The Layers of Heaven

By the last year of the Second World War US fast battleships had become largely, if not principally, gigantic anti-aircraft platforms. The Iowas for example were festooned with 20x 40 mm quad mounts and 10 x 5″ twin mounts, not counting the innumerable 20 mm Oerlikon mounts installed on any available desk space. This reflected the fact that the principal threat to the Fleet came from above.


Less obvious but equally important were the corresponding improvements in the Fleet’s range of sight. The sailors of the 1940s improvised AWACS, pushed out radar picket ships and controlled their thousands of guns with radar fire control and lead computing sites. Not content with that, they equipped the 5 inch shells with the first proximity fuses so that they would burst when passing near a Japanese aircraft. Britain’s Royal Navy may have had a longer tradition, and the IJN might have had a better grasp of surface torpedo warfare, but when it came to shooting aerial threats down the late-war USN was literally an order of magnitude better than anyone else.

It was only a matter of time really, before the Fleet’s firepower turned upwards into outer space. If the major threat to the 1940s fleet came from the skies today’s principal danger unquestionably comes from orbit. In 1996, astronomers spotted what looked suspiciously like three UFOs flying in formation. “During the nights of the 8-10 August of that year a set of three ‘unblinking’ lights appeared in a triangular formation and proceeded to ‘cruise across the star fields.’ These lights had never been seen before and were described as being fainter than the constellation of Ursa Major.” A civilian orbital expert realized they were US Navy surveillance satellites. Their job was to find Soviet naval assets at sea.

A Russian military advisor called Major A Andronov produced a paper entitled ‘The US Navy’s White Cloud Spaceborne ELINT System’. In this paper, Andronov explains why three satellites are used. The first has a wide observation swath, but by itself cannot determine the co-ordinates of radio emitters. The second satellite, with the first, gets a fix on the ship-borne emitters, the position of the ship is obtained, but with some ambiguity. The third body gets the fix of the emitters’ signals, precisely determines their co-ordinates and then transmits the information to Navy’s ships for weapons employment.

It is therefore possible to take out an enemy surface craft long before it appears on Radar. The targeted information is not only relayed to US Navy ships but also to land stations such as Blossom Point in Maryland, Winter Harbor in Maine, Edzell in Scotland, and smaller stations in the Pacific such as Guam and Adak. These were receiver stations before they were closed down.

Major Andronov stated that a satellite group is able to receive signals from a zone with a radius of about 3500km on the surface of the Earth, and under clear conditions can monitor the same object 108 minutes later. A system of four satellite groups enables any region at a latitude of 40 to 60 degrees to be monitored more than 30 times a day. This spaced based ELINT system is one of the basic means for over-the-horizon targeting for warships equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles.


Those satellites were by the time of their civilian discovery over 20 years old. Today the Navy probably has assets of far greater sophistication including some said to be able to track moving signal emitters on land. “What you can see, you can hit; what you can hit, you can kill” is probably truer today than at any time in the past.

It was not long before China realized that in order to be competitive, it had to play the space game. Reuters reports that Beijing is well on its way to deploying its own constellation of GPS-like satellites.

China this week reached a milestone in its drive to master the military use of space with the launch of trials for its Beidou satellite global positioning network, a move that will bring it one step closer to matching U.S. space capabilities.

If Beijing can successfully deploy the full 35 satellites planned for the Beidou network on schedule by 2020, its military will be free of its current dependence for navigation on the U.S. global positioning network (GPS) signals and Russia’s similar GLONASS system.

And, unlike the less accurate civilian versions of GPS and GLONASS available to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), this network will give China the accuracy to guide missiles, smart munitions and other weapons.

Few realize that GPS originated as a US Navy system and remains a military asset. A watered down version of this technology guides your car down unfamiliar roads. The full strength system allows the Navy to guide its munitions through the window of a terrorist safehouse anywhere in the world.  Without the ability to use the commons of outer space a navy’s situational awareness is limited to its line of sight.

Some naval strategists now classify navies according to how far their sensors can see and how far their weapons can reach. Navies whose sight and reach only extend to their immediate coast are “brown water” navies, while those able to operate in nearby seas are called “green water” navies. But true “blue water” navies, which can hunt and sink anything anywhere, are far rarer beasts. The exemplar of a blue water navy is the USN.


Since the Chinese Navy aspires to become a “blue water” service it is gradually extending the range of its sensors and the power of its long-distance weapons in a systematic way. “China is expanding her navy in order to project power first over the South China Sea out to the first island chain (Japan/Taiwan etc), and subsequently to the second island chain (Marianas and Carolines). The US military refer to the first phase as a green-water navy and the second as China’s blue-water navy.” Thus, the controversy over the Spratleys in the South China sea is at one level a test of whether the Chinese Navy can compete with the USN in nearby waters.

To succeed in threatening the USN the Chinese would have to be able to see American assets. Articles discussing the Chinese DF-21 “carrier killer” ballistic missile, note that the weapon would be useless without near-real-time targeting information. “United States Naval Institute in 2009 stated that such a warhead would be large enough to destroy an aircraft carrier in one hit” but others noted “their combat effectiveness would be negligible unless the country also invested in the needed detection, data processing, and communications systems” to aim it.

Naturally the USN has every incentive to develops systems which can blind the enemy’s surveillance system, a subject which is politically touchy.  Recent developments have led concerned scientists to suspect that the Navy’s Aegis warships are now the most potent anti-satellite force on earth (if such a metaphor can be used in connection with a sea service). They are just too capable for comfort, so good they may in fact be threatening to the other peace-loving powers of the world.

Beginning with the Standard missile SM-3 Block IA interceptor, the Navy has demonstrated an alarming ability to knock satellites out of the sky. Developed as an “anti-ballistic missile” (bad enough in itself) it was used by the Navy to shoot down a decommissioned US reconnaissance satellite on orders of George Bush in 2008 under codename “Operation Burnt Frost”. “The launch occurred on 20 February, 2008 at approximately 10:26 p.m. EST from the USS Lake Erie, which used a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) to shoot down the satellite. Only a few minutes after launch, the SM-3 intercepted its target and successfully completed its mission, by neutralizing the potential dangers the rogue satellite originally imposed. While the threat was mitigated, Operation Burnt Frost has received much scrutiny from other countries, mainly China and Russia”.


Those other countries had reason to be worried. All the USS Lake Erie had to do to turn their missile loadout into an satellite killer was load a new software module, which one might add, must have been written already and fire an SM-3 at the dying recon satellite. Result: direct hit.

While framed as a public safety measure, some observers expressed skepticism that this risk was the real or entire motivation for the exercise. The interception, at an altitude of 240 kilometers (km), vividly demonstrated the ASAT capability of the U.S. Aegis seabased missile defense system. The intercept required only modification of the system software, and could have been done from any of the 5 cruisers or 16 destroyers equipped with the Aegis system at the time (two destroyers were slated to be backups to the USS Lake Erie).

Burnt Frost was a demonstration of a deployed capability, the 21st century equivalent of loading a 5 inch proximity shell from the ordinary magazine into a gun and shooting down a maneuvering target drone for the benefit of VIP observers. Even more alarmingly, the potent Block IAs are being replaced by airframes of much greater reach. The soon to be deployed Block IIAs are said to be able to reach satellites out to 2,350 km in altitude and once manufactured can be deployed to existing US and Japanese destroyers. This gives the USN, according to some observers, the option of knocking every significant LEO asset out orbital space at once, to achieve as it were, a extraterrestrial Pearl Harbor.

Aegis warships are capable of carrying large numbers of interceptors—cruisers have 122 launch tubes and destroyers have 90 or 96 each. This would support a large scaling up. Block II interceptors are designed to fit in all launch tubes …

Another important point is that the PAA system is highly mobile. The 43 planned Aegis ships could be positioned optimally to stage a “sweep” attack on a set of satellites nearly at once, rather than a… sequential set of attack satellites moved into range of fixed interceptor sites. This positioning flexibility also means that the SM-3 missiles would not have to expend much of their thrust going crossrang e and could retain the ability to reach the highest LEO satellites. (The more powerful GMD interceptors also could use some of their fuel to reach out laterally over thousands of kilometers, allowing them to hit satellites in orbits that do not pass directly over the GMD missile fields in Alaska and California.)


Without targeting information the DF-21s would have the utility of a giant firecracker sitting on its pointless launcher, as blind as Cyclops in his cave. But as others analysts have observed, there are other ways to target a carrier. The loss of the RQ-170 Sentinel (the Beast of Kandahar) stealth reconnaissance drone to Iran, which then turned it over for examination to China, might give Beijing a backup method for finding US fleets at sea. The drone crashed in Iran after it’s operators lost control of the aircraft.

Using a stealth drone to shadow an American fleet just outside detection range may be a less convenient way of targeting carriers, but then the carriers themselves exist for the purpose of dominating the lower skies. Like everything else, the skies have layers.

When John Thatch (the originator of the Thatch Weave) was tasked by the Navy to find a defense for Kamikazes in the heat of battle, he proposed the concept of a layered defense. He called it the “Big Blue Blanket”. Thatch conceived of fleet air defense in terms of concentric circles. Fighters would sweep the Kamikaze bases in the outermost layer. CAP would meet the bandits at the limit of radar picket coverage to the edge of the anti-aircraft zone. Then it would be on to the 5 inch proximity, then the gyroscopically aimed 40mms and lastly, the 20mm guns in the last layer.

Thatch’s onion peeling concept lives. Future naval combat, God forbid that it should ever come to pass, may consist of a struggle for the layers of the heavens, from the highest orbits to the wave-tops in a manner technically far removed but conceptually similar to the air-sea battles of 1945.

To keep any future conflict from ever happening, China has proposed a treaty to demilitarize outer space: the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT). But as usual there remains the question of motives.  There is no one more Pacific than the side that is temporarily behind.


In an article dated March 9, 2011, the Washington Times reported on an ASAT test performed by China in 2010. This information was gleaned by a diplomatic cable belonging to the United States and disclosed by Wiki leaks. In addition to the information relating to the ASAT test, the disclosed cable purportedly noted concerns that Beijing has duplicitous motives in regards to the topic of weapons in spaces.

Specifically, the cable purportedly mentions that while Beijing is promoting international treaties to limit or ban weapons in outer space it is developing its own missile defense and space weapons programs. … this suggest[s] while publicly touting its intention to prevent a arms race in space, China is willing to only do so through mechanisms like the PPWT and is not open to alternative dialogue.

Is America in secret development of a 21st century equivalent of the Big Blue Blanket? Are the Chinese right to be worried? Who can say? All that can be safely concluded after all these years is what the movie The Thing taught us. “Watch the skies! Keep watching the skies!”

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