Tag Archives: Space

The Strategic Support Force: China’s Information Warfare Service

This piece was originally published by the Jamestown Foundation. It is republished here with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By John Costello

Gao Jin (高津) is the PLASSF’s Commander. Note that he was promoted to major general in June 2006 and to lieutenant general occurred in July 2013. (Xinhua)

On December 31, 2015, Xi Jinping introduced the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF; 火箭军), Strategic Support Force (PLASSF; 战略支援部队), and Army Leadership Organ. The move came just within the Central Military Commission’s deadline to complete the bulk of reforms by the end of the year. Most media coverage has focused on the Rocket Force, whose reorganization amounts to a promotion of the PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) to the status of a service on the same level of the PLA Army, Navy, and Air Force. However, by far the most interesting and unexpected development was the creation of the SSF.

According to official sources, the Strategic Support Force will form the core of China’s information warfare force, which is central to China’s “active defense” strategic concept. This is an evolution, not a departure from, China’s evolving military strategy. It is a culmination of years of technological advancement and institutional change. In the context of ongoing reforms, the creation of the SSF may be one of the most important changes yet. Consolidating and restructuring China’s information forces is a key measure to enable a number of other state goals of reform, including reducing the power of the army, implementing joint operations, and increasing emphasis on high-tech forces.

The Strategic Support Force in Chinese Media

Top Chinese leadership, including President Xi Jinping and Ministry of Defense spokesman Yang Yujun have not provided significant details about the operational characteristics of the SSF. Xi has described the SSF as a “new-type combat force to maintain national security and an important growth point of the PLA’s combat capabilities” (MOD, January 1).

On January 14, the SSF’s newly-appointed commander, Gao Jin (高津) said that the SSF will raise an information umbrella(信息伞) for the military and will act as an important factor in integrating military services and systems, noting that it will provide the entire military with accurate, effective, and reliable information support and strategic support assurance (准确高效可靠的信息支撑和战略支援保障) (CSSN, January 14). [1]

Senior Chinese military experts have been quick to comment on the SSF, and their interviews form some of the best and most authoritative insights into the role the new force will play in the Chinese military. For instance, on January 16th, the Global Times quoted Song Zhongping (宋忠平), a former PLASAF officer and a professor at the PLARF’s Equipment Research Academy, who described SSF as as a “fifth service” and, contrary to official reports, states it is not a “military branch” (兵种) but rather should be seen as an independent military service (军种) in its own right. [2] He continues by stating that it will be composed of three separate forces or force-types: space troops (天军), cyber troops (网军), and electronic warfare forces (电子战部队). The cyber force would be composed of “hackers focusing on attack and defense,” the space forces would “focus on reconnaissance and navigation satellites,” and the electronic warfare force would focus on “jamming and disrupting enemy radar and communications.” According to Song, this would allow the PLA to “meet the challenges of not only traditional warfare but also of new warfare centered on new technology” (Global Times, January 16).

By far the most authoritative description of the Strategic Support Force comes from People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo (尹卓). As a member of both the PLAN Expert Advisory Committee for Cybersecurity and Informatization (海军网络安全和信息化专家委员会) and the All-Military Cybersecurity and Informatization Expert Advisory Committee (全军网络安全和信息化专家委员会, MCIEAC) formed in May 2015, Yin is in the exact sort of position to have first-hand knowledge of the SSF, if not a direct role in its creation.

In an interview published by official media on January 5th, 2016, Yin stated that its main mission will be to enable battlefield operations by ensuring the military can “maintain local advantages in the aerospace, space, cyber, and electromagnetic battlefields.” Specifically, the SSF’s missions will include target tracking and reconnaissance, daily operation of satellite navigation, operating Beidou satellites, managing space-based reconnaissance assets, and attack and defense in the cyber and electromagnetic spaces” and will be “deciding factors in [the PLA’s] ability to attain victory in future wars” (China Military News, January 5).

Yin also foresees the SSF playing a greater role in protecting and defending civilian infrastructure than the PLA has in the past:

“[The SSF] will play an important role in China’s socialist construction. Additionally, China is facing a lot of hackers on the internet which are engaging in illegal activities, for example, conducting cyber attacks against government facilities, military facilities, and major civilian facilities. This requires that we protect them with appropriate defense. The SSF will play an important role in protecting the country’s financial security and the security of people’s daily lives” (China Military News, January 5).

Yang Yujun, MND spokesman, also suggested that civilian-military integration will form a portion of the SSF’s mission, but stopped short of clarifying whether this meant the force will have a heavy civilian component or will be involved in defending civilian infrastructure, or both (CNTV, January 2).

Yin noted that the SSF will embody the PLA’s vision of real joint operations. In Yin’s view, military operations cannot be divorced from “electronic space,” a conceptual fusion of the electromagnetic and cyber domains. The SSF will integrate “reconnaissance, early warning, communications, command, control, navigation, digitalized ocean, digitalized land, etc. and will provide strong support for joint operations for each military service branch.” Indeed, this view was also echoed by Shao Yongling (邵永灵), a PLARF Senior Colonel who is currently a professor at the PLA’s Command College in Wuhan. She suggested that the SSF was created to centralize each branch of the PLA’s combat support units, where previously each service had their own, resulting in “overlapping functions and repeat investment.” Consolidating these responsibilities in a central force would allow the military to “reduce redundancies, better integrate, and improve joint operational capabilities” (China Military News, January 5).

Taken together, these sources suggest that at its most basic, the SSF will comprise forces in the space, cyber, and electromagnetic domains. Specifically, sources indicate the SSF will most likely be responsible for all aspects of information in warfare, including intelligence, technical reconnaissance, cyber attack/defense, electronic warfare, and aspects of information technology and management.

Force Composition

Rear Admiral Yin’s comments in particular suggest that at a minimum the SSF will draw from forces previously under the General Staff Department’s (GSD) subordinate organs, to include portions of the First Department (1PLA, operations department), Second Department (2PLA, intelligence department), Third Department (3PLA, technical reconnaissance department), Fourth Department (4PLA, electronic countermeasure and radar department), and Informatization Department (communications).

The “Joint Staff Headquarters Department” (JSD) under the Central Military Commission will likely incorporate the 1PLA’s command and control, recruitment, planning, and administrative bureaus. Information support organs like the meteorology and hydrology bureau, survey and mapping bureau, and targeting bureau would move to the SSF.

The GSD’s intelligence department, the 2PLA will likely move to the SSF, although there is some question as to whether it will maintain all aspects of its clandestine intelligence mission, or this will be moved to a separate unit. The Aerospace Reconnaissance Bureau (ARB), responsible for the GSD’s overhead intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance mission will most likely form the center of the SSF’s space corps. The 2PLA’s second bureau, responsible for tactical reconnaissance, will also move to the SSF. This will include one of its primary missions: operating China’s long-range unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).[3]

The SSF will unify China’s cyber mission by reducing the institutional barriers separating computer network attack, espionage, and defense, which have been “stove-piped” and developed as three separate disciplines within the PLA. The 3PLA’s technical reconnaissance and cyber espionage units will likely move, including the national network of infamous technical reconnaissance bureau’s (TRB), the most famous of which is Unit 61398. The 4PLA’s electronic countermeasures mission will likely form the core of a future electronic warfare force under the SSF, and the its secondary mission of computer network attack (CNA) will also likely also move under the SSF.

Finally, the entirety of the Informatization Department will likely move to the SSF. This will unify its mission, which has expanding over the years to include near all aspects of the support side of informatization, including communications, information management, network administration, computer network defense (CND), and satellite downlink.

Drawing the bulk of the SSF from former GSD organs and subordinate units is not only remarkably practical, but it is also mutually reinforcing with other reforms. Firstly, it reduces the power and influence of the Army by removing its most strategic capabilities. Previously the PLA Army was split into two echelons, its GSD-level headquarters departments (部门) and units (部队) and Military Region-level (MR; 军区) operational units. GSD units did not serve in combat or traditional operational roles, yet constituted some of China’s most advanced “new-type” capabilities: information management, space forces, cyber espionage, cyber-attack, advanced electronic warfare, and intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance. The creation of the Army Leadership Organ effectively split the Army along these lines, with lower-echelon forces forming the PLA Ground Forces and the higher-echelon units forming the Strategic Support Force.

Secondly, separating these capabilities into a separate SSF allows the PLA Army to concentrate on land defense and combat. Nearly all personnel staffing the supposedly joint-force GSD units were Army personnel and by-and-large these units were considered Army units, despite serving as the de facto joint strategic support units for the entire PLA military. Giving the SSF its own administrative organs and personnel allows the PLA Army to concentrate solely on the business of ground combat, land defense, and fulfilling its intended roles in the context of China’s national defense strategy.

Finally and most importantly, separating the second, third, fourth, and “fifth” departments—as the Informatization Department is sometimes called—into their own service branch allows them to be leveraged to a greater degree for Navy Air Force, and Rocket Force missions. More than anything, it allows them to focus on force-building and integrating these capabilities across each service-branch, thereby enabling a long-sought “joint-force” capable of winning wars.

In many ways, taking GSD-level departments, bureaus, and units and centralizing them into the Strategic Support Force is making official what has long been a reality. GSD-level components have nearly always operated independently from regional Group Army units. Separating them into a separate service is less of an institutional change and more of an administrative paper-shuffle.

Integrated Information Warfare

The Strategic Support Force will form the core of China’s information warfare force, which is central to China’s strategy of pre-emptive attack and asymmetric warfare. China’s new military reforms seek to synthesize military preparations into a “combined wartime and peacetime military footing.” These “strategic presets” seek to put China’s military into an advantageous position at the outset of war in order to launch a preemptive attack or quickly respond to aggression. [4] This allows China to offset its disadvantages in technology and equipment through preparation and planning, particularly against a high-tech opponent—generally a by-word for the United States in PLA strategic literature.

These presets require careful selection of targets so that a first salvo of hard-kill and soft-kill measures can completely cripple an enemy’s operational “system of systems,” or his ability to use information technology to conduct operations. Achieving this information dominance is necessary to achieve air and sea dominance, or the “three dominances.” [5] A PLA Textbook, The Science of Military Strategy, (SMS) specifically cites space, cyber, and electronic warfare means working together as strategic weapons to achieve these ends, to “paralyze enemy operational system of systems” and “sabotage enemy’s war command system of systems.” [6] This includes launching space and cyber-attacks against political, economic, and civilian targets as a deterrent. The Strategic Support Force will undoubtedly play a central role as the information warfare component of China’s warfare strategy, and will be the “tip of the spear” in its war-plans and strategic disposition.

Remaining Questions

Despite what can be culled and answered from official sources and expert commentary, significant questions remain regarding the structure of Strategic Support Force and the roles it will play. For one, it is unclear how the Strategic Support Force will incorporate civilian elements into its ranks. Mentioned in 2015’s DWP and the more recent reform guidelines, civilian-military integration is a priority, but Chinese official sources have stopped short in describing how these forces will be incorporated into military in the new order (MOD, May 26, 2015). Previously, the General Staff Department research institutes, known as the “GSD RI’s,” acted as epicenters of civilian technical talent for strategic military capabilities. If the Strategic Support Force is primarily composed of former GSD units, then these research institutes will be ready-made fusion-points for civilian-military integration, and may take on a greater role in both operations and acquisition. Even so, the civilian piece is likely to prove vital, as they will undoubtedly serve as the backbone of China’s cyber capability.

Secondly, it is unknown specifically what forces will compose the Strategic Support Force, or the full extent of its mission. When official sources say “new-type” forces, they could mean a wide range of different things, and the term can include special warfare, intelligence operations, cyber warfare, or space. At a minimum, a consensus has emerged that the force will incorporate space, cyber, and electronic warfare, but the full extent of what this means is unclear. It is also unknown, for instance, if the space mission will include space launch facilities, or whether those will remain under the CMC Equipment Development Department, a rechristened General Armament Department. Where psychological operations will fall in the new order is also up for debate. Some sources have said that it will be incorporated into the SSF while others have left it out entirely.

Finally, although it is clear that the SSF will act as a service, it remains unclear if the CMC will also treat it as an operational entity, or how the CMC will operationalize forces that are under its administrative purview. It is unlikely that the military theaters will have operational authority over strategic-level cyber units, electronic warfare units, or space assets. These capabilities will likely be commanded directly by the CMC. This logic flies in the face of the new system, which requires that services focus on force construction rather than operations and warfare. The solution may be that the SSF, as well as the PLARF, act as both services and “functional” commands for their respective missions.


Ultimately, the strategic support force needs to be understood in the broader context of the reforms responsible for its creation. On one hand, the reforms are practical, intending to usher China’s military forces into the modern era and transform them into a force capable of waging and winning “informatized local wars.” On the other hand, the reforms are politically motivated, intending to reassert party leadership to transform the PLA into a more reliable, effective political instrument.

The Strategic Support Force, if administered correctly, will help solve many of the PLA’s problems that have prevented it from effectively implementing joint operations and information warfare. The creation of an entire military service dedicated to information warfare reaffirms China’s focus on the importance of information in its strategic concepts, but it also reveals the Central Military Commission’s desire to assert more control over these forces as political instruments. With the CMC solidly at the helm, information warfare will likely be leveraged more strategically and will be seen in all aspects of PLA operations both in peace and in war. China is committing itself completely to information warfare, foreign nations should take note and act accordingly.

John Costello is Congressional Innovation Fellow for New American Foundation and a former Research Analyst at Defense Group Inc. He was a member of the U.S. Navy and a DOD Analyst. He specializes in information warfare, electronic warfare and non-kinetic counter-space issues.


1. A Chinese-media report on Gao Jin’s military service assignments can be found at <http://news.sina.com.cn/c/sz/2016-01-01/doc-ifxneept3519173.shtml>. Gao Jin’s role as commander of the SSF is noteworthy in two respects: One, he is a career Second Artillery officer, so his new role muddies the waters a bit in understanding whether the SSF will be a force composed of Army personnel but treated administratively separate from the Army—not unlike the former PLASAF-PLA Army relationship—or will be composed of personnel from various services and treated administratively separate from all forces. Secondly and more important to this discussion, before his new post as SSF commander, Gao Jin was head of the highly-influential Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) which besides being the PLA’s de facto think-tank (along with the National Defense University), is responsible for putting out the Science of Strategy, a wide-reaching consensus document that both captures and guides PLA strategic thinking at the national level. The most recent edition published in 2013 was released under his tenure as commandant of AMS and many of the ideas from that edition have found their way into the 2015 defense white paper, December’s guide on military reforms, and many of the changes made to China’s national defense establishment. His new role could be seen as CMC-endorsement of SMS’s views on China’s strategic thought.

2. Song’s description of the SSF contradicts official-media descriptions of the service, which had suggested that the service will occupy a similar echelon to that of the PLASAF before it was promoted to full military service status equal to the other branches.

3. Ian M. Easton and L.C. Russell Hsiao, “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Project: Organizational Capacities and Operational Capabilities,” 2049 Institute, March 11, 2013. p. 14.

4. The Science of Military Strategy [战略学], 3rd ed., Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013. p. 320.

5. Ibid. p. 165.

6. Ibid. p. 164.

Featured Image: Soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division prepare to provide Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen with a demonstration of their capablities during a visit to the unit in China on July 12, 2011. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)

Implementing Distributed Lethality within the Joint Operational Access Concept

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By LCDR Collin Fox

If you look for “distributed lethality” in doctrine, you won’t find it.  It’s a concept that exists in articles, speeches and panel discussions, which paint the topic with broad strokes – easy to understand, but leaving plenty of room for forums like this one to flesh out details. Tempting as it is to think about a few Surface Action Groups (SAGs) heroically dominating the contested maritime battlespace with SM-6s hitting everything from FFGs to ASBMs, distributed lethality remains just one part of a larger joint fight. Distributed lethality, so far as it has been articulated, closely follows the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC).

Potential enemies – principally China and Russia – can hold our forces at risk in certain contested areas, denying freedom of action. JOAC starts at this hard truth of vulnerability and seeks to protect friendly forces operating within those contested areas. Conceptually, it all starts with force protection:

“A joint force will lessen its exposure by a combination of dispersion, multiple lines of operations, speed of movement, agile maneuver that reroutes around threats, deception, masking or other concealment techniques, and disruption of enemy intelligence collection through counterreconnaissance, countersurveillance, and other methods.” (JOAC Protection)

“[D]ispersion [and] multiple lines of operations” sounds a lot like the first part of distributed lethality, and in the naval context, it makes a lot of sense to spread out, hide, and try not to look too important when anticipating DF-21 and ASCM salvos. Dispersion has its own complications, though. Concentrated naval forces may be easier to target, but they generally have a more potent sensor and weapon mix, to say nothing of their C2. Dispersed forces must remain capable of self-defense and power projection, and so the second part of ‘distributed lethality’ follows from the first.  JOAC puts it this way:

“Once arrived in the objective area, joint force elements can no longer use some techniques to avoid detection and will therefore rely on active and passive defensive measures to defeat actual enemy attack.”  (JOAC Protection)

So far, distributed lethality resembles JOAC with naval characteristics, but JOAC keeps on going where the conceptual sketch of distributed lethality trails off. Distributed lethality, as a naval variation on a joint concept, should follow the conceptual path already beaten by JOAC.

Distributed lethality, like JOAC, requires reliable communications between sensor-shooter nodes.  The ranges between distributed units and the bandwidth requirements for responsive C4I and lethal, cooperative targeting will drive communications onto SATCOM nets, networks that remain vulnerable to anti-satellite missiles, directed energy weapons, and cyber-attacks. GPS and intelligence satellites face the same threats. JOAC recognizes this vulnerability, and directs the joint force to “develop systems, technologies, and warfighting techniques to ensure continued freedom of action and access to space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum when and where needed.” Lacking that freedom of access, the implications are clear and dire for distributed lethality: the enemy would attack the distributed fleet sequentially, as it located ship groups, with locally massed fires. The distributed fleet, unable to communicate, could only respond with uncoordinated counterattacks. Sending a divided fleet with nothing but locally organic sensors and weapons deep inside an enemy threat WEZ courts disaster. In order to effectively implement distributed lethality, robust and resilient supporting networks are absolutely essential.

Chinese HQ-9 TEL on parade.
Chinese HQ-9 TEL on parade.

Satellites face the same persistent threat that prompted the concepts of JOAC and distributed lethality to begin with: the presence of friendly critical vulnerabilities inside the threat WEZ. The solution remains conceptually similar: increase the capability, type and number of available platforms such that the enemy never has the capability to decisively target and neutralize friendly critical capabilities. To that end, what naval “systems, technologies, and warfighting techniques” could change the sudden loss of our most important space-based assets from a travesty to a moderate inconvenience?  The remainder of this piece will depart the broad conceptual discussion and dive down to some very tactical level solutions.

Rather than present the killer app, silver bullet or what have you, I’ll briefly introduce a few capabilities that could take the sting out of losing the most important satellites in a region during the opening salvos. 


CosmoGator mitigates the loss of GPS by automating celestial navigation fixes and feeding them into the ship’s inertial navigation system, enabling weapons quality tracks even in a GPS denied or degraded environment – provided the stars remain visible. As anyone who has tracked a submarine with sonobouys can appreciate, imprecision in the sensor location yields imprecision in the target track and targeting solution.

Adding the capability to track non-U.S. commercial SATNAV constellations (Galileo, GLONASS, BeiDou, etc) would add navigational and time/time-interval redundancy to naval platforms.  The targeting of U.S. navigational satellites should be a forgone conclusion, but targeting satellites of non-belligerent states is anything but.

Local Communications

Currently, communicating within a SAG is relatively easy, but at the cost of a very distinctive electronic signature.  Distributed lethality requires low-observable and low-probability of attribution communications within the SAG.

First, low-attribution communications means taking existing commercial waveforms and using them to replace distinctively military signals. A DF scan for 2.4/5 GHz 802.11, CDMA, LTE or GSM signals in most contested areas would be overwhelmed by emitters.  Coastal residents, merchant mariners and local fishermen tend to use these signals rather a lot without much concern for EMCON. Coupling these frequencies and waveforms with stabilized, high gain directional antennas would enable high bandwidth, low-latency line-of-sight communications within the SAG while maintaining the electronic signature of a freighter or coastal village. When sneaking through a forest of transmitters, it’s best to look like a common electronic tree.

In an update on flashing light Morse signals, the ONR project for High-Bandwidth, Free-Space Optical Communications is designed to support Marines at austere FOBs, but could also offer unimpeded communications in a highly attenuated – and therefore difficult to intercept – part of the spectrum. Like celestial navigation, meteorological conditions may occasionally preclude this method, but for the rest of the time, it’s a good way to complicate enemy targeting.

Finally, better integration of automatic level control – adjusting transmit power based on signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) and signal-excess – could do much to reduce the probability of detection for existing RF transmitters.  Only transmit the power required to reliably reach the ship 10 miles away, not the ELINT aircraft 400 miles further.

Long-range communications

I’m not the first to think about making elevated nodes like satellites a bit more redundant for communications.  DARPA and ONR have been developing the Towed Airborne Lift of Naval Systems (TALONS), a towed shipboard parafoil system capable of lifting a 150 pound payload to 1,500 feet.  Unlike most aircraft (manned or unmanned), a towed system can remain aloft for days on end. Improving on the system that well-tanned parasailing operators have been using for decades, DARPA has made an automated launch and recovery system. In the context of distributed lethality, ships such as the LCS and EPF (formerly JHSV) could serve as communication nodes for ships with long-range weapons.

The Air Force has been using the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node  (BACN) for years as a communications Swiss army knife to connect disparate platforms, waveforms, and standards. The technology is platform agnostic – the Air Force operates it from modified business jets (E-11A) and UAVs (RQ-4); the Navy could just as easily operate the system from P-8As or MQ-4s.

TALONS and BACN have their appeal, but also their limitations.  A radar horizon of roughly 50 nautical miles limits TALONS, and on-station time limits BACN and systems like it. Counter targeting is a common threat to both. Ideally, a satellite replacement would be close to disposable and not so closely proximate to a manned and/or difficult to replace platform like the LCS, EPF, P-8A or MQ-4. Which brings us to lighter-than-air unmanned vehicles. 

A Google Project Loon internet balloon in flight. Photo credit: Google.
A Google Project Loon internet balloon in flight. Photo credit: Google.

Google has deployed stratospheric balloons to bring internet services to remote locations, getting and keeping them on-station with altitude-picking algorithms.  Similarly, the Navy could rapidly deploy very high altitude, very high endurance vehicles – atmospheric satellites – in the immediate aftermath of an attack on regional communications satellites at a lower cost and greater quantity than the enemy’s inventory of high-altitude missiles capable of taking them down.  Much of the cost and difficulty of satellites is the launching part.  Launching a balloon from a ship consists of setting a course and speed for minimal winds, opening a valve to a helium tank and assisting the inflation with a crane and a crew of deck handlers – hardly rocket science.  Any naval platform with a flight deck could launch balloons on demand to fill in for neutralized satellites or to quickly add more C4ISR capabilities. While the time on station of roughly 100 days can’t match a satellite, it exceeds the state of the art for heavier-than-air vehicles by an order of magnitude.

It’s quite possible, even likely, that none of the particular solutions above have any place in the Navy’s future. I hope that the unifying theme, however, resonates: pragmatic over exotic, commercial off-the-shelf over bespoke military kit, and integration within a larger joint effort rather than a service specific attempt to win the next war singlehandedly.

Collin Fox is a Western Hemisphere Foreign Area Officer (FAO) assigned to U.S. Fleet Forces Command. In his former career as a SH-60F and MH-60S pilot, he flew over 1,400 flight hours and conducted three life-saving rescues. He earned a Master of Science degree in Systems Analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School, where his final project won the John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab Award for Excellence in Systems Analysis. The views expressed here are his own.

The Importance of Space in Maritime Security

Honorable Mention – CIMSEC High School Essay Contest

As long as man has walked the Earth and gazed into the stars, he’s asked “what’s out there what’s waiting for me?” Today, our country asks that very same question, although not for what we can find, but how we can use Space and its resources to advance our scientific and military might into, and hopefully beyond the 21st century.

GPS_Satellite_NASA_art-iifWith the dawn of rockets and the nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, Space would soon become a vital asset for the interests of both countries and other major players for the years to come (particularly China). With the sudden rise of China, and the reemergence of the Russia as a major military power, it is absolutely vital that the United States once again pursue Space for economic, political, and commercial purposes, as well as for strategic military purposes which will benefit not only the military, but the United States as a whole; and how our Navy can play a big role in helping us make this happen.

As of the time of this writing, the United States and other Western European Countries are currently embroiled in a geopolitical dispute with Russia over Ukraine and the rights of its territory such as Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. As a result of this, the United States and the European Union declared economic sanctions on Russia which are meant to cripple the Russian economy and force Russia out over its interference in Ukraine. In response to this, the Kremlin has threatened to stop shuttling Astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and cut off supplies to the ISS.  In 2007, the Chinese military carried out its first antisatellite missile test when it launched a ground based missile 500 miles to destroy an aging satellite of theirs.

Both of these events are very disturbing as they easily threaten the United States and its space capability to carry out intelligence gathering and reconnaissance missions in Space using the latest technology and satellites. If these satellites, whether civilian or military, ever happen to be threatened in a time of war, the results could be catastrophic. The Navy should invest in further developing laser weapons like the LaWS that are capable of punching holes through thick steel plates on ships as well as a countermeasure against any ballistic missile that may threaten our satellite capability in Space or onboard the ISS. Laser weapons are surprisingly very cheap and affordable. According to Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder in an interview for defense-aerospace.com, “with affordability a serious concern for our defense budgets, this will more effectively manage resources to ensure our sailors and marines are never in a fair fight.” The article goes on to claim that firing this type of weapon can cost less than $1 dollar per shot; a great bargain in a time that our military is starting to see a drawdown in military spending. Christopher Harrier, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War was quoted as saying that: “The existing naval weapons systems, small-caliber cannons, large-caliber naval guns, and missiles, are at or near the limits of their potential capability. Guns and missiles just aren’t going to get much more accurate or lethal while lasers have significant potential for increases in range, accuracy, lethality, reliability, and cost-effectiveness.”

It is clear that if the Navy wants to confront new 21st Century threats, it must research and develop new combat systems, whether it is by land, sea, air, or space.  The Russians and the Chinese are also looking into developing similar weapons systems, while also trying to implement a missile defense system capable of intercepting and eliminating enemy targets. With a resurgent Russia and emerging China, this has become a must for defense of our allies and overseas military installations all around the world. It has been stated that an enemy country wouldn’t necessarily have to launch a direct nuclear strike if it wanted to destroy the United States. Countries like China and Russia could simply detonate a nuclear weapon in the upper atmosphere right over the Midwestern United States and knock out most, if not all, of the electrical power grids in the continental United States through an Electromagnetic Pulse Effect. An EMP would be devastating to the United States as it would cripple our infrastructure, down all of our technology, leave the US Government and military crippled and slow to react, and cause the global economy to collapse. It would be a scene right out of a post-apocalyptic film like The Postman or The Book of Eli. Not to mention the millions of casualties and deaths that would occur due to starvation or anarchy. It would truly be a shame and a complete lack of competence if our Government doesn’t have a contingency plan already in place for an event like this.

In order for this plan on space based missile defense to work however, it must learn from the mistakes made in the 1980’s when Ronald Reagan famously proposed in 1983 his SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) or the “Star Wars Program”. As many people know, SDI was announced in 1983 by Ronald Reagan as a means of countering the Soviet threat with space based weaponry capable of shooting down any Soviet missile before it entered American airspace. Unfortunately, due to the slow technological development at the time of space based missile defense systems, as well as other factors including the Dissolution of the USSR, inefficiency, and overall lack of continued public support, SDI did not succeed in meeting its goals.

In comparison to the 1980’s-early 90’s, America does have the infrastructure in 2015 to support a new SDI type program. For starters, in 1983 something called: “private space companies” did not exist. With companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Orbital Sciences, and Blue Origin starting to appear and establish themselves as legitimate companies in the aerospace sector, there’s no reason why they couldn’t be expected to help the American military develop a space based missile defense system. Similar to how other Aerospace contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin have helped the Air Force in its development of their new aircraft and weapons systems, a joint government/private program with the DoD and Navy providing the funding, and the private companies will handle the testing and development could be developed. That way there won’t be as large of an outcry by the public as there was with SDI in the 1980’s and the politicians/military leaders don’t have to worry so much about any failures and the potential political backlash with the program, as it will fall on the shoulders of the private contractors. Plus, this program will be more affordable now than it ever was in the 1980s.

SpaceX is currently developing the Falcon-9 space rocket with the intention of making it reusable and cheaper to launch into orbit. According to NASA, the average typical launch cost for the Space Shuttle Program was $450 million dollars. With the SpaceX designed Falcon-9 rocket, that cost is now about 50-56 million USD, an absolute bargain when compared to how much NASA’s launches cost. The biggest obstacle to this plan would not necessarily be the technical or financial challenges involved, but compliance with international law such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Article IV of the 1967 Space Treaty states: “States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.

The moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies shall be forbidden. The use of military personnel for scientific research or for any other peaceful purposes shall not be prohibited. The use of any equipment or facility necessary for peaceful exploration of the moon and other celestial bodies shall also not be prohibited. “

The key words in this text being: “Nuclear or any kinds of weapons of mass destruction.” WMD’s are most often defined as being either: Biological, Chemical, Radiological, or Nuclear.  Since lasers do not fall into either of these specifically defined categories (as lasers are electromagnetic), this would not violate international law regarding space and weapons of mass destruction. And their primary purpose would be defensive in nature. The Navy could easily place these interceptors on ships or in bases around the world in order to be alerted by any of these threats, as well as satellites which can track and locate enemy ships and submarines before they attack.

It is obvious that space will play a critical role in the development of naval affairs and maritime security through the use of satellites and space based defense which will be used to further America’s Naval supremacy in both the Sea and Space throughout the rest of the 21st century and beyond. As we can see, the Navy will not just be limited to the sea but will have an increasingly expanded role as technology and space travel progresses.







About the Author 

Nolan McEleney was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1996 and is a diehard fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars. His family moved to CT in 2005, before finally settling in MD in 2008. Nolan is currently a cadet officer in the Civil Air Patrol for the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Composite Squadron where he is currently assigned as a flight commander. Nolan currently attends The Avalon School in Gaithersburg where he is the Washington house captain. In extracurriculars, he is heavily involved with the Civil Air Patrol. Nolan is also a part of his squadrons cyberpatriot team which deals with cybersecurity and other threats as part of a nationwide competition. He has also taken online courses with the Cisco Networking Academy and Hillsdale College. 

 In the future, Nolan would like to work with NASA, a private space company, or any science and tech company. Whether it be in a technical or non-technical role, he feel like a lot of these companies such as SpaceX are on the cusp of history with proposed missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. He would also like to be a part of and contribute to that in any way he can. Nolan currently intends on going to the University of Washington and participating in ROTC so that he can become an officer.  

Space Power: The Buttress of the Modern Military


The United States possesses the world’s leading military. It has the most sophisticated air, land, sea, and, now, cyber forces and wields them in such a manner such that no single nation, barring the employment of total nuclear war, approaches its destructive capability.

America’s military power in these realms is identifiable. Fighter jets, bombs, tanks, submarines, ships, and more — these are all synonymous with the Nation’s warfighting portfolio. And in the modern world, even though we cannot see a cyber attack coming, we can certainly see its results — as with the alleged Stuxnet attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. To the public, these tools together are America’s “stick” on the global stage, for whatever purpose its leaders deem necessary.

Space is different. There are no bombs raining from orbit, and no crack special forces deploying from orbital platforms. The tide of battle is never turned by the sudden appearance of a satellite overhead. In fact, no one in the history of war has ever been killed by a weapon from space. There are actually no weapons in space nor will there be any in the foreseeable future.

Yet, America is the world’s space power. The Nation’s strength in the modern military era is dependent on its space capabilities.

Yet, America is the world’s space power. The Nation’s strength in the modern military era is dependent on its space capabilities. Space is fundamentally different than air, sea, land, and cyber power, and at the same time inextricably tied to them. It buttresses, binds, and enhances all of those visible modes of power. America cannot conduct war without space.

Simply, space is inherently a medium, as with air, land, sea, and cyber, and space power is the ability to use or deny the use by others of that medium. The United States Air Force (USAF) defines military space power as a “capability” to utilize [space-based] assets towards fulfilling national security needs.[1] In this, space is similar to other forms of military projection. But, its difference comes in how it is measured. When viewed in this context, space power is thus the aggregate of a nation’s abilities to establish, access, and leverage its orbital assets to further all other forms of national power.

Big Brother is Watching

It is important to note that space power is inherently global, as dictated by orbital mechanics. It is essentially impossible to go to space without passing over another nation in some capacity. Thus, the concept of peaceful overflight was established with the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, when the United States did not protest the path of the satellite even as it passed over the Nation. This idea stands in contrast to traditional territorial rules in which it would be considered a violation of sovereignty to put a military craft on or above another nation without express permission.

This difference became especially obvious in 1960 when Francis Gary Powers was shot down in his U-2 spy aircraft above the Soviet Union. Prior to that, the U.S. recognized that its missions over Russia were certainly a provocation and against international norms, but felt that the U-2 aircraft were more than capable of evading Soviet ground-based interceptors. The imagery intelligence (IMINT), they thought, justified the risk.

The downing and subsequent capture of Powers was a significant embarrassment for the United States, and President Eisenhower immediately halted this practice. From that point forward, it became clear that the only viable way for the U.S. to gather substantial IMINT against an opponent with sophisticated anti-air capabilities was via satellite.

KH-4B, Corona

The best quantification of space power in its early days came just a few months after the Powers incident. The CIA-run Corona program produced the first successful IMINT satellite in history. This satellite, code-named Discoverer 14, obtained more photographs of the Soviet Union in just 17 orbits over the course of a day than all 24 of the previous U-2 flights combined. Electronic intelligence (ELINT) satellites, such as the early generation GRAB program (which actually launched before Corona), helped map Soviet air defenses by detecting radar pulses, which enabled strategic planners to map bomber routes. Although air-and-sea-based reconnaissance craft had the capability to also detect radar pulses, they could only identify targets at a maximum of 200 miles within the Soviet Union, far less than was needed to plan a secure route to interior targets. Space became more than just a one-to-one replacement of existing tools; it offered significantly more access to foes.

Superiority then became three-pronged: who had the broadest capabilities, who had the best technology in each form of space-based intelligence gathering, and who had the best coverage? Said another way, how well could a nation monitor all spectra in detail at all times everywhere that matters?

Nearly a decade after Corona transformed space into a viable form of power, the U.S. leveraged its first reliable weather monitoring and communications relay satellites in the Vietnam War. This expanded the role of space to that of an active component on the battlefield, rather than just a pre-conflict source of intelligence — an enormously important growth.

More than that, it represented a substantial evolution of war as a whole. The sudden enhancement of meteorological data due to dedicated satellites gave field commanders far greater clarity than in previous conflicts as to when would be the ideal windows to mount a strike or a longer campaign. This was especially important in Vietnam, which was often overcast.

The United States faces the greatest diversity of military threats in its history. At the same time, the military is undergoing a significant size reduction.

Satellite communications also made their wartime debut in Vietnam. This capability offered the first true live link between war planners and field commanders, for the conveyance of orders and the timely distribution of sensitive intelligence. Whereas intelligence satellites broadened the world by opening up vast new areas to prying eyes, communications satellites dramatically shrank it. However, this new channel was offered only to the top commanders in any region, due to limitations in infrastructure. Soldiers in the field still used radios to communicate with base.

All these space capabilities continued their evolutionary growth for the next few decades. But, it was Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991 that marked space power as a revolutionary change in the conduct of war. Called the “first space war” by some, this conflict was the first time that satellite communications and new position, navigation, and timing (PNT) systems were utilized in direct concert with military forces to monitor and direct an ongoing campaign at all levels. Space-based intelligence-gathering satellites mapped Iraqi strategic installations well ahead of the first shots and continued to track changes in enemy force distribution. Satellite communications systems enabled ground forces to transmit targeting data to en-route aircraft, substantially improving the accuracy of dropped munitions. In addition, while the constellation was not yet fully deployed, the Global Positioning System (GPS) conveyed Coalition forces an enormous strategic advantage, by enabling ground forces to travel through previously unmapped territory and circumvent the heavily defended road system into Iraq.


The United States faces the greatest diversity of military threats in its history. At the same time, the military is undergoing a significant size reduction. Yet, more so now than ever, it possesses the ability to strike anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. It does not need to constantly maintain local forces when it has force projection. In the modern world, force projection would not exist without space power.

Special forces and drone operations have taken front stage in America’s Global War on Terror. IMINT and SIGINT satellites provide important intelligence about targets far below. GPS satellites enable drones to fly to areas of interest and, if necessary, guide their munitions to their final destinations with minimal collateral damage. Drone operators are often far away from the craft they are piloting, many times even in a different hemisphere. This capability is only possible by utilizing high throughput communications satellites. For special forces, GPS is used to get the teams quickly to their targets. Further, portable satellite communications units allow them to relay updates to their commanders and call in support if necessary.

These options are especially effective against non-space actors who do not have the capabilities to strike back. However, space is increasingly becoming “congested, contested, and competitive” — meaning a broader group of nations is doing more to leverage space for their own military power and deny others from doing the same. China stands out in this realm. While the nation (exclusive of nuclear weapons) stands no match against the United States in any conventional confrontation, it possesses counter-space technologies that would dramatically curtail America’s force projection strengths. In such a situation, America’s power abroad would decline dramatically, to such a point that along the Asian coasts, China may have local superiority.

As such, the definition of space power is expanding, to being the aggregate of a nation’s abilities to establish, access, leverage, and sustain its orbital assets to further all other forms of national power. Earth-shaking rocket launches aside, space is the silent partner in nearly American military endeavor today. Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom and the subsequent counterinsurgency operations that followed demonstrated that clearly enough. Space guides soldiers, sailors, airmen, and bombs to their targets, gives the photographs and signal intercepts to understand what enemies are planning, and provides secure, global communication in an era of global need.

[1] Air Force Basic Doctrine, Air Force Doctrine Document 1, U.S. Air Force Headquarters (Washington, DC: September 1997) 85.