US Officials Debate Rules for an Orbiting Conflict End-shutdown

Ukraine’s use of commercial satellites to help repel the Russian invasion has reinforced the US Space Force’s interest in exploiting the capabilities of the private sector to develop new technologies to wage war in space.

But the potential reliance on private companies and the revolution in technology that has made satellites smaller and more powerful is forcing the Defense Department to grapple with tough questions about what to do if those privately owned satellites come under attack by an adversary. .

Sign up for The Post Most newsletter for the biggest and most interesting stories from The Washington Post.

White House and Pentagon officials have been trying to determine what the policy should be since a senior Russian official said in October that Russia could target the growing fleet of commercial satellites if they are used to help Ukraine.

Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy head of the non-proliferation and weapons department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, called the growth of privately operated satellites “an extremely dangerous trend that goes beyond the harmless use of outer space technologies and has made evident during the recent events in Ukraine”. “

He warned that “quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation.”

In response, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated earlier comments by her Pentagon counterpart that “any attack on US infrastructure, choose.”

But what that response will be is unknown, as officials from various agencies try to establish a policy framework for how to react if a commercial enterprise is attacked.

In a recent interview, Gen. David Thompson, the Space Force’s deputy chief of operations, said that while expanding partnership with the commercial space industry is one of his top priorities, it has also raised a number of unanswered questions.

“The Ukraine conflict has brought it to the fore,” he said. “First, commercial companies are thinking very clearly and carefully about whether we can participate? Should we participate? What are the implications of participating?… And for our part, it’s exactly the same. Should we rely on commercial companies? Where can we depend on commercial services?

The Pentagon has long relied on the private sector, he said. But the proliferation of small satellites has created a more resilient system that has provided real-time images of Ukraine’s battlefield from space, allowing nations to track troop movements, assess damage and share intelligence. Communication systems such as SpaceX’s Starlink constellation have kept the internet running at a time when Ukraine’s infrastructure has been decimated.

The discussions come as the Pentagon is investing in more systems that were originally developed for civilian use but have military applications as well. In the National Defense Strategy released late last year, the Pentagon promised to “increase collaboration with the private sector in priority areas, especially with the commercial space industry, leveraging their technological advances and entrepreneurship to enable new capabilities.”

Several companies are developing small rockets that would be launched at low cost and with little notice. Meanwhile, SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket at a record pace, firing it 61 times last year. The company is on track to make even more launches this year.

“We think in a few years we’ll be in the 200, 300, 400 range,” Space Force Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy Jr. said during a conference this month, referring to total space launches. “There is a massive increase in commercial release.”

He said the Space Force would like to get to the point where “we’re launching constantly, and there’s a schedule. There’s a launch in two hours, and there’s a launch in 20 hours. Is your satellite not ready? Okay, get on the the next.”

For its next round of homeland security launch contracts, the Space Force has proposed an approach designed specifically to help small launch companies compete.

One track of contracts will be reserved for the most capable rockets, those capable of lifting heavy payloads into every orbit the Pentagon wants to place on a satellite. Stalwarts like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, the Lockheed Martin and Boeing joint venture, would likely compete for them. Blue Origin, the company owned by Jeff Bezos, could also offer its New Glenn rocket, though it hasn’t flown yet. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

But the Space Force has proposed offering a second avenue for smaller rockets, allowing start-ups to enter one of the most reputable and lucrative space markets that could be worth billions of dollars over several years. Those companies include Rocket Lab, which recently christened its launch site on the east coast of Virginia, adding to its New Zealand facility, and Relativity, which is scheduled to launch the world’s first 3D-printed rocket on Wednesday.

There are also a host of space companies promising to build rockets that have never flown. “The challenge is not to set the bar too low,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, said in an interview. “We don’t think it’s useful to have paper rockets competing with real rockets… There has to be a level of due diligence. There has to be a level of sanity.”

The new approach has “balanced very well that tension between making sure we have what we need for homeland security access to space and, to the best of our ability, helping to foster and take advantage of growth in the commercial market,” Thompson said.

The Space Force is also looking to the private sector for what’s known as in-orbit servicing, spacecraft refueling and damaged spacecraft repair. At some point, Purdy said, he saw a future in which there are propellant depots in space, tugboats that can move damaged satellites, junkyards, and in-space manufacturing on commercial space stations.

In other words, ensuring that space has the same infrastructure and combat logistics that exist on the ground.

“In the other domains, we don’t build a ship or a tank or a plane and power it up and then say, ‘Okay, you’re going to operate this for the next 15 or 20 years, and you need to plan all your operations based on the fact that that will never restock them again,’” Purdy said. “It’s hard to understand, but that’s how we operate in space.”

So removing orbital debris is creating freedom of movement in space, he said, the orbital equivalent of saying “we need a mine detection and clearance capability.”

Last year, the Space Force launched a program called Orbital Prime that would give companies seed money to develop the technology needed to clean up space. In the first round of the program, companies can win prizes of $250,000, with up to $1.5 million in a second round of funding. The program will culminate in an in-orbit test demonstration.

“New technologies are opening up the market,” Thompson said. “And that’s fueled a cultural change. We’re trying to adapt to it, but it comes with challenges like any change would.”

One of those challenges is the new rules of the road: how best to use commercial technology in warfare, and how to respond when it is targeted. For now, there are more questions than answers.

“I will absolutely tell you that with the National Space Council, with the National Security Council, with the Secretary of Defense’s office and certainly within the Air Force and Space Force departments, we have an intense discussion right now,” Thompson said. . “You have to think a lot, develop and work on policies.”

Related content

In the race to arm Ukraine, the US faces cracks in its manufacturing power

Talking to the children who left Russia about the war in Ukraine

As drug deaths rise, experts urge expanded access to methadone

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *