There’s been a months-long push at the Defense Department “toward declassifying the existence of a secret space weapon program,” according to a report in Monday’s Breaking Defense, including a real-world demonstration of what it can do.
Sadly, the big reveal — reportedly being pushed by Joint Chiefs vice-chair Gen. John Hyten — has been put on hold due to the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan.
What a shame.
For years, Hyten has argued that it is impossible to deter adversaries with invisible weapons, and he has taken the lead in calling for space systems to be declassified at a more rapid pace than some traditionalists find comfortable.
Indeed. The cruel joke behind Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Stangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was that the Soviets had developed an end-of-the-world doomsday device that would go off in the event of war. It would have been the ultimate deterrent, but they kept it a secret instead.
This isn’t the first time beyond-top-secret Special Access Program (SAP) has had its reveal delayed, either.
Officials in the Trump administration viewed revealing the technology as a capstone to the creation of Space Command and Space Force. The plan apparently had been to announce it at the 2020 Space Symposium, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic; the arrival of the Biden administration also led to a reevaluation of moving forward with the reveal.
The Wuhan flu and Presidentish Joe Biden ruin everything, I swear.
“We have stuff that you haven’t even seen or heard about,” then-president Trump said last year. “We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before. There’s nobody — what we have is incredible.”
But that’s as much as Trump was willing to reveal at the time.
So nobody without the “If I Told You I’d Have to Kill You” clearance that’s required to get briefed in on the SAP knows what it is. However, it’s a safe bet that the new weapon will be an improvement over the joint Air Force/Navy “Burnt Frost” capability revealed in 2008.
In Operating Burnt Frost, the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie, in conjunction with the 21st Space Wing in Colorado Springs, launched a heavily modified SM-3 antiballistic missile at a malfunctioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite.
While the official reason for the operation was potential environmental and health risks from the fuel carried onboard the out-of-control satellite, the successful shootdown did show the world that we could knock down a satellite from land or sea.
You can be sure that Burnt Frost coming just one year after Communist China demonstrated a similar capability is a coincidence (cough, cough).
The problem with using a missile to shoot down a satellite is a serious one: Space debris.
The orbits above Earth are already crowded with satellites, retired satellites, debris, etc. Even small bits of metal, orbiting as quickly as 17,000 miles per hour, can do serious damage to satellites, the ISS, and other spacecraft.
Blowing up a satellite creates a lot more debris. Blowing up a lot of satellites, like we and China might do if Cold War II were to ever go hot (God forbid), could make getting back into space almost impossible without some kind of orbital Merry Maids going up there first.
So the smart money on this new SAP is betting that it won’t be another kinetic or explosive interceptor like that modified SM-3:
Expert speculation on what could be used for the demonstration ranges from a terrestrially-based mobile laser used for blinding adversary reconnaissance sats to on-board, proximity triggered radio-frequency jammers on certain military satellites, to a high-powered microwave system that can zap electronics carried on maneuverable bodyguard satellites.
All three weapons could temporarily or permanently disable enemy satellites, but without creating any additional debris hazards.
Also, laser beams and high-powered microwave emitters are just so amazingly cool that the eight-year-old Star Wars fan in me can’t wait to see what the Pentagon has — finally — come up with along those lines.