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Rob Rubin Group

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Martta Jerabek
Martta Jerabek

The Space Attack

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The Space Attack

U.S. Space Force's General David Thompson, the service's second in command, said last week that Russia and China are launching "reversible attacks," such as electronic warfare jamming, temporarily blinding optics with lasers, and cyber attacks, on U.S. satellites "every single day." He also disclosed that a small Russian satellite used to conduct an on-orbit anti-satellite weapon test back in 2019 had first gotten so close to an American one that there were concerns an actual attack was imminent.

Thompson, who is Vice Chief of Space Operations, disclosed these details to The Washington Post's Josh Rogin in an interview on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum, which ran from Nov. 19 to 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Canada. The forum opened just four days after a Russian anti-satellite weapon test involving a ground-launched interceptor, which destroyed a defunct Soviet-era electronic intelligence satellite and created a cloud of debris that presents a risk to the International Space Station (ISS). That test drew widespread condemnation, including from the U.S. government, and prompted renewed discussion about potential future conflicts in space.

Thompson's assertion that these kinds of attacks are occurring with extreme frequency is new. It underscores the rapid development and fielding by Russia and China, among others, of a wide variety of anti-satellite capabilities, something the U.S. military has called increasing attention to in recent years.

The systems that Russia and China are known to be developing or have already fielded include destructive and non-destructive types that are deployed from Earth, such as ground-based jammers, lasers, or interceptors, as well as small "killer satellites" positioned in orbit. A killer satellite able to maneuver close to its target could use various means to try to disable, damage, or even destroy it, such as jammers, directed energy weapons, robotic arms, chemical sprays, and small projectiles. It could even deliberately smash into the other satellite in a kinetic attack.

Beyond the clearly very serious implications of the 2019 incident itself, the Vice Chief of Space Operations' comments underscore the challenges the U.S. military and the rest of the U.S. government face in deterring hostile actors or actually responding to acts of aggression in space. In recent years, American officials have increasingly pointed to the policy and other problems caused by the extreme secrecy that surrounds U.S. military activities, as well as those conducted by the U.S. Intelligence Community, outside the Earth's atmosphere.

In another prime example of the secrecy issue, when asked, Thompson could not confirm or deny whether any American satellites had actually been damaged in a Russian or Chinese attack. Beyond that, he told Rogin that even if such a thing had occurred, that very fact would be classified.

You would have to be careful about what we declassify, but there is much more classified than what needs to be," Barbara Barrett, who became Secretary of the Air Force in October 2019 after Wilson stepped down, said later that year. The lack of an understanding really does hurt us in doing things that we need to do in space."

Even reversible attacks against any of this space-based infrastructure could have major impacts on the U.S. military's ability to effectively conduct combat operations. The U.S. military has been very open about its efforts to develop and field new and improved space-based capabilities, as well as explore new concepts, such as distributed constellations of smaller satellites and ways to rapidly deploy new systems into orbit, to help reduce vulnerabilities to anti-satellite attacks, in general.

Details about the U.S. military's own so-called "counter-space" capabilities, on the other hand, are extremely limited, as its ability to conduct what it has termed "orbital warfare." To date, the only publicly acknowledged offensive counter-s


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