Space Wars: The First Six Hours of World War III

April 17, 2007

In 2010, advanced space weapons fall into the hands of radical Islamic terrorists, who launch them against the West’s reconnaissance, weather, and communications satellites. Meanwhile, inside U.S. Strategic Command, top military commanders, space-company executives, and U.S. intelligence experts are conducting a “DEADSATS II” wargame, exploring how the loss of critical satellites could lead to nuclear war. The players don’t know that the war they are gaming has already begun in space and that the Pentagon is about to find out that data from the GPS satellite system is no longer reliable, making accurate military operations impossible worldwide….

What makes Space Wars especially credible—and a fascinating and informative read—is the outstanding technical and military expertise of two of the authors. Michael Coumatos is a former U.S. Navy test pilot, ship’s captain and commodore, US Space Command director of war gaming, and government counterterrorism advisor.

William Scott recently retired as Rocky Mountain bureau chief for Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine, a Flight Test Engineer graduate of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, and an electronics engineering officer at the National Security Agency. I asked him for a reality check. – Amara D. Angelica

How close are the scenarios and wargaming descriptions in Space Wars to the real world?

In my opinion, the Space Wars scenarios are very realistic, based on my years of reporting on military space issues. The vulnerability of U.S. satellites—commercial, civil and military—has concerned milspace professionals and leaders for many years. As one Cincspace told me almost 10 years ago (paraphrased), “I have nightmares about getting that call from the president, saying: ‘What’s killing our satellites, who or what’s responsible and what are you doing about it?’ I sure don’t want my answer to be: ‘I don’t know, I don’t know and I don’t know.'” In other words, that four-star Cincspace (we no longer have a “Commander-in-chief” of space, so that term’s out of date) and his U.S. “space warriors” are in dire need of national policies, doctrines, realistic strategies and tactics, and more tools to deal with myriad threats to our space infrastructure.

Still, progress IS being made. Sensors that will help engineers and space operators quickly determine whether an anomaly is caused by cosmic rays or somebody lasing or jamming a satellite ARE being built into new national security spacecraft. However, those sensors are still not being installed routinely on commercial satellites—even though the Defense Dept. relies heavily on commercial comsats and imaging sats.

The wargaming scenarios—as well as some of the “real-world” scenarios—in Space Wars are amalgamations of outcomes and insights gained from actual wargames, such as those listed on pg. 7 of the book’s forward.

Finally, weapons and systems depicted in SW are real or based on real-world technologies, although some remain classified. For instance, as an AvWeek reporter, I confirmed years ago that classified tests done at China Lake NAS, Calif., proved that a maser could be accurately controlled and targeted by first firing a laser, then firing the maser a split second later. The latter’s microwave beam would follow the laser-formed “waveguide” through the air, enabling the beam to be aimed accurately and controlled.

Has such a weapon been developed and deployed? I don’t know. Would it also work in space, or would the maser beam start wandering like wet spaghetti, once it left the atmosphere? I don’t know that, either. Some scientists believe the beam would remain coherent and stable in space, but I was never able to confirm that tests had demonstrated that ability. Inside the atmosphere, though, actual testing DID confirm that the laser-maser combination enabled accurately targeting objects with high-energy microwave beams.

Ref. the Blackstar system: I now have several photos of the XOV spaceplane sitting on a Lockheed Martin flightline ramp, so the vehicle definitely exists. Based on 15+ years of sighting reports, inside sources, etc., I determined that Blackstar’s SR-3 carrier aircraft and several versions of the XOV were built and flown. An AvWeek cover story describing the system ran in the March 6, 2006, issue.

Blackstar spaceplane? (Aviation Week)

Despite considerable feedback that spanned the spectrum from attaboy support to flaming criticism, the stories DID prompt airtight confirmation to come back to me from impeccable sources. Bottom line: some may dispute it, but the Blackstar system exists and has flown. Whether it can achieve orbit and was/is used exactly as we’ve depicted via “Speed’s” flights in Space Wars is strictly an educated guess, based on my AvWeek reporting.

What are your thoughts on the recent Chinese destruction of their satellite, and the possibility that it was an ASAT test?

It was definitely considered to be an ASAT test, according to several general officers who spoke at last week’s Space Symposium here in Colo. Springs. I think such an ASAT threat has existed for some time, and our milspace professionals knew it was just a matter of time until some entity demonstrated it. The Russians already HAD demo’d the capability decades ago, and Doug Pearson really DID shoot down a satellite in 1985, firing a missile from his F-15. As the USAF commander of Space Command said last week, the Chinese ASAT test was a major wakeup call for all spacefaring nations, proving once and for all that “space is no longer a sanctuary.”

How does Russia’s planned Glonass system relate to the European nav sat system described in the book?

Both are considered alternatives to the U.S. GPS network. Ultimately, Russia, Europe and the U.S. envision some commercial receivers will be able to use any of these signals for precise navigation and timing. Glonass and Galileo are being developed to (ostensibly) ensure satellite-based nav and timing will always be available, because the U.S. system could be turned off at will. The U.S. military controls GPS, and the Pentagon could disable certain or all GPS signals during a national emergency — writ “war.”

Yet, GPS signals are becoming virtual global utilities, depended upon by millions of users. The Euros, Russians, Japan and others see billions of dollars to be made by selling receivers and GPS-embedded products, as well, and want to get in on that commercial action. Bottom line, though, is this: they’re alternatives to GPS, sold to financiers as “guaranteed service” options, should the U.S. turn off GPS.

Are there any other recent technical, military, political, and other developments that tie in with the book or that were predicted in the book?

The Iranian political situation today is playing out largely as we anticipated. Technologies for “operationally responsive space” — smallsats and quick-response launchers — are evolving quickly. Autnomous on-orbit servicing of satellites is being demonstrated now by the Orbital Express spacecraft, a feature that plays more dramatically in our sequel, Space Wars II (now being written by the same coauthors). The Chinese ASAT test has awakened Congress and American citizens to the potential threats facing our space infrastructure, but I don’t think our political leaders fully appreciate what impacts those threats could have on the U.S. national security posture and citizens’ activities.

What kind of comments are you getting from savvy early readers so far?

Initial feedback we’re getting is that Space Wars‘ message is “bang-on,” prophetic, scary and very timely. Many readers either had no idea the U.S.—and modern civilization, in general—was so dependent on “space,” or that losing satellites might have such dramatic impacts in the geopolitical realm, as well on people’s daily lives. Perhaps the most succinct feedback I’ve heard was: “This is a very possible, very scary future. I hope it doesn’t come true.” Although many of our readers, who have a military background, are aware of the threats we depict, they hadn’t put the IMPACTS of attacks on satellites and the ISS into context the way Space Wars does—or so they’re telling us.

Last Thursday, during the annual Space Symposium (attended by approx. 7,000 space professionals from across the globe), many senior military, commercial and civil leaders bought copies of Space Wars and had Mike and me sign their books. Interestingly, the first two copies were purchased by a two-star USAF general, who is the chancellor of the National Security Space Institute, and her aide. She also wants to talk to us about some “hot-button” issues we should consider for our second Space Wars book.