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Are Manned US Systems in Low-Earth Orbits a Defense Necessity?

Are Manned US Systems in Low-Earth Orbits a Defense Necessity?

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By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security and In Space News

The United States has returned to manned space missions. Utilizing the privately built SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, NASA successfully launched two astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) from U.S. soil for the first time since 2011. This is a momentous occasion for U.S. spaceflight, but it raises an important question. What’s the point?

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It seems strange to question this launch since NASA has been around since 1958 to advance U.S. interests in space or, more specifically, to conquer space, as stated in NASA’s founding documents. NASA, formed as a civilian space agency, has always had a national security element to it (hence the use earlier of the word conquer).

This isn’t meant to question NASA’s existence since its successful participation in the space race; rather, the question centers on how space exploration fits with an overall U.S. national strategy.

US Space Strategy for All Nations Is to Avoid Hostilities in Space

The U.S. National Security Space Strategy of 2011 states: “We believe it is in the interests of all space-faring nations to avoid hostilities in space. In spite of this, some actors may still believe counterspace actions could provide a military advantage. Our military and intelligence capabilities must be prepared to ‘fight through’ a degraded environment and defeat attacks targeted at our space systems and supporting infrastructure. We must deny and defeat an adversary’s ability to achieve its objectives.”

With a presence in low-earth orbit (LEO), U.S. space systems are vulnerable to hostile earth-based systems attacks. But moving beyond LEO can improve our survivability. That is, if those space systems have ground support that can neutralize ground-based threats and other means of denying the U.S. access to space. Other nations beyond the U.S. do have such access, of course, to ground-based threats and it is difficult to undo the gains made by those nations.

The U.S. does maintain several advantages, however. With the return to manned flight from U.S. soil and an end to reliance on Russian rocketry, NASA and the newly created U.S. Space Force can once again leverage technical superiority and experience.

China and Russia Also Have the Capability to Shoot Down Satellites

In an earlier article on In Space News, I noted: “With space-based systems now ubiquitous, there is a need for platforms in space to protect technological assets and repair them when necessary. That will mean having humans in space to manage these systems.

The U.S., China, and Russia have the capability to shoot down satellites. Replacing these satellites would require rocket launches with replacement equipment on board.

With space-based systems, however, those assets could be repaired or replaced faster from orbiting stock or from a lunar base. From a U.S. perspective, this would save time and money. Also, it would lessen the potential impact of losing launch centers at Vandenberg AFB and Cape Canaveral in an international conflict….”

Russia, China, India and the European Union, among others, have a stake in gaining access to space and maintaining a presence there. Russia and China, however, have developed anti-satellite weaponry that can place U.S. assets in danger directly or harm U.S. satellites with a large debris field.

If the U.S. wants space dominance, as suggested by the president, then the only real option would be the occupation of the moon. This goes beyond the civilian/scientist drive to place a human on Mars.

Space dominance suggests keeping forces and munitions hostile to the U.S. from entering certain orbits (area denial). But space dominance also suggests that the U.S. would need the ability to launch new assets into space from an uncontested extraterrestrial location. Based on current technology and costs, the moon is the only viable option.

There is, of course, the potential for placing manned space stations beyond LEO as the Air Force is exploring; however, the cost and potential vulnerabilities of these stations would be significant. Unmanned systems will certainly play a role whatever their capabilities, but manned systems in space continue to be a necessity for exploration and for national security imperatives.

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