WASHINGTON • The new US Space Force is building an arsenal of up to 48 ground-based weapons over the next seven years designed to temporarily jam Russian or Chinese communications satellite signals in the opening hours of a conflict.
The first system, made by L3Harris Technologies, was declared operational last month after years of development, and the Space Force has taken delivery of 16 of them. The service is also developing a new system, Meadowland, that is lighter and can add updated software as well as jam more frequencies.
Since its formation last year as part of the US military, attention has been mostly focused on the Space Force's defensive duty in safeguarding American satellites. Less has been disclosed about its offensive role, which centres on Meadowland.
"Nothing else we're doing in Space Force is offensive in nature, where we are going after an adversary," said Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Brogan, a unit head in the combat systems branch of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Centre, which manages development and procurement.
L3Harris is already developing four Meadowland systems projected for delivery around October 2022. By this December, the Space Force plans to open a competition for 28 more, with systems due for delivery from late 2023 to early 2027.
For now, Lt-Col Brogan said, the jamming systems are meant to interfere with communications satellites and not those for data relay or taking photos.
United States defence officials have long spoken against turning space into a battlefield, much less fielding weapons that could demolish targets and add more hazardous space debris.
The Space Force said "China and Russia have weaponised space with the intent to hold American space capabilities at risk", and that the US has the inherent right of self-defence.
Moscow's test launch on Wednesday of an anti-satellite missile is "further proof of Russia's hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control proposals designed to restrict the capabilities of the US while clearly having no intention of halting their counterspace weapons programmes", it said separately.
The new jamming system can be used early in a conflict and will not create "space junk" because it causes only temporary, "reversible" interference, Lt-Col Brogan said.
But advocates of preserving space as a weapons-free domain say the new system risks escalation, even if it is not meant to destroy satellites.
"There are going to be those - let's call them 'US competitors' - who will find the development of any explicit counterspace system to be inflammatory and provocative," said Ms Victoria Samson, the Washington director of the Secure World Foundation. "Are we signalling that we are okay with officially targeting space assets?"