Archive for the ‘Weaponization of space’ Category

China’s growing space power

Friday, November 20th, 2009

Ah, the contrast between the U.S. and Chinese space programs. The Space Shuttle is due to be retired next year, even as budget pressures intensify for its Constellation/Ares successor.  Meanwhile, China continues to forge ahead with plans for a lunar rover by 2012, a manned space station by 2020, and a taikonaut on the Moon shortly after that.  It’s tempting to read this as a tale of two empires—one rising and the other in decline.  But I’ve got a funny feeling that should the Chinese actually get hardware onto the lunar surface, the U.S. space program might receive the kick in the ass that’s been so long overdue. After all, the only reason we got to the Moon in the first place was because Sputnik scared us shitless.  It’s a little sad that when you get down to it, the best reason for getting into space we’ve ever managed to find is that the other guy is doing it. . . . but the coming space race is likely to be a lot more intense than the one that occurred during the Cold War, because this time each side has the capability to field maturing space weaponry. China’s antisat test from two years back still reverberates, while the U.S. directed energy weaponry program continues to make strides.

But the next few years are likely to be all China’s, and the contrast between the two publics couldn’t be more stark.  Space launches over there are big news, whereas here they’re pretty much a non-event, unless something blows up or astronauts die.  And China has the added advantage of not having to worry about civilian vs. military coordination—the Chinese space program integrates the two (an advantage of dictatorships).  Ironically, right now the U.S. is in a similar position to pre-modern Ming China back in the 14th century, when they scrapped their vast exploration fleets to focus on internal considerations.  Indeed, there’s (disputed) evidence that China reached America first . . . just as centuries from now, it might seem like a curiosity of history that Americans walked on the Moon decades before China set up shop there permanently.

Forecasting disruptive technologies/slides of yesterday’s NRC presentation

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

“Predicting anything’s hard, especially when it involves the future.” —Yogi Berra

Vernor Vinge and I tag-teamed “science fiction hour” at the National Research Council in D.C. yesterday; he was calling in from his home in California while I foolishly biked ten blocks through the humidity over to the National Academies of Science. Under the chairmanship of Gilman Louie, the NRC is doing some really interesting stuff, drawing on more than just the usual Inside the Beltway perspectives in taking stock of what’s to come. My contribution can be found here:  a series of slides that start by outlining the current realities of 4G warfare, and then sketch out a vision of what future 5G space/net-centric warfare might look like.

And for another vision of what such warfare might look like, check out BURNING SKIES!

Fire in the sky

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

Boeing has fired its airborne laser in the first comprehensive end-to-end test of the world’s most pimped-up 747. Next year’s follow-up test will feature an attempt to shoot down a real missile; after that, the ABL will be cleared for operational status, assuming Obama doesn’t scrap the whole thing. The new president will have to decide fairly early on how he intends to play the missile defense card; particularly now that he’s picked Gates, he’ll be under enormous pressure from the Pentagon to keep (if not accelerate) BMD.

The logical culmination of all this, of course, is weaponry in space. It’s doubtful that’ll occur or reach maturity on Obama’s watch, but space-based lasers capable of hitting missiles in their booster phase would constitute the crown jewel of any missile defense architecture that’s worth the name.  But the public is skittish about weapons sailing over their heads several times a day, so for now all the focus has been on surface- and air-based hardware. The advocates of the current generation of missile defense learned their lesson well from SDI:  don’t propose everything at once, and don’t talk about space until you have to.  That’s why they’ve made far more progress than SDI ever did. The fact that the technology has come a long way doesn’t hurt either.

The U.S. space program . . . (yawn)

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

A front-page article in the Washington Post yesterday asserted that U.S. dominance in space is slipping, with lots of examples to prove the point: the recently launched Japanese lunar orbiter, the upcoming Chinese space walk, Israel’s nanosatellites, etc. But the article, which draws from a study undertaken by Bethesda, MD consultants Futron, is a somewhat awkward pastiche of two separate trends. On the one hand, it’s to be expected that the lead of the U.S. would decline in relative terms, as more and more nations get in on the act. It’s a little like the initial wave of industrialization: first Britain built its factories, but other nations were quick to follow suit, a development that Britain could do little about.  Indeed, more nations getting into space in a robust way is a good thing, and should be welcomed as such.

But, on the other hand . . .  the U.S. space program really is floundering, in absolute terms. Yes, the nation remains ahead of the competition, as can be seen in Futron’s space competitive index, published in The Economist. But the Shuttle gets retired in 2010, and then we’ve got a five year gap during which no American spaceship will be able to reach the International Space Station. Paying the Russians to take us there will be our only option, until the Constellation comes online five years later.

Or never.  Which is an increasing risk at this point.  We’re obviously heading into an era of ever-tighter budgets, and NASA’s programs tend to be one of the first things to get cut.  All the more so given that the U.S. public could give two shits about what happens after the Shuttle.  Or, for that matter, the Shuttle itself.  Hell, the only way it can make the news anymore is as flaming wreckage.

Which is what makes the post-Shuttle plans such a total pull-your-hair-out-while-you-bash-your-head-into-a-wall missed opportunity.  NASA had a big chance to get people’s attention again, and all they could come up with is something that looks to the average American suspiciously like a repeat of Apollo (only more expensive, with both earth AND lunar orbit rendezvous).  They’d have been far better advised to head to Mars, or start mining asteroids . . . or anything besides something that everybody in this country knows Tom Hanks has already done.  As Bob Mahoney argued so cogently in The Space Review earlier in the year, when it comes to PR, NASA really blew it.  Again.

But not everybody has lost the plot.  While NASA lurches toward the budget axe, the Pentagon keeps on trucking.  Because one of the areas where the U.S. still remains unchallenged in space is with regards to military hardware:  we’ve got as many satellites in orbit as all other nations combined.  Without those sats, the ultra-precise weaponry of the U.S. war machine would be reduced to near-uselessness.  And if anyone ever gets into a position to challenge those sats .  . .

And that, as I’ve argued before (and as the Post article implicitly underscores), is likely to be the dynamic that ultimately shifts this whole equation.  Ultimately, the only REAL reason America ever came up with for getting into space in a serious way is because the other guy was doing it.  Sputnik got us off our butts in the 1950s/60s, and I suspect that something similar is going to happen again.  Put it this way:  the Moon will be a LOT more interesting to the American public when the Chinese start walking around on it.  Which won’t happen for a while yet.  But there’s an awful lot that they and others can get up to in the meantime.

Space-Centric Warfare, Part Five: Underwater Combat

Friday, July 4th, 2008

(To start reading from the beginning of this essay, click HERE. And by the way, Happy 4th.)

Though the Eurasians possessed no equivalent to the Raft, their own navies didn’t lack for funding. This was in large part due to the fact that the most interesting thing about the ocean was, as ever, what was lurking beneath the surface. In fact, the seas were essentially the only place where mobile weapons/vehicles could be hidden from satellite surveillance. Such surveillance was far better than in the 20th century—when it had essentially been nonexistent—but it still remained far from perfect against a deep-running, stealthy submarine.

All the more so against a submarine capable of suddenly attaining “warp speed”: because, ultimately, the one factor above all else that guaranteed that naval items would be a priority item in the defense budgets was that the speed of 22nd century undersea warfare promised to render that of the previous century slow-motion—literally. Tapping the possibilities inherent in supercavitation technologies allowed the development of vessels that could reduce hydrodynamic drag by traveling inside superheated, self-generated bubbles of water vapor and gas—and that could thereby move at hundreds of kilometers per hour, irrevocably altering the pace at which undersea warfare would be conducted.

A critical byproduct of supercavitation was that it intensified the urgency of anti-submarine strategies, particularly in the vulnerable areas near the coast. Just as with geosynchronous orbit, technological/strategic realities drove a mutual understanding regarding the positioning of munitions here as well:  by the 2080s, the two powers had tacitly agreed to recognize the extension of territorial waters to four hundred kilometers out. Most admirals believed that even this was not enough, given the speed of hypersonic missiles and the reality of directed energy.  Accordingly, those four hundred kilometers were awash with underwater sensors, sea-bottom stations, mines, and anti-submarine submarines.  Destroyers cruised the surface and prowled around ocean-going platforms of varying size, while swarms of jet-copters patrolled the skies.

To be sure, littoral waters were an area where the U.S. (despite the positioning of the Rafts as forward attack platforms) had much more to lose than did the Eurasians, since so many of the large American launch pads were situated in relatively close proximity to the coasts.  The United States therefore poured tens of billions of dollars into its Atlantic and Pacific Walls, which extended as far south as the northern parts of South America.  Nor did Navy (and, eventually, NavCom) officers ever tire of arguing that these defense lines should be extended all the way to the Horn (a strategy that would mean absorbing the few neutral territories situated down there).  It could also be assumed (though no one ever admitted it) that both sides had positioned strongpoints at various places in the deep trenches across the world’s oceans, as these avenues represented logical points of concealment for approaching attack submarines.

In this regard, the most studied and speculated-upon undersea theater was that of the Arctic Ocean, across which the two superpowers directly faced each other at a relatively short distance.  The ice-packs may have been dwindling, but they were still much in evidence—and they would make it even more difficult for space-based and aerial recon platforms to intervene in the ever-shifting game played out by hunter and hunted in the most frigid of all waters.

Space-Centric Warfare, Part Four: Naval Combat

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

(For Part One of this essay, click HERE.)

All of the attention upon space left the leaders of the non-space services scrambling to assert the significance of their own theaters (though they hedged their bets by building up their own space-based presences). They experienced mixed success in this regard. Perhaps the fiercest such debate centered on the role that the sea would play. Unsurprisingly, the navies of both sides argued that Neptune’s arena would be a crucial one, and they mounted a wide range of arguments to support their claim.

The experience of the U.S. Navy in developing and making its case is particularly instructive. Its officers contended that since all the nations across the three Eastern continents were either neutral or Eurasian vassals, attacks launched from the oceans were the most immediate route, save from space itself, to deploy U.S. munitions without warning into the East’s defenses.  Indeed, at the core of the Navy’s calculations was an attempt to replicate a key component of its strategy during the First Cold War:  namely, encircling Russia and China with a series of bases capable of projecting force into their homelands.

The question, though, was the nature of that force.  The dominant naval platform of the 20th century, the aircraft carrier, had become obsolete long before the full resurgence of the Eurasian powers.  Carriers were simply too vulnerable to waves of torpedoes and ever-faster cruise missiles.  An increasing proportion of the force in any one carrier group had to be dedicated solely to protecting the carrier—yet such precautions failed (in spectacular fashion) against more than one “rogue state” in the first two decades of the 21st century.

The solution to all this was as radical as it was expensive:  since a maneuvering boat was essentially motionless relative to onrushing hypersonic missiles, why bother trying to build any evasive capability into a capital ship at all?  Why not make it motionless?  Thus was conceived the Raft (also called the Floating Fortress, in homage to Orwell): several kilometers along each side, racked with weaponry, and boasting full-length runways, as well as space launch facilities. content_military_04floating.jpg In the eyes of their designers, two factors made the Rafts a survivable proposition:  first, most of their weapons could be utilized for defensive purposes against oncoming missiles (e.g., the craft possessed a myriad smaller lasers that could be trained directly upon such incoming targets) and, second, a Raft was so large that even a direct hit was unlikely to be fatal.  When possible, Rafts were placed on or near the equator to maximize their space-launch potential.

It can safely be asserted that the construction of such behemoths laid to rest any notions that the U.S. navy was run by hidebound reactionaries wedded to the capital ships of a previous generation—but how they would perform were they to be put to the test remained to be seen.


Space-Centric Warfare, Part Three: The Moon and the Libration Points

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Further out in space, the Americans held a considerable advantage: until the Zurich Treaty, they enjoyed a monopoly on the Earth’s only natural satellite. They also controlled L2 (the libration point behind the Moon), L1 (situated just in front of the Moon), as well as L5, at sixty degrees angle to the Moon. The Eurasians, by contrast, only controlled a single libration point, that of L4 (by virtue of the Russians having placed a “research station” there shortly after Olenkov came to power), and—in the wake of Zurich—a quarter of the Moon (though by 2110, the extent to which they had consolidated their foothold here was open to question).

Yet the actual significance of such dispositions was open to debate. Certainly the Americans had aggressively deployed resources to the Moon. Furthermore, in the years preceding Zurich, the hindmost libration point figured increasingly in their plans as the site of a reserve fleet that could cover their Lunar assets. But some prominent figures in the U.S. military (none of them in SpaceCom, it should be noted) argued that the Moon was a dangerous diversion. They pointed out that, since it took even the fastest spacecraft two days to cross from the Earth into the Moon’s orbit, any attention devoted to Earth Beyond was by definition a waste of resources. Even the utility of the Moon as a directed-energy weapons platform seemed problematic to such strategists: why put them there when you could simply deploy them closer to Earth?

This private stance aligned with the Eurasians’ public one. For, denied most of the key points in the Cislunar regions, Russia and China instead concentrated their efforts on areas closer to home—or so they claimed. While the ongoing war of words between the two superpowers lies beyond the scope of this inquiry, it is worth noting that the Eurasian rhetoric made much of the American near-monopoly on the Moon and nearby points. Even after Zurich, the press in Moscow and Beijing accused the United States of seeking to conquer the Solar System, or—with perhaps less hyperbole—of harnessing the resources of the Moon in order to dominate the Earth.

Yet, such rhetoric aside, there was much evidence to believe that, in reality, the Eurasian military viewed Cislunar space as crucial. And not just because of the resource issue. Helium-3 and off-Earth minerals were important, yes—but the really critical thing about Cislunar space was that it represented the high ground in the invisible topography of the Earth-Moon system. The amount of energy required to get material to the Cislunar was far greater than the amount of energy required to get material to Earth from the Cislunar. And the policy of Olenkov in this regard—to build up L4 as one of the greatest fortresses of all time—was thus matched by his successors: even post-Zurich, they studded their own slice of the Moon with bases. Yet what kind of combat might transpire on the Lunar surface—or among the libration points—remained unclear.


A Theory of Space-Centric Warfare: Part Two (Earth Orbits)

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

(For Part One of this essay, click here.)

Of all orbits, the geostationary are the most valuable, with the rest of the geosynchronous orbits running a close second. Across the 21st century, they had thus become quite crowded. For obvious reasons, they were particularly ideal for surveillance; accordingly, each superpower placed numerous satellites above the homeland of the other. Satellites deployed into “the geo” had other uses as well; they could serve as weapons-platforms against those in other orbits, and played an important role in communications networks.

Yet geo orbits presented planners with a complication that gradually became evident as the number of vehicles overhead increased in tandem with rising international tension set in motion by the Second Cold War. For such satellites were especially vulnerable to the ever-present possibility that an apparently harmless communications satellite would be utilized as a space-mine. A single nuclear blast could thus damage or disrupt adjacent enemy assets, provided the aggressive power was willing to trade off the loss of his own in the vicinity. (And, while less dramatic than nukes, a point-blank strike with space-to-space missiles or a KE kill vehicle was also an option.)

Nor was this problem limited to one of deception, since it was inevitable that both powers would place overt weapons above each other’s homelands. While this could be accepted as inevitable in the continually shifting satellite configurations that characterized the lower orbits, it was quite clear that a plethora of Eurasian and U.S. weapons permanently parked adjacent to each other in the most strategic orbit of all was inherently destabilizing. The most serious pre-Zurich incident between the superpowers—that of the Mauritian stand-off—thus paradoxically resulted in decreased tensions, once each side had moved to neutralize all potentially hostile geosynchronous/geostationary satellites above its own territory. But, with the polarization of geosynchronous “territory”, the ability of each side to defend its geosynchronous position in depth—and the premium placed on a side’s ability to penetrate the other’s—became critically important.

At the time of Marshal Olenkov’s death, the poster-child of this development was the PanAsian command-satellite Roaming Tundra. A colossus hardened against both EMP blast and directed energy weapons, itself bristling with firepower, this craft was believed by U.S. intelligence to house key space-based Eurasian battle management computers, as well as a cadre of Russian and Chinese commanders. A whole grid of defense networks surrounded it, including directed-energy platforms, hunter-killer satellites and minefields of tiny micro-satellites. The U.S. geo featured a similar arrangement, centered upon three smaller stations.

But when it came to the lower orbits, matters were far more ambiguous. Planners experienced considerable difficulty formulating a set of general principles that might address how combat was likely to unfold across these regions. And with good reason. A myriad different orbital levels and inclinations (including those that led across the poles) meant that thousands of satellites were continually changing position relative to each other. Of course, the position of any one satellite was entirely predictable—unless one of them fired motors to change its orbit.

Such motors were rarely ignited, however. Not only were the precise maneuvering capabilities of any given battle-sat a closely guarded secret but, also, a maneuver for any purpose other than the correction of orbital decay tended to make everyone nervous. And (needless to say) everyone was nervous enough already, for sweeping above their heads was a dizzying array of military hardware: full-scale SkyMechs, smaller directed energy platforms, mirror satellites to reflect both space-based and ground-based lasers toward their target, kinetic energy kill vehicles, manned space-stations of every size and description, and devices that added to the general tension by virtue of their purpose being not entirely clear. It seemed likely that conflict here would be as chaotic as the disposition of forces; studying the issue, generals exhaled deeply and braced themselves for the mother of all free-for-alls.


A Theory of Space-Centric Warfare: Part One

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

The revolution in military strategy that the arming of the heavens heralded extended to every arena of warfare. By the 2020s, it was already accepted as axiomatic that whoever controlled space would control the world. But the thousandfold nuances and corollaries to this basic postulate took some time to work out—and left a myriad questions in their wake.

Certainly, it was recognized fairly early on that the ability to project power from space onto the ground rendered the heartlands of the major powers more vulnerable to swift attack than ever before. While in the 20th century satellites stood by to give notice of ballistic missile launch, and fighter-jets patrolled those areas through which bombers would have to pass, now space-based munitions would be able to rain destruction down on any point with little or no warning. All the more so as many of those weapons would be traveling at the speed-of-light, since directed energy weapons attained maturity well before the middle of the twenty-first century.

Consequently, as the Second Cold War intensified, the two superpowers redirected resources toward a defense in depth around the (extensive) geographies under their direct control. In the new paradigm, ground- and aircraft-based lasers and missiles would join forces with their counterparts in space to respond to attacks that hurtled in from beyond the bounds of air—and to grapple directly with the sources of those attacks. One secondary outcome of this stance was that it rendered Europe’s efforts to ensure that it would not be the cauldron of a future conflict tolerable to both superpowers: the margin of advantage that would have been provided through European bases was, ultimately, negligible. Yet it should be noted that most of the neutral powers did not fare as well as the Euro Magnates. Many of them—particularly those that occupied valuable equatorial territory (the ideal point for launch-sites)—found themselves absorbed within the superpowers’ defense grids so that the ever-growing launch architectures could maximize their ground-to-space capacity.

From the perspective of civilians dwelling within the U.S. or the Coalition, however, the most significant implication of the mass deployment of space-based munitions was the end of the era of mutual assured destruction (MAD). For, although it was true that the distance that nuclear-tipped missiles had to travel was now far shorter, the rise of space-based defense systems and speed-of-light weaponry meant that any missile could in theory be stopped. In fact, it was highly likely that any one missile would be stopped. This in turn resulted in the targeting of both nuclear and conventional warheads away from civilian sites and toward military ones; to do otherwise would have been to waste weapons that could have been used on targets with counterforce capabilities.

Furthermore, the actual importance of nuclear weapons diminished with the rise of hyper-precise firepower. There was, after all, little sense in using a politically problematic nuke when a powerful conventional device or a directed energy broadside would do just as well. Yet the sweeping aside of the MAD era left at least some military planners feeling somewhat nostalgic: whereas a city-busting nuclear exchange had always been at once both the standard wargaming conclusion in a clash between the superpowers of bygone days—as well as the central factor that made such a war less likely—now that certainty was gone. Was conflict more probable? If so, to what extent had that probability increased? How might such a confrontation play out? And how might it end? These were questions that persisted even after the Zurich Treaty . . .

(To be cond.)

Nazi transatlantic bombers

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

Adolf Hitler always understood that his primary enemy was the United States. Ultimately, the Nazi plan was to harness the resources of Europe—and in particular those of European Russia—under the aegis of a new superstate, with Germany at its core. England and France would get the hell out of the way, or be roadkill. And then the full industrial might of the Third Reich could be turned against America.

An idea that gets all the scarier when you consider what was on the drawing boards. Inevitably, as the conflict with England and Russia deepened, Germany channeled its bomber production into tactical bombers. But behind the scenes, plans for some true behemoths were underway.

The most favored design among the Nazi planners is shown here. imageju-390.jpgYou’re looking at the Junkers 390, a six-engined monstrosity capable of flying all the way to New York and then returning to Berlin for a round of schnapps. In fact, there are (admittedly unconfirmed) reports that this thing did exactly that in 1944 on a dry run, turning back even as its crew saw the lights of Manhattan emerging over the horizon. No prizes for guessing what kind of bombing run they were training for: by that point in the war, with the Reich collapsing around Hitler’s ears, there was really only one reason to try to hit New York, and that was with an atomic weapon. Fortunately, the German atomic program was way behind by that point, so it all came to naught.

imagehorten.jpgBut the Ju-390 was just the tip of the iceberg. The ultimate goal was to build a strategic bomber that had jets. The strongest contender was a Horten flying wing: it’s NOT the craft shown here, which was an earlier design. The Horten XVIIIB would have had twice the wingspan of the thing you’re looking at now. Had Hitler knocked Russia out of the war, we’d have been facing a whole fleet of these.

And we’d have been up against bona fide SPACECRAFT as well.imagesanger.jpg I’m not even referring to whatever the successors to the V2 rocket would have been. I’m talking about the Sanger spaceplane, which was intended to be put on the back of a rocket sled. Once the sled accelerated to a sufficient speed, the spaceplane would have been launched off the back of it. It would have gone suborbital, bombed New York, and then, instead of turning around, continued on into the Pacific where a German (or Japanese) U-boat would have picked up both crew and vehicle.

None of these planes was ever put to the test in a live bombing run. But all of them became fodder for the Russians and the Americans at the end of the war, as the race to capture German scientists intensified and the allies fell out among themselves and a new competition took shape. One that we should be thankful for. Who would we rather have faced in the late 1940s, an exhausted Soviet Union or a Nazi Germany that was busy consolidating its hold over Europe and turning its eyes over the Atlantic? In a sense, the big might-have-been of World War II is that, had it taken a different direction, it might have led to the first space war.

And speaking of space wars, I’m planning on publishing in its entirety my essay NOTES TOWARD A THEORY OF SPACE-CENTRIC WARFARE, written from the perspective of the year 2110. I’ve already posted the first part HERE, and intend to serialize the rest across the next few days/weeks. So watch this space.