Orbital Red Tails: The Use of Escort Satellites to Defend National Intelligence Satellites

Undefended National Intelligence satellites require escort satellites to defend them based on the criticality of their service to national security. 

Approximate Reading Time: 12 minutes

Editor’s Note: With the recent announcement of the creation of the United States Space Force as the 6th military branch we are reposting several articles that engage with a variety of issues in the space domain.

By Lady Noreen S. Simmons

The US relies heavily on space intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) in order to understand operational environments. Since the 1960s, space assets have provided decision makers crucial information. However, space is no longer a peaceful domain and the US must prepare itself for the possibility of war in space. A possible solution to defending National Intelligence satellites is to divorce the defensive operations from the mission satellite and transfer those capabilities to an escort satellite. Escort satellites would be able to conduct defensive operations necessary to protect mission satellites against enemy attack. These escort satellites will have the defensive operations capabilities necessary to thwart the attacker and keep the victim satellite safe. In order to maintain the capabilities of National Intelligence satellites, defensive operations to protect these high-value assets are required. Therefore, the Air Force should invest in the use of escort satellites to defend these satellites against kinetic attacks.

The US space constellation development assumed peaceful use of space when the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 recognized the use of outer space for peaceful purposes. During the design and development of these space capabilities, rarely was the idea of defending a satellite a requirement for successful production and launch. These assets assume the main threats to the satellite are collision with space debris and/or protection from electro-magnetic interference. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.

During testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in 2017, General John Raymond, Commander of Air Force Space Command identified space as a warfighting domain just like air, land and sea. He also highlighted that potential adversaries are developing capabilities to deny the US access to and benefits of the space domain. The developers of US space capabilities must consider drastic changes in order to survive the evolving space-operating environment.

There is currently no war in space, but many experts to include the Chief of Staff of the
Air Force, General David Goldfein, believes a war in space is imminent. Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty prohibits the placement or use of weapons in space. Like the US, both Russia and China are parties of the Outer Space Treaty. However, their actions, launching space assets with capabilities for hostile activity in space, undermine the intent of the treaty. For example, development of Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapons and satellites with robotic arms are within the bounds of weapons in space.

A possible solution to defending National Intelligence satellites is to remove defensive operations from the satellite operator and transfer those capabilities to an escort satellite. Escort satellites would be able to conduct defensive operations necessary to protect National Intelligence satellites against enemy attack.

Red Tails

Case Study – Red Tail Bomber Escorts of World War II
The use of red tail P-51 Mustang escorts for heavy bombers during World War II shows that the use of escorts to defend high value assets is not new. The failed idea that the bomber would always get through led the allied forces to develop a new plan for interdiction. Providing fighter escorts to bombers allowed the bomber to get through and complete its mission. Without these escorts, the bombers were vulnerable to enemy attack.

A specific example of successful use of fighter escorts is the story of the red tail P-51 Mustangs. In 1944, after the transfer of the 99th Pursuit Squadron from North Africa to Italy, the 332nd Fighter Group was established. The 332nd had a new mission flying P-51 Mustangs as escorts to heavy bombers of the 15th Air Force. To identify the escort planes, the tails were painted red, earning them the nickname Red Tails. The Red Tails escorted bombers during raids deep into enemy territory; enabling them to accomplish their mission while also saving many allied lives and aircraft.

The number of escort fighters used per bomber seemed to vary during the war, however, there were always more fighter escorts present than bombers. The first escort mission on June 9, 1943 had thirteen fighters for twelve Douglas A-20 Havoc attack bombers. The next day, four fighters escorted twelve B-25 Mitchells, which are similar medium bombers. The allied quickly learned the Germans could easily outnumber four fighters for twelve bombers and concluded that it was not enough to have merely one fighter for every three bombers. The average number of fighter escorts increased to roughly 22 fighters to 12 bombers. This created a ratio of almost 2:1 fighters to bombers.

The Red Tail historical example helps address the quantity of escort satellites needed to defend National Intelligence satellites. An issue arises with the model of one escort satellite for every National Intelligence satellite. This one for one ratio may not scale appropriately causing increased cost, complexity, and congestion on-orbit. If a lone escort satellite is not agile enough to defend National Intelligence satellites from all kinetic attacks, multiple escorts per satellite are required and thus increases this problem.

There are differences between the historical example and the space escort idea that may refute the need for multiple escort satellites for each National Intelligence satellite. For example, the Red Tails were defending against multiple German aircraft. Attacks on the bombers were never a single ship formation. The space case assumes that an ASAT would attack a single satellite. Therefore, a lone escort satellite should be sufficient to defend against the single enemy. Ideally, these escort satellites could defend multiple satellites, but additional research should determine that conclusion.

Since the Red Tails conducted missions other than just escorting bombers, escort satellites should be able to provide more than just defensive capabilities. In addition to providing escorts to bombers, the Red Tails conducted missions such as escorting naval convoys, providing reconnaissance, and attacking ground targets. A way to increase the effectiveness of escort satellites is to consider enabling these escorts to have capabilities other than defense. One example is to incorporate sensors on the escorts to enable tipping and queueing of other escort satellites in the system. This tipping and queueing could provide a more robust and resilient defense architecture that enables rapid response to threats through the constellations. Time is valuable during an ASAT attack and any advantage over the enemy in the time domain increases the likelihood of successful defensive operations. These sensors could also provide a better situation awareness of the space operating environment.

Space Defense
Space superiority is not only about having advanced space technology on-orbit; it also depends on the protection of current space assets and preparing to counter an enemy’s space or anti-space assets. In 2015, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense published the Space Domain Mission Assurance white paper outlining a taxonomy for resilience. In the paper, mission assurance is defined as “a process to protect or ensure the continued function and resilience of capabilities and assets… critical to the performance of DoD mission essential functions in any operating environment or condition.” Resilience was further broken into three distinct areas of defensive operations, reconstitution, and resilience. The protection of capabilities and assets in this definition clarifies the need for defensive operations in space. Therefore, this article focuses on defensive operations, defined as activities or operations undertaken to interrupt an escort satellites would focus on interfering with an adversary kill chain, or provide warning or insight to the targeted mission system in support of defensive actions.

Furthermore, Joint Publication (JP) 3-14, Space Operations, defines negation as active and offensive measures to deceive, disrupt, degrade, deny, or destroy space capabilities. These levels of negation provide the range of desired effects on space systems. Potential adversaries have the ability to focus on temporary, reversible effects such as jamming or dazzling which denies or disrupts the satellite versus permanent and non-reversible damage to systems, typically caused by destroying or degrading satellite capabilities. Attacks can be non-kinetic such as high-power microwave and lasers or cyber-attacks. Attacks can also be kinetic such as direct assent or co-orbital ASAT weapons, attacking ground stations or communication lines, or attacking critical satellite systems such as power supplies and/or solar arrays.

Kinetic attack mitigation/defensive mechanisms include satellite attrition, on-board/hosted defenses, or escort satellites. Satellite attrition would be difficult to achieve since there are simply not enough National Intelligence satellites on orbit for this to solution. On-board/hosted defenses are another option; however, many of the satellites already on-orbit have minimal to no on-board defenses due to the assumption of peaceful use of space during the design and acquisition phase. Some satellites may be hardened against electromagnetic interference and radiation effects, but currently, none can withstand an ASAT attack outside of the inherent ability for a satellite to maneuver. Therefore, the solution of escort satellites is most valuable. These escorts can either sacrifice themselves in defense of the National Intelligence satellite or perhaps have defensive countermeasure payloads able to thwart the ASAT.

Undefended satellites require escort satellites to defend them based on the criticality of their service to national security. Losing even a single satellite removes important overhead capabilities, and other satellites in the constellation cannot typically fully replace this loss. Subsequently, developing a replacement for the lost satellite takes time and money. Even building and launching an exact replica of a National Intelligence satellite can take years to accomplish.

Escort Satellites
The defensive escorts concept of operations for National Intelligence satellites poses many considerations. Such as, based on operational considerations, more than one solution is viable. Furthermore, different missions and various orbit types pose unique problems. For example, an imagery satellite in low-earth orbit will likely require different escort defensive operations than a communication satellite in geostationary orbit. For the purposes of this article, discussion will focus on how an escort satellite can defend a single satellite who resides in a nearby orbital location to the escort satellite.

Determining how to field defense capabilities depends on the host satellite’s size, weight, and power (SWAP). Since each satellite currently on-orbit has finite SWAP allocations, hosting resiliency options on-board the satellite requires a distinct trade-off between defensive and mission capabilities. This not only reduces mission capability but can also increase cost and complexity of these assets. An escort satellite allows the mission satellite to keep its entire SWAP and preserve valuable mission capabilities.

The backbone to successful development of defensive escort satellites requires a synergy between the Intelligence Community (IC) and the US Air Force. Currently, separate funding, decision-making, and acquisition pipelines exist between Intelligence Community assets and DoD, or US Air Force, assets. These separate approval authorities and funding lines may provide challenges to acquiring and designing escort satellites that can adequately defend National Intelligence satellites. Therefore, an agreement early in the development of escort satellites must exist in order to align the IC and DoD on value and purpose.

Potential Challenges
One such challenge to the idea of self-defense in space is highlighted in the differences between Title 10 US Code (USC) and Title 50 USC limitations. DoD satellites fall under Title 10 USC while National Intelligence satellites fall under Title 50 USC. It is important to note that JP 3-14, Space Operations, references Title 10 USC only. There are no links to Title 50 USC in the publication. However, defensive escort satellites developed and operated by the IC may provide limitations based on Title 50 USC.  JP 3-14, Chapter 5 (Planning), Section 3 (Key Planning Considerations), paragraph j (Legal Considerations), states that the US is committed to the use of space for peaceful purposes, but that “peaceful purposes” allows the US defense and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national interests. This statement does not specifically prohibit the use of force in space for defensive purposes. Therefore, it seems the Air Force is a likely fit as the lead organization on development and control of escort satellites based on the nature of Title 10 USC.

Another challenge is the inclusion of on-board passive defenses for National Intelligence satellites. Escort satellites will defend against kinetic attacks; however, each National Intelligence satellite must be responsible for providing on-board passive defenses, such as encryption, radiation hardening, anti-jam, and other-directed energy protections. These defenses are still necessary since reversible and/or temporary threats typically happen quickly. Even if equipped, an escort satellite may not arrive in time to thwart any of the above non-kinetic threats. Therefore, the primary use of escort satellites is for physical defense from kinetic attacks.

Since kinetic weapons have a limited time to impact, escort satellites must be able to respond autonomously to threats using exclusion zones. Orbital dynamics allows for the predicted projection of a weapon given its velocity and trajectory. Establishing an exclusion zone for the escort satellite to defend gives it the ability to intercept the weapon before it hits the intended target. National Intelligence satellites have different orbital locations that could make these exclusion zones larger or smaller depending on the level of acceptable risk. For instance, a satellite in geostationary orbit could warrant an exclusion zone that covers its entire orbital parking location. However, a satellite in low-earth orbit could have an exclusion zone that includes the intersection of various conjunction points. This would lead to tradeoffs the satellite operator would need to consider between escort satellite interception versus mission accomplishment.

Defending National Intelligence satellites from direct kinetic attack via an ASAT should be done using DoD developed and operated escort satellites. It is becoming increasingly apparent that space is no longer a peaceful domain. These escort satellites will have the defensive operations capabilities necessary to thwart the attacker and keep the victim satellite safe. While escort satellites could provide defense against kinetic attacks, other passive defensive measures are still required to provide sufficient resiliency. A synergy between the IC and the DoD fosters agreement on the value of developing defensive escort satellites. The US Air Force should invest in the use of escort satellites to defend National Intelligence satellites against direct kinetic attacks.

Lady Simmons is an engineer in the US Air Force. She has operational experience with Air Combat Command (ACC), the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in support of OPERATION Enduring Freedom (OEF). She is currently a student at Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

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One thought on “Orbital Red Tails: The Use of Escort Satellites to Defend National Intelligence Satellites

  • July 31, 2018 at 6:36 am

    The concept makes sense, but A few thoughts (hopefully constructive criticism):

    I think the article misappropriated the intent of article IV of the OST, which precludes WMDs in space (e.g. Nukes…) not the examples shown here in the writing. Additionally, historically the US did not assume a peaceful space domain, rather it expected conflict in space up until the demise of the Soviet Union. Space had its own Unified Combatant Command (USSPACECOM) and defensively-oriented architecture like the Space Defense Ops Center (SPADOC). While tangential criticism to the article, I think it’s important to have a solid basis in history and in geopolitical factors like the OST as we advocate for a future space warfighting construct.


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