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smallsat chart
Different companies use varying terminology to define classes of smallsats. (credit: M. Hoey)

Military space systems: the road ahead

<< page 1: ORS: moving toward space weapons and ASAT capabilities

Key developments in other military space systems

I want now to highlight several other military space systems that are in various stages of research and development. Systems under the umbrella of military space systems number in the dozens. There are nearly 50 different technologies in various stages of R&D across multiple programs—not including missile defense technologies that have direct connection to possible space weapons systems. Here I will focus on just four systems that, if successful, could radically alter the future military environment. I have highlighted these systems for various reasons ranging from probability of deployment to sheer entertainments sake.

First, there is the Multiple Kill Vehicle platform, or MKV. This best links missile defense technology with potential space weapons systems in the here and now. The MKV program is a product of the space and missile defense test center at Redstone Arsenal, whose stated mission is to manage advances missile defense and space technology research and development for the Army, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), and other defense-related government organizations. Technology development areas include radar, optics, interceptors, lasers, information systems, space control, and space applications. The missile defense installation at Fort Greely is the first integration site for MKVs. The current interceptors at Ft. Greely are single-shot interceptors—one interceptor per rocket, meaning one chance to achieve a successful hit to kill against a ballistic missile. With MKVs integrated into the current ground-based midcourse (GMD) systems, that hit-to-kill capability will increase to seven shots per interceptor. The funding has been secured for this project. The systems will be integrated into the current ground based systems at Ft Greely—deployed on up to 7 interceptors—as early as FY07.

A future CAV launch platform based in space would have major diplomatic implications since there are no international treaties prohibiting the placement of conventional weapons in space.

In March 2005 MDA Executive Director Lt. Gen. Henry A. "Trey" Obering III said: “MKV is a generational upgrade to ground-based midcourse interceptors to increase their effectiveness in the presence of countermeasures.” Obering also stated that the MDA looks forward to the first intercept attempt using MKV by 2008. Various system comparisons suggest that this technology could be employed in future space-based defenses. Where the overlap into weaponizing space takes place is in regard to the carrier vehicle (CV), which for the MKV is the in-space deployment unit. The MKV/CV relationship is as follows: a ground-based platform launches the ground-based interceptor, which, when outside the atmosphere, releases the CV housing the MKVs; the CV then releases the MKVs to attempt their intercept. The possibility of a space-based CV with MKVs is theoretically possible, and one could assume that stationing a constellation of CVs in space for long periods could offer a mechanism not only for space asset protection and missile defense, but also for attacks on enemy spaced-based systems.

The second system I would like to highlight is a program which until recently was named the Common Aero Vehicle (CAV). This program called for a system to be developed by 2025 featuring a reusable hypersonic cruise vehicle that could take off from a conventional military runway and strike targets halfway around the world in less than two hours. The hypersonic cruise vehicle would carry a 5,000-kg payload comprising several CAVs: unpowered, maneuverable, hypersonic glide vehicles. Each CAV would carry approximately 450 kg in munitions. In the near term DARPA and the Air Force propose developing, by 2010, a global strike capability that would launch CAVs using a low-cost, mission-responsive small launch vehicle, or on a traditional ballistic missiles. This project is a significant part of the future Pentagon warfighting strategy and this has been mentioned by many military leaders, including Gen. Lance W. Lord, Commander of the Air Force Space Command, who stated to the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) in 2005: “This [CAV] is an incredible capability to provide the war fighter with a global reach capability against high payoff targets. The Common Aero Vehicle matched to a responsive launch platform would provide a truly transformational capability to anywhere in the world regardless of the level of access. The Common Aero Vehicle capability could be matched against an anti-access environment and still deliver a conventional payload precisely on target within minutes of a valid command and control release order. This is the type of Prompt Global Strike I have identified as a top priority for our space and missile force.”

A future CAV launch platform based in space would have major diplomatic implications since there are no international treaties prohibiting the placement of conventional weapons in space. The Outer Space Treaty, for instance, only prohibits placing weapons on celestial bodies and placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit. Another issue is the fact that such a space-based CAV system would not require overflight permission. Such a system would also offer a means of dealing with both a continued lack of host nations for US military installations and the rapidly falling enlistment rate, since it could perform many of the functions of a forward-deployed force. It would also permit very rapid attacks in areas that are difficult to reach from ground bases or aircraft carriers. Compared with air expeditionary forces, which require up to 48 hours or more to deploy, and carrier battle groups, which require over 96 hours to respond to a threat, a space-based CAV could respond within an hour or two. The most probable configuration for such a system would be a launch from a “responsive space lift vehicle,” which, as mentioned earlier, is a rapidly advancing area with intense industry competition.

The overall capabilities of the CAV-responsive launch vehicle pairing include:

  • Strike targets anywhere from the continental US (CONUS) in 120 minutes or less;
  • Increase warfighting capability against hard and deeply buried targets;
  • Minimize over flight and landing issues and concerns;
  • Avoid risk to flight crews;
  • Remain relatively invulnerable to anti-access threats;
  • Cost competitive with other platforms

The requirements currently set for the system are:

  • Precision strike
  • Variety of conventional payloads
  • In-flight target updates
  • Worldwide all-weather range

Third, Brig. Gen. (Ret.) S. Pete Worden, formerly of US Strategic Command, brought to my attention Project Hot Eagle. The concept is space insertion and terrestrial extraction of ground troops. Marine Brig. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer describes this as the ability to “move a squad-sized unit of Marines to any place on Earth in less than two hours.” (See “Low-cost access to orbit: space Marines to the rescue”, The Space Review, January 9, 2006) Hot Eagle has key technology links to the Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle (HCV) and CAV programs. Though this system is far from being in a developmental phase—and that could be as far off as 2020—the CAV and HCV are already receiving funding and the CAV may be operable in just a few years.

Is there an operable, deployed ASAT system on the horizon, without internationally-agreed, clearly-defined rules and limitations? The answer is certainly yes.

Finally, another revolutionary technology under development involves the SMARTBus or “six-day satellite”. This is a “plug, sense, and play” system, meaning that each component, once assembled, recognizes the others without the need for special programming or software drivers. It is a customizable off-the-shelf satellite system that will significantly reduce the cost, complexity, and the development time required to assemble a small satellite bus to meet a satellite developer's mission requirements. The SMARTBus program is funded by the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program out of AFRL. Military applications might include asset replenishment in the event of an attack on our space assets and could require imaging, communications, and intelligence gathering abilities. Such a system might also be deployable in the theaters of military operations. Italian Air Force Lt. Col. Paolo Cesolari and Paolo Teofilatto released a study in April 2005 (reported by Defense News) stating that with the United States, NATO, and the European Union getting ready to dispatch military missions around on demand, setting up fast and temporary satellite intelligence and communications capabilities for those forces is becoming a headache. But as satellites get smaller, jets like a Eurofighter Typhoon could be used to launch microsatellites into orbit as quickly as forces deploy on the ground.


This presentation offers a snapshot of military space and dual-use technologies that are in various stages of research and development. Tax dollars are being spent, defense contractors are hard at work, and various branches of the military are awaiting results.

It is time for discussion nationally and internationally by concerned citizens, public policy analysts, and academics. With technological capabilities being researched, developed, close to deployment—and in some cases already deployed—is there an operable, deployed ASAT system on the horizon, without internationally-agreed, clearly-defined rules and limitations? The answer is certainly yes.

True, some of these systems may be “dream” technologies that will never reach the point of viability. For systems that are technically possible, however, we must ask, are they desirable? If deployed, will their impact on international security be positive or negative? If negative, what steps might be taken to prevent such developments?

Many people believe that a deployed anti-satellite capability and an ability to attack targets on or near the Earth’s surface from space would create a global climate of insecurity both by enhancing current risks and by creating new problems. These new and increased risks would be the byproducts not only of systems to be deployed by the United States but also of the subsequent arms race in space which could be expected to result thanks to responses by China, Russia, the European Union, and perhaps Japan. Perhaps the most consequential impact would be increasing the probability of accidental nuclear war. Space-based weapons could shorten the road to armed conflict, whether nuclear or conventional. In the event that a space asset of one nation was attacked by another (on purpose or by accident), an immediate military response would be triggered, shortening the diplomatic process while escalating the armed conflict. Once employed regularly, anti-satellite systems and space weapons would litter LEO with debris, which in turn would permanently compromise our collective ability to explore the heavens and use space for constructive commercial purposes. The weaponization of space and the deployment of ASAT systems would undermine existing international arms control treaties that are already under stress. In addition, they would fly in the face of the collective will of the international community, which has demanded a ban on weapons in space for two decades and repeatedly been blocked by the United States. For those who share these concerns, one thing is certain: the time for international negotiations on a treaty to ban weapons in space is long overdue. Within a very few years, this potential development could become a reality.