Satellites are crucial military infrastructure for spying and communications. They are also vulnerable to attack and disruption. In November 2021, three months before it invaded Ukraine, Russia fired a missile into a defunct satellite. Then, in October, a Russian diplomat declared even commercial satellites could be legitimate targets. Satellite systems used by Ukraine have been hacked and jammed. Ground antennae have been attacked.
In light of this sort of thing, America’s military establishment is worried that its satellite network is not up to snuff. But it has a plan. The Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node (Space-BACN, or “Space Bacon”) will, if successful, create a laser-enabled military internet in orbit around Earth by piggybacking on a number of satellites that would have been launched anyway.
Space Bacon is a brainchild of DARPA, the special-projects research arm of the Department of Defense, and is an intriguing orbiting echo of the original, terrestrial ARPNET, which evolved into the internet…The plan is to fit as many newly launched satellites as possibly with laser transceivers that will be able to communicate with counterparts as far away as 5,000km. Satellite owners will pay for these transceivers, but will then receive payments from the American government for their use.
Space Bacon promises many benefits. Unlike radio, the normal mode of communication with and between satellites, transmissions by laser beam are hard to intercept and almost impossible to jam. Indeed, adversaries might not even know when a transmission is taking place, a bonus for operational secrecy.
DARPA wants Space Bacon to cost a maximum of $100,000 a satellite, the better to encourage participation. It bodes well that Amazon, SpaceX and Viasat are all designing command-and-control architectures for Space Bacon.
Excerpts from DARPA, lasers and an internet in orbit, Economist, Feb. 11, 2023
DARPA’s Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node (Space-BACN) would allow seamless communication between various constellations of satellites that currently cannot talk to each other.
“There could be tens of thousands of small satellites launched into Low Earth Orbit over the next decade as the demand around the world for affordable space-based capabilities grows,” said Greg Kuperman, Space-BACN program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office. “The problem with this growth is that optical communications links are currently engineered to only connect satellites within a given constellation – they can’t dynamically adapt waveforms to communicate with satellites in other constellations. This lack of standardization results in a fragmented, stove-piped ‘Wild West’ space domain with new satellite constellations that can’t interoperate, government satellites that can’t communicate between one another, and government satellites unable to take advantage of emerging commercial communications capabilities.”
Space-BACN envisions an adaptable communications terminal that could be reconfigured on-orbit to talk across different standards, presenting a leap in technology from the current state of the art. Space-BACN will involve inter alia a novel cross-constellation command and control approach to automate interactions between government and commercial satellites.
Space-BACN has significant military and civilian uses.
Using messenger RNA to make vaccines was an unproven idea. But if it worked, the technique would revolutionize medicine, not least by providing protection against infectious diseases and biological weapons. So in 2013 America’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gambled. It awarded a small, new firm called Moderna $25m to develop the idea. Eight years, and more than 175m doses later, Moderna’s covid-19 vaccine sits alongside weather satellites, GPS, drones, stealth technology, voice interfaces, the personal computer and the internet on the list of innovations for which DARPA can claim at least partial credit.
It is the agency that shaped the modern world, and this success has spurred imitators. In America there are ARPAS for homeland security, intelligence and energy, as well as the original defense one…Germany has recently established two such agencies: one civilian (the Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation, or SPRIN-d) and another military (the Cybersecurity Innovation Agency). Japan’s interpretation is called Moonshot R&D.
As governments across the rich world begin, after a four-decade lull, to spend more on research and development, the idea of an agency to invent the future (and, in so doing, generate vast industries) is alluring and, the success of DARPA suggests, no mere fantasy. In many countries there is displeasure with the web of bureaucracy that entangles funding systems, and hope that the DARPA model can provide a way of getting around it. But as some have discovered, and others soon will, copying DARPA requires more than just copying the name. It also needs commitment to the principles which made the original agency so successful—principles that are often uncomfortable for politicians.
On paper, the approach is straightforward. Take enormous, reckless gambles on things so beneficial that only a handful need work to make the whole venture a success. As Arun Majumdar, founding director of ARPA-e, America’s energy agency, puts it: “If every project is succeeding, you’re not trying hard enough.” Current (unclassified) DAROA projects include mimicking insects’ nervous systems in order to reduce the computation required for artificial intelligence and working out how to protect soldiers from the enemy’s use of genome-editing technologies.
The result is a mirror image of normal R&D agencies. Whereas most focus on basic research, DARPA builds things. Whereas most use peer review and carefully selected measurements of progress, DARPA strips bureaucracy to the bones (the conversation in 1965 which led the agency to give out $1m for the first cross-country computer network, a forerunner to the internet, took just 15 minutes). All work is contracted out. DARPA has a boss, a small number of office directors and fewer than 100 program managers, hired on fixed short-term contracts, who act in a manner akin to venture capitalists, albeit with the aim of generating specific outcomes rather than private returns.
Excerpt from Inventing the future: A growing number of governments hope to clone America’s DARPA, Economist, June 5, 2021
Kosmos 2542, a Russian satellite that was launched in November 2019, was “like Russian nesting dolls”. Eleven days after its launch it disgorged another satellite, labelled Kosmos 2543. Then, on July 15th, Kosmos 2543 itself spat out another object, which sped off into the void. Merely a “small space vehicle” to inspect other satellites, said the Russians. Nonsense, said the Americans; it was a projectile. The intentl.. was to signal Russia’s ability to destroy other nations’ satellites….In January 2020, America complained that Kosmos 2542 and 2543 had tailed a spy satellite in an “unusual and disturbing” way (American satellites have also sidled up to others in the past).
Anti-satellite weapons are not new. During the cold war, America and the Soviet Union developed several ways to blow up, ram, dazzle and even nuke each other’s satellites. The countries conducted two-dozen anti-satellite tests between them. Ten were “kinetic”, involving a projectile physically striking a target. But new competitors, and new technologies, mean anti-satellite warfare is a hot topic once again. China has conducted ten tests over the past 15 years, including a kinetic one in 2007 that created a great deal of space debris. India conducted its first kinetic test in 2019. America, Russia and China have all manoeuvred their satellites close to others, sometimes provocatively so. New methods of attack are being tested, including lasers and cyber-attacks.
Some satellites, such as America’s GPS constellation, blur the distinction between military and civilian assets. Over the past decade, America’s armed forces have put payloads on three commercial satellites, and plan to pay Japan to host others on its own navigation satellites….Then there is the question of what counts as an attack. Michael Schmitt, a law scholar, and Kieran Tinkler, a professor at the us Naval War College, say it is unclear whether jamming a civilian satellite would violate the general prohibition on attacking civilian objects. Blowing up a military one, meanwhile, might or might not constitute an indiscriminate (and hence illegal) attack, depending on whether it could have been disabled by other means and how much debris was produced.
Perhaps the biggest difference between space war and terrestrial war is how long the consequences can last. Much of the debris from China’s 2007 test, for instance, will still be in space at the turn of the next century. The more debris, the greater the likelihood of accidental collisions with other satellites, which generates more debris in turn. Enough debris could lead to a chain reaction known as Kessler syndrome, which could render entire swathes of near-Earth space unusable for decades…
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 requires states to consult each other on actions that “would cause potentially harmful interference”, though the rule has rarely been heeded. Most countries accept that, in wartime, a body of existing laws known as international humanitarian law would apply, as on Earth—something America confirmed in its “Spacepower” doctrine, published on August 10, 2020. International humanitarian law is based on principles such as distinction (between combatants and civilians) and proportionality (between civilian harm and military advantage). But how to apply such ideas in a place with few humans is not always obvious.
Russia and China would like a formal treaty banning all weapons in space. Both are keen to prevent America from deploying space-based anti-missile systems which might threaten their own nuclear forces. America and its allies resist this. They argue that it is impossible to define a space weapon—anything that manoeuvres in orbit could serve as one—and that it would be easy to cheat. The European Union has instead proposed a voluntary code of conduct. Many non-Western countries would prefer a binding treaty…. Though most are not space powers, many are likely to become so in the future, so their buy-in is important.
Excerpts from Satellite warfare: An arms race is brewing in orbit, Economist, Aug. 15, 2020
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is looking to classify space as a domain for warfare in an attempt to deter China’s growing military power. If NATO’s proposal succeeds, the international alliance could move forward with the development and use of space weapons. According to NATO diplomats, the international organization is preparing to release an agreement that will officially declare space as a war domain. This means that aside from land, air and sea, space could also be used for military operations during times of war.
Although NATO’s partner countries currently own 65% of the satellites in space, China is reportedly preparing to launch a massive project that involves releasing constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit. China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC) is planning to put in orbit 150 or more Hongyun satellites by 2023. Some of these satellites will provide commercial services like high-speed internet while others would be controlled by the Chinese military. These militarized satellites can be used to coordinate ground forces and to track approaching missiles.
“You can have warfare exclusively in space, but whoever controls space also controls what happens on land, on the sea and in the air,” according to Jamie Shea, a former NATO official. “If you don’t control space, you don’t control the other domains either.”
Excerpts from Inigo Monzon , NATO Prepares For Space Warfare By Militarizing Low Earth Orbit, International Business Times, June 24, 2019
The most sophisticated space surveillance telescope ever developed is ready to begin tracking thousands of space objects as small as a softball. It’s a boon to space surveillance and science and a new military capability important to the nation and the globe, an Air Force general says.
Developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) is the most sophisticated instrument of its kind ever developed. It was transferred to the Air Force on Oct. 18, 2016, which has plans to operate it jointly with the Royal Australian Air Force….The Air Force will move the SST to Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station in Western Australia, operating and maintaining the telescope jointly with the Royal Australian Air Force.The SST also will be a dedicated sensor in the U.S. Space Surveillance Network, operated by the Air Force Space Command.
SST has increased space situational awareness from a narrow view of a few large objects at a time to a widescreen view of 10,000 objects as small as softballs, DARPA says. The telescope also can search an area larger than the continental United States in seconds and survey the entire geosynchronous belt in its field of view –– a quarter of the sky –– multiple times in a night.