US military officials are debating whether to publicly demonstrate a new space weapon capability, according to the online publication Breaking Defense.
Senior military leaders, including Gen. John Hyten, the vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, have been discussing for more than a year whether to reveal a secret space weapon by providing a demonstration of its capabilities, the report says. The weapon system, the details of which remain obscure, was developed as a "Special Access Program," which is reserved for highly classified information.
The Trump administration considered revealing the space weapon as early as the annual Space Symposium conference in 2020, a prestigious event for the national defense community. The idea was to showcase the technology as a validation of the Space Force and Space Command, which is responsible for military operations in outer space. However, the conference was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the report, military officials considered unveiling the weapon at this year's Space Symposium, which takes place this week in Colorado. However, the recent fall of Afghanistan has apparently put those plans on hold as well. A public display, were it to occur, would likely take place this year. Hyten is reportedly the biggest proponent of such a test, and he retires in November.
Why would the US military want to publicly showcase a new space weapon? During the last 15 years, several countries, most notably China and Russia, have demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities. These operational capabilities could be used to disrupt, degrade, or destroy US space systems, said Brian Weeden, a director at the Secure World Foundation and co-editor of the Global Counterspace Capabilities report, along with Victoria Samson.
The primary goal US military leaders have is deterring attacks on its satellites. A decision to publicly demonstrate a weapon indicates that military chiefs have determined that the knowledge of its existence would deter foreign actors from attempting to disable satellites—because such attacks would be futile.
"This would be a way for the Department of Defense to say, "Actually, our satellites are not that vulnerable,'" Weeden said. "We have ways to defeat attacks."
It is not clear whether the new US capability would be ground-based or located in space. The Breaking Defense article speculates that the weapon system may fall into one of the following three categories:
- Ground-based mobile laser used for blinding adversary reconnaissance satellites
- Proximity triggered radio-frequency jammers on board military satellites
- A high-powered microwave system, carried on "bodyguard" satellites, that can zap electronics
This new weapon announcement would come as US military officials have increasingly spoken of space as a "warfighting domain." The Trump administration cited the militarization of space as a rationale for creating the Space Force, and it may be inevitable that space sees some form of conflict.
In addition to the increase in anti-satellite capabilities demonstrated by the United States, China, Russia, and India, some nations are also looking at space-based weapons. In 2019, for example, French officials announced plans to study concepts such as swarms of nano-satellites that would patrol a few kilometers around French satellites, a ground-based laser system to blind snooping satellites, and perhaps even machine guns on board some satellites.
"It does signal that space is becoming like other domains, where there is going to be this mix of civil, commercial, and military activities," Weeden said.