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Space Force Humor, Laser Dazzlers, and the Havoc a War in Space Would Actually Wreak

Lee Billings: Hi. This is Lee Billings.

Clara Moskowitz: And Clara Moskowitz.

We’re Scientific American’s senior space editors. Today we kick off..

Billings: We launch…

Moskowitz: Right, we launch…gotta stay true to our roots… a new Science Quickly series.

Billings: We’re calling it Cosmos Quickly.

Moskowitz: Every episode, we’ll take you on a skyward journey.

Billings: Into space.

Moskowitz: To explore what we know …

Billings: And what we’re just learning about the universe we all live in.

Moskowitz: Today, in our inaugural episode, we’ll start off with … Space Force.

Billings: That’s right ….

Moskowitz: We sat down with Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno, the director of staff for the United States Space Force

Billings: Welcome, Lieutenant General, thanks for being here.

Moskowitz: So, can we start off with a very basic question: what is the Space Force?

Armango: The Space Force is a service, just like the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps. We are the newest service for the United States of America. And we were established on December 20th of 2019.

The United States Space Force, organizes trains and equips guardians so that guardians may conduct Space Operations for the good of our nation.

Billings: Now, to some people, the Space Force sounds, well, kind of funny? Like something out of science fiction?

Moskowitz: I mean, pretty quickly after then-President Trump announced you all, pop culture kinda jumped on your story.

Armango: You mean Netflix?

Moskowitz: Yeahhhh, that series starring Steve Carrell.

[CLIP: Netflix's Space Force ]

Armango: Actually, it was funny. I thought it was funny.

So the first couple of episodes I thought were hilarious. And I hate to say it, but you know, it just made fun of the Coast Guard actually more than it made fun of the Space Force.

And to show the rivalry between the Air Force and the Space Force I thought was just hilarious. Because the truth is, we came out of the Air Force, and we rely on the Air Force for many, many, many things still, I mean, it's a true partnership underneath the Department of the Air Force.

And we, in the Pentagon, every service has a corridor. And in the Space Force corridor, we actually have a section on humor, because there's not only the Netflix series, but there was also a Ben and Jerry's ice cream called boots on the moon. And I think there's still one tiny carton hanging around the Pentagon somewhere.

Billings: It’s good to know the Guardians of the Galaxy, uh… I mean the Guardians have a good sense of humor. But back to reality. How big a deal is the Space Force?

Armango: We've been doing space operations for decades. I want to make that clear that just because we have a new service, doesn't mean that all of a sudden, the United States is active in space. We've been active for decades.

And in fact, when we were first established in 2019, and then into January of 2020, the line of funding that we were already using was carved out and given to the Space Force, roughly about probably $18 billion at that time.

It is a lot of money. But it's 10% of the Air Force budget. And it was only about 2% of the [Department of Defense] budget.

Fast forward to just this week, the President's budget request that was sent to Congress asks for $30 billion for the United States Space Force. And so it's almost a doubling of requests, but I think what that shows is the importance of what we're trying to do.

We're not simply continuing to provide the best services from the space domain, we also now have to protect and defend the space domain. And that is a large undertaking that is why the Space Force was established.

Because all joking aside, Russia and China are threatening our capabilities. They're building capabilities that can threaten our systems in space.

And we need to be able to protect, defend and continue to operate through, so that in a future conflict, crisis, or even war, our forces in every other domain, air, land, sea, under sea, can still get the exquisite data that they currently get from the space domain.

Moskowitz: What would it actually mean to go to war in space?

Armango: Well, a war in space would be devastating. Because it would probably destroy the very domain itself. And so, you know, the world as we know it would be very, very different.

Billings: Yikes. And what would it mean for regular people down on Earth if we did lose some of those capabilities in space?

Armango: I mean, you know, today, especially in modern American life, we benefit from that timing signal from the GPS constellation–that timing signal runs everything from, you know, the power that we're enjoying, to, you know, the blue dot on your cell phone.

I mean, that timing signal is everything, not to mention the positioning and navigation that GPS provides free to the world.

A war in space could, at the, at the low end, disrupt those services. At the high end, it could be destroyed completely and potentially for a very, very long time. Debris lasts in space forever. So I don't even want to put a year on it. It would be decades.

I think we Take it all for granted. I really do.

Moskowitz: Do you?

Armango: Oh, no. Oh, no, I don't.

Years ago, if something went wrong with a GPS satellite, for example. The checklist step said call the engineer because the engineer you know, it must have been some kind of an electronic or you know, system snafu. Today, the first thought by Guardians is this might be nefarious, this might be the beginning of an attack.

Moskowitz: Walk us through what would happen, then, if there was a nefarious action in space. What could an adversary do?

Armango: An actor could attack us by cyber. There are ground based jamming capabilities that Russia and China have, ground based laser dazzler capabilities that they have. They have ground based missiles–anti-satellite weapons that they have both demonstrated, China in 2007, creating thousands of pieces of debris. And then Russia back in 2021, in November, another anti-satellite test.

In both cases, these countries are taking out their own defunct satellites, but creating thousands of pieces of debris irresponsibly.

Billings: Hold up a second, what’s a laser dazzler?

Armango: It’s a ground-based laser. And some satellites have very sensitive optics on them. And a laser can…so a dazzler doesn't damage, so it kind of pulses the laser. It doesn't damage the optics. But a stronger laser, which they're working on, could damage not only, you know, the sensitive optics, but could also take out a solar array.

So, these capabilities are real, I mean, they already exist.

Moskowitz: The scariest prospect in any kind of war is nuclear weapons. What role does the Space Force play in protecting against nuclear war?

Armango: The nuclear triad. The United States Space Force is essential to the nuclear triad.

Moskowitz: That’s the combined U.S. land, sea and air nuclear arsenal.

Armagno: We provide the missile warning and also the satellite communications that will warn our nation of nuclear attack. It will allow communications for the President of the United States so that when he makes his decisions on nuclear response that information will go over our satellite communication systems in space that the United States Space Force operates.

So, we are essential. This is why we call our missile warning satellites, and our SATCOM satellites, “high value assets.”

Billings: Let’s say there was a nuclear attack. What does Space Force do then?

Armagno: if, if the United States was attacked by a nuclear force, we would know first because those missile warning sensors are constantly staring–they actually stare across the entire globe. And they're looking for infrared. So, the plume of an intercontinental ballistic missile is pretty large. And it will be detected first by the United States Space Force and the assets we have in orbit.

They are definitely strategically pointed over Russian ICBM fields, and also China, as China is growing their nuclear capabilities as well.

Moskowitz: What kind of capabilities do Russia and China actually have right now?

Armagno: Russia, definitely back in the Cold War had very capable spacecraft. Over time, those capabilities have waned a little bit, but they are still an acute threat, I would say.

China is growing quickly and developing every kind of space capability that we have. And so, they're certainly working on their missile warning constellation.

We should not be worried about a nuclear exchange. That is… any nation that has nuclear weapons knows that is existential.

Now, Russia has been talking about using tactical nuclear weapons. They've written about it, they've talked publicly about using them during a conventional fight. And time and again, the United States says, oh, no, that's a red line, that is a red line.

There's a nuclear taboo that responsible nuclear-armed countries abide by. And that is the best deterrent, that taboo that thou shalt not use a nuclear weapon, not even in a tactical manner, which makes it sound like it's not as devastating, but nuclear weapons are devastating. And, that taboo still exists, that red line is still very bright.

Billings: So, Lt. General, you mention deterrence. How do you successfully calculate what’s going to deter a nuclear attack?

Armagno: Deterrence is really in the mind of the adversary. The idea is to be so strong that your adversary says ‘not today.’ Every time they wake up, or should I strike the United States? Not today. Because the United States is … our strength is a deterrent.

Moskowitz: Well thank you, Lt. Gen Armagno, it’s been great to talk to you.

Armagno: Thank you. Great to be here.

Billings: And thank you for listening to Cosmos, Quickly. We’ve got a lot more coming soon on everything you wanted to know about space but were afraid to ask.

Moskowitz: Science Quickly is produced by Jeff DelViscio, Tulika Bose, and Kelso Harper.

Billings: We had special production help on this episode from Duy Linh Tu and Nina Berman.

Moskowitz: Like and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And for more science news, go to ScientificAmerican.com

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