How Would America Respond if Russia or China Attacked a U.S. Satellite?

How Would America Respond if Russia or China Attacked a U.S. Satellite?

Can America better protect its satellites?


If a Russian or Chinese Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapon streamed into space and exploded U.S. military satellites, friendly forces would instantly become very vulnerable to significant and extremely destructive enemy attacks. For instance, space-based infrared missile detection could be destroyed, GPS communications could be knocked out, and guided weapons could jam and derail before hitting their targets. Worst yet, war-critical command and control could simply be taken out.

Any or all of this could happen in as little as ten to fifteen minutes once a satellite attacking missile is launched from the ground. Lives will hang in the balance as alerts are sent through U.S. command and control, and decision-makers scramble to determine the best countermeasure with which to protect its space assets. Space war is no longer a distant prospect to envision years down the road—it is here.


Recognizing the seriousness of this vulnerability, the Pentagon, U.S. Space Command, Missile Defense Agency, and the defense industry are moving quickly to integrate Machine Learning and AI into space-based systems and technology. The intention is to accelerate threat detection and get crucial information to decision-makers.

“When a launch is detected, a spaced-based alert signal sends something down to command and control, which goes to the Air Force. It is then evaluated by computers and an alert is sent through the ballistic missile defense system. A mathematical formula determines its speed, trajectory and where it will hit, or land,” a Missile Defense Agency official told the National Interest.

In order to destroy an ASAT weapon, defenders need rapid access to vast pools of information, according to Ret. Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, Senior Vice President, Aerospace Business, Booz Allen Hamilton, who said that commanders need to know “Where is it (the ASAT weapon) going up in the atmosphere? What is the signature or energy of the launch? What is it targeting and where might it hit its target? You need to figure out where the risk is.” (Bogdan is the former Program Executive Officer for the F-35).

“If an adversary launches an ASAT, we will be able to detect that launch. The hard thing to do is respond immediately. You have about 10 to 15 minutes for the entire OODA (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action) loop to play out,” Bogdan said.

Bogdan explained that Booz Allen Hamilton, along with a coalition of commercial AI leaders, has pioneered a commercial technology platform designed to facilitate and accelerate AI adoption at scale within the federal government. The enterprise AI system, called Modzy, has significant commercial and military applications.

“First things you need to know is what is going on up there. There are a lot of different catalogues and libraries of what is up there —and they are not all combined. Space Command and DoD are trying to combine space catalogues so they can have a single unified data library where everything including adversary information gets catalogued,” Bogdan said.

Modzy can deliver AI models that assist commanders by analyzing vast datasets and enabling them to develop an integrated view and make better-informed decisions. These datasets can cover a wide range of variables to include sensor information, targeting data, navigational details, threat libraries of enemy weapons and capabilities and various enemy missile launch and flight trajectory characteristics. Should a collective AI-empowered system be able to use advanced algorithms to combine and instantly access all of this interwoven information critical to response-time decision making, commanders could receive a life-saving “fused” or integrated combat picture.

“Threat information has to be tied into one system. We need systems to talk to each other, which only works if they are on a common communications hub. If you have multiple systems that are not coordinated, defending forces may think they have 12 missiles coming at them even though they are all looking at the same missile,” the MDA official explained.

Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters