Engagement will be different, due to differing value systems. In Europe, causing human deaths to preserve equipment is not allowed, whereas in the US, it is different. For examples would Europeans allow bombs on a manned Earth station controlling an adversary space weapon?

Space “Supremacy” Summary

So, what really is space superiority or space supremacy? Is it even achievable? Maybe one can achieve it in a specific orbital regime and a specific, limited time period. However, since hypervelocity attacks can come from any other orbit in a rapid manner, your sense of superiority can easily be upset. You may have a false sense of security for a particular geosynchronous orbit, but attacks from Lagrange points are easily achievable. At a Lagrange point, you are essentially at the top of the gravity well, and it does not take much delta-v momentum to tip you over down into the well as you come screaming back to geosynchronous to do great damage.

Remember, a false sense of ultimate security is the first stage to military defeat. Think of World War Two: the allies had 17 times more tanks than the Germans and the allied tanks were better armored with better cannon. The French also had the very expensive Maginot Line. Did these save them from blitzkrieg? Will we suffer a space blitzkrieg in a matter of hours when faced with a determined foe that is adequately armed for space warfare?

I will now argue an alternative viewpoint: Satellites are worthless if they cannot communicate back to Earth to receive controlling instructions or download their data. If a country can cut off most, if not all, communications to a country’s space systems, then maybe they have achieved space supremacy. This denial of space communications would not only have to be effective within the country’s boundaries, but for other satellite control sites around the world that this country may employ, or for friendly satellite tracking ships on the world’s oceans.

Related Links

Space Strategies Center

Military Space News at

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