Most readers know my wife, Gena, and I are big patriots, as well as proud supporters of those who serve our country in every branch of the military.
My father fought in World War II at the Battle of the Bulge. I served four years in the Air Force in South Korea, and my brother, Aaron, served in the Army there on the DMZ, too. Our brother, Wieland, was killed in action in Vietnam when he walked point alone and drew out enemy fire so others in his platoon could fight their way out to freedom.
However, what readers may not know is how I, too, am interested in the latest and greatest military technology. And what’s received my attention lately is the U.S. Air Force’s mysterious X-37B space plane, which, interestingly, is just a few days away from setting another longevity record on its current clandestine mission.
What the Air Force admits about the capabilities of the X-37B is this: “Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, advanced propulsion systems and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.”
But we all know its capabilities go far beyond those listed, and likely dive deep into the potential warfare between nations that could occur in space. As the U.K. Dailly Mail noted, “Theories have ranged from it being a space bomber, to a clandestine probe on a mission to ‘take out’ spy satellites.”
With only two in the Air Force inventory and about one-fourth the size of a NASA shuttle, the unmanned latest high-tech X-37B plane has flown four missions since April 2010, with the fourth in progress since May 20, 2015. It can fly hundreds of miles above the earth, and its current highly classified mission is close to surpassing its 674 days-in-flight record set back in 2014.
With its new type of ion-engine called a “Hall-effect thruster,” “the X-37B can stay up longer, maneuver at far lower cost in terms of fuel than a similar vehicle with traditional rockets, and enjoy a greater ability to maneuver within and between orbits. This flexibility would allow it to do more in space, including close surveillance of an adversary’s satellites in orbit, both in terms of optical imaging, and electronic intelligence and signals intelligence gathering. It can also fill a gap if satellites are badly positioned to respond to short notice events like a nuclear test in North Korea. The X-37B suggests a new generation of space capabilities beyond traditional satellites,” according to Dr. Malcom Davis, assistant professor in International Relations and post-doctoral research fellow in China-Western Relations at Bond University.
North Korea isn’t the only nation on watch with the X-37B. The X-37B should equally prompt fear for Russia and China, too.
Dr. Davis added that it can likely neutralize or deter adversarial counter-space threats from anti-satellite, or ASAT, weapons, “given that both Russia and China are continuing to ignore US efforts to prevent the weaponization of space, and are developing a broad range of ASAT capabilities that will allow them to threaten the vital satellites depended upon by the US and its allies.”
The fact is, our adversaries have been hard at work for years in developing digital warfare that can impede (military) satellites, as the Washington Post explained: “Russia has jammed GPS reception in Ukraine; China has hacked U.S. weather satellites; North Korea has jammed signals over the demilitarized zone.”
The potential of space warfare is growing through the proliferation of satellites above our heads. Of the 1,419 satellites orbiting the globe, 576 find their origin from the United States, 181 from China and 140 from Russia. They estimate 25 percent are for military use.
The U.S. military long ago recognized that any future war is one fought in cyberspace and literal space surrounding the earth. Because the digital world – including commercial and military operations – hangs on the very existence of satellite networks that invisibly circle the globe, cyberspace and satellites are intricately linked, and desperately need to be protected.
That is the goal, according to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, who explained last week to the Washington Post: The Air Force wants to ensure “space superiority,” which means “freedom from attack and freedom to maneuver.”
While Gen. Goldfein fights for 300 F-22s and F-35s in case of war with China, Russia, Iran or North Korea, it’s the potential offensive and defensive work of X-37B and other covert crafts that will secure the protection of our armed forces’ fleets.
“Because of its classified nature and its association with Vandenberg Air Force Base, the home for the secret ‘Star Wars’ missile defense program, some have questioned whether the X-37B is related America’s space weapons program or a space weapon itself,” according to Trunews.
The Internet news agency added: “Veteran satellite analyst Ted Molczan told CBS News that he believed the payload was a pair of Naval Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS) satellites used to track Russian and other military ships at sea.
“An Army signals officer told TRUNEWS correspondent Edward Szall on Friday March 8th that this launch was likely a weaponized satellite. A second source who works with an operational CIA security element confirmed the existence of weaponized satellites technology.”
With payloads that can include – at very least – jammers to sabotage other satellites, it looks like the X-37B is one of the best U.S. space predators to date, and our enemies know it. It’s one of our adversaries’ worst cyber-warfare nightmares.
It reminds me of the lyrics of singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke:
You’ll never see me coming
You’ll never know my name
Try to remember, try to forget
But you’ll never be the same