Needs to Succeed

A look at improvements required for U.S. space warfare capability

By: Lt. Col. Michael A. Buck, USAF (Ret), Daedalian Life Member #128

     With the creation of the U.S. Space Force two years ago, many of our nation’s traditional military space activities have been consolidated under its umbrella. These missions include 1. Missile warning and tracking. 2. Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and timing. 3. Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). 4. Global communications. 

     On Jan. 18, 2022, retired Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton participated in a Mitchell Spacepower Forum with Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, Chief of Space Operations for the U.S. Space Force. Raymond described the activities and results of those first two years as being focused on ensuring that the traditional space missions continue to be executed while establishing a lean and responsive organizational structure comprised of 15 mission-focused “Deltas” (a Delta is the Space Force equivalent to an Air Force Wing).  

     Raymond promised a “bold budget” request in 2024 and the creation of a “capability development program” to rapidly get space-related “warfighting capability in the hands of our operators.”

Chilton characterizes these necessary activities as “organizing for success,” but he is convinced that while such improvements are important, they are not sufficient. He contends that the U.S. must move beyond the traditional space missions if the nation is to capitalize on the full potential of spacepower. 

     Achieving the new space capabilities that the country needs will require a significant shift in the U.S. leadership’s view of space –— a shift that recognizes space itself is a warfighting domain and not just a means of supporting warfighters in the traditional warfighting domains of land, sea and air.


     “As recently as 2015, policy prevented our military from even talking about warfighting in space,” Chilton said. [1] To Chilton, it is clear that space — whether we like it or not — is now a warfighting domain.  

     “Our adversaries know this, and it is why they are fielding weapons capable of destroying U.S. satellites that deliver intelligence, navigation, missile warning and global communications to our forces,” he said. [1]

     Examples abound of our adversaries’ intentions to conduct offensive warfare in space. On Nov. 15, 2021, Russia conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test using a ground-based missile that shot down one of its own satellites, Cosmos 1408. China’s arsenal of counterspace weapons includes direct-ascent missiles, co-orbital weapons, ground-based lasers, high power microwaves, offensive cyber tools to compromise information networks and electronic warfare capabilities to jam or otherwise interfere with common satellite communication bands. These weapons are supported by a robust network of space surveillance capabilities that can locate, characterize, track and facilitate counterspace targeting of space assets
in all orbits.

     Chilton asserts that U.S. space policy must embrace these realities.  

     “The highest levels of government must recognize that space is a contested domain. This may seem obvious given Chinese and Russian behavior, but some remain uncomfortable — let alone supportive — discussing of fielding the necessary offensive and defensive capabilities required to operate and survive in space,” Chilton said. [1]


     According to Chilton, “The Space Force cannot continue to simply procure incrementally better versions of the same kinds of exquisite space systems the U.S. military has relied on in the past. They are too few in number, unresponsive to new missions and lag both the evolving threat environment and cutting-edge technologies.”[2]

     Chilton explains that it is time to invest in new, much-needed space capabilities.  

     “Our first goal should be to deter adversaries from attacking our critical space assets. To effectively deter attacks — and win, should deterrence fail — our Space Force commanders will need weapon systems that can defend our assets and hold adversaries’ space capabilities at immediate risk.” [1]


     Our current space systems are highly vulnerable to attack; their orbits are predictable, thus they can be easily tracked by adversaries. They have extremely limited maneuver capacity for defensive actions to avoid such attacks. Their propulsion systems were designed only to make small adjustments in their orbits, and so they produce little thrust and have very limited supplies of propellant.

     To greatly increase the maneuverability of our orbital systems, a new type of propulsion system must be developed. One option is to provide future spacecraft with Space Nuclear Propulsion (SNP) systems.  

     One example of SNP is a nuclear thermal rocket engine. Such engines use the heat produced by a small fission reactor to heat liquid hydrogen to a very high temperature; the hot hydrogen gas then is expelled through a rocket nozzle to create thrust that greatly exceeds that of conventional chemical rockets while using far less propellant.  Such a rocket can produce enough power to accelerate a typical automobile from 0 to 60 miles per hour in just 0.3 seconds. [3]  

     The ability to change a vehicle’s velocity is known to rocket engineers as Delta-V (pronounced “Delta Vee”).  Nuclear thermal rocket engines can create a very large Delta-V, dramatically increasing the maneuverability of our spacecraft. That maneuverability is so crucial to space operations that Chilton refers to Delta-V as “the coin of the realm.” [3]

     A nuclear rocket engine may sound like something out of science fiction, but the concept actually dates to the 1950s. NASA’s Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program made great strides in this area in the early 1960s, ultimately producing an engine certified for flight. However, funding for NERVA decreased in the late 1960s and the program was canceled in 1973 before any flight tests of the engine took place. Later, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) pursued a nuclear rocket program for missile and space defense weapons systems, but in the early 1990s that too was canceled.

     Spacecraft equipped with a nuclear thermal rocket engine could maneuver freely from one orbital path to another, to include moving from low Earth orbit (LEO) to geosynchronous orbit (GEO), and all the way out to orbits located between Earth and the moon, a region termed “cislunar space.” This increased maneuverability would not only improve the survivability of satellites that support traditional space missions but also enable the creation of spacecraft that can conduct offensive actions against adversary space systems.

     Chilton’s team at the Mitchell Institute is making the case for SNP. Christopher Stone, Senior Fellow for Space Studies at the Institute’s Space Power Advantage Center of Excellence recently published a policy paper on the subject titled “Maneuver Warfare in Space: The Strategic Mandate for Nuclear Propulsion.” In it, Stone notes that “China’s space maneuver warfare forces will include vehicles with nuclear propulsion that are capable of rapidly transferring between Earth orbits and in cislunar space. This would give China the capability to rapidly maneuver between operational earth orbits and out to cislunar space as needed for deterrence and warfighting advantage.” Stone concludes, “The U.S. Space Force must adopt a new force design that includes satellites and with nuclear propulsion capable of decisive maneuver warfighting advantages from, to and in space. Space nuclear propulsion will expedite DOD’s transition from its dependency on vulnerable satellites locked in predictable orbits to a more dynamic, survivable force structure that is capable of winning.” [3] 

     Fortunately, such work is already underway. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is continuing the development of nuclear thermal rocket engines to power its Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program.  The program’s goal is to demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket propulsion system in orbit, thus paving the way to operational systems. Naturally, safety considerations are an integral part of the DRACO program — the flight-ready system will be built to prevent any radioactive elements from escaping even if there is a launch mishap or if the rocket were to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere.

1. Defense News, Jan. 28, 2022.

2. The Backbone of JADC2: Satellite Communications for Information Age Warfare, Mitchell Policy Paper Vol. 32, December 2021, By Gen. Kevin Chilton, USAF (Ret).

3. Maneuver Warfare in Space: The Strategic Mandate for Nuclear Propulsion, Mitchell Policy Paper Vol. 33, January 2022, By Christopher Stone .