Thursday, July 18, 2024

How Will the Next One Play Out?

Wars in space are no longer just science fiction. In fact, Space War I has been raging for more than two years, with no quick end in sight. This isn’t the kind of conflict that involves X-wing fighters or Space Marines. Instead, it’s a battle over how satellites are being used to collect imageryidentify military targets and facilitate communications in the war between Ukraine and Russia.

“As I looked at Ukraine in the early months, it was obvious to me: This is the first space war,” says David Ignatius, a journalist who lives a double life as a foreign-affairs columnist for The Washington Post and a spy-thriller novelist.

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, Ignatius delves into the potential national-security threats posed by satellite-based warfare — and how he wove those threats into the plot threads of a new novel titled “Phantom Orbit.” The tale lays out a scenario in which Space War I tips toward a potentially catastrophic Space War II.

Ignatius shies away from calling the novel “science fiction.”

“All of my books really are drawn from my reporting,” he says. “I begin with the real world — the subjects that interest me — and if they seem bigger and more important than I can express in a newspaper column of 800 or 1,200 words, then I think maybe that might be a novel.”

The real-world reporting behind “Phantom Orbit” began in 2017, when Ignatius became intrigued by calls for the creation of the U.S. Space Force. Over the years that followed, he mapped out a spy-novel plot with a Russian satellite researcher as one of the main characters — and made plans for a research trip to Russia’s industrial heartland.

But before he could take that trip, the war in Ukraine broke out in February 2022 — and Russia put Ignatius on its list of banned travelers. “My journalist friends were envious,” he recalls.

David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist as well as a novelist. (Credit: Stephen Voss)

Ignatius ended up stealing an assortment of plot points from real-life developments in the war in Ukraine — for example, how Russia jammed Viasat’s satellite internet network at the start of its offensive, how SpaceX’s Starlink network stepped into the breach to help Ukraine fight back, and how commercial satellite imagery contributed to Ukraine’s battlefield awareness.

In response, the Russians have escalated the space-based battle — by interfering with Starlink, scrambling satellite navigation systems and  camouflaging its military assets to hide them from satellite sensors.

If Space War I gets hotter, Ignatius worries that Russia may resort to measures that bring down entire satellite constellations. “We should be very scared about the vulnerability of space systems,” he says.

For more than two decades, policymakers have warned about the potential for a “space Pearl Harbor” — a sneak attack on America’s orbital assets. Ignatius points to U.S. Rep. Mike Turner’s recent warning about the potential for Russia to use nuclear weapons in space. Such weapons might destroy enough satellites to create a crippling debris field in orbit, or shut down electronics with an electromagnetic pulse.

“The Russians understand their vulnerability in space. They understand that the United States and its commercial companies would suffer asymmetric damage. We’d suffer a lot more than Russia or China,” Ignatius says. “So, they’re willing to go forward with this planning, and it ought to scare the heck out of people.”

What is to be done? “What I would say, first, is that our existing systems in space need to be hardened,” Ignatius says. “They need to be less vulnerable to all of the mischief that an adversary could attempt.”

The U.S. Space Force is already well into its effort to make satellite networks more resilient — and more replaceable in the event of an attack. That’s what its “Tactically Responsive Space” initiative is all about. Millions of dollars are being paid out to commercial ventures to demonstrate how they could help the U.S. military send up fresh assets to support existing networks in a matter of days, if not hours.

“Phantom Orbit” by David Ignatius. (Jacket Design: Pete Garceau for W.W. Norton & Co.)

One rapid-response demonstration mission, known as Victus Nox, was conducted successfully last year with Firefly Aerospace and Millennium Space Systems serving as the Space Force’s commercial partners. Another demonstration, Victus Haze, is currently being readied by Rocket Lab and True Anomaly. In all, a dozen commercial launch providers are on the Space Force’s list for future rapid-response satellite missions.

The Space Force is even supporting the development of new space station architectures — such as the orbital system being built by Gravitics, a Seattle-area startup.

Keeping track of what’s going on in orbit — also known as space domain awareness — is another must-have for ensuring America’s space security. With Pentagon support, True AnomalyStarfish Space and Northrop Grumman’s SpaceLogistics subsidiary are working on spacecraft that could approach other satellites in orbit to inspect them, refuel them, boost them into different orbits or deorbit them safely.

In the Fiction Science podcast, Ignatius hints that there may be bigger things to come. “I was just hearing about a company that’s going to radically change the way space and other big weapons systems are built,” he says. “It will revolutionize how weapons are built. The Russians and Chinese just don’t have anything remotely like that kind of creativity. So, there are a lot of reasons that I think people should be worried, but that’s a reason people should be reassured.”

Which begs the question: Which company is Ignatius talking about? If I had to guess, I’d put a bet down on a defense-tech startup called Anduril. But Ignatius isn’t telling. At least, not yet.

“It’s coming to a Washington Post near you,” he says with a laugh.

“Phantom Orbit” is David Ignatius’ 12th novel. Check out for links to information about his books and about his columns for The Washington Post. He’ll participate in a live online chat with readers on July 15.

For more about space security policy, check out the resources offered by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, including the center’s latest Space Threat Assessment. Ignatius also recommends resources provided by The Aerospace Corp.

This report and the accompanying podcast were originally published on Alan Boyle’s Cosmic Log. Stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via AppleSpotifyPlayer.fmPocket Casts and Podchaser. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

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