The U.S. Space Force's Space Operations Command now has its first official painting, and it depicts a spaceplane intercepting a hostile 'killer satellite.' Though the spaceplane design is fictitious, the painting highlights very real threats to U.S. space-based assets now. It can only evoke long-standing speculation that America's two uncrewed X-37B mini-space shuttles may be capable of engaging threats in orbit and speaks to grown concerns about an actual future war in space.
Space Operations Command (SpOC), Space Force's top operational command, unveiled the painting, which is titled "High Ground Intercept" during a ceremony at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado last Friday. Aerospace artist Rick Herter, who has done other official work for the U.S. military in the past, was commissioned to paint this piece.
"The artwork depicts a futuristic U.S. Space vehicle intercepting an adversary satellite, who in turn is positioning to disable a friendly satellite," according to the Space Force. "The bay doors of the intercept vehicle are opening as the space plane moves into position and prepares to defend the friendly satellite."
No other specific details about what sort of satellite-on-satellite attack or friendly intercept capability the painting is meant to show are provided. What are commonly referred to as "killer satellites" could be designed to destroy, disable, or at least persistently disrupt the operation of other space-based systems using electronic warfare jammers, directed energy weapons, robotic arms, or kinetic projectiles. They could also be able to launch kamikaze attacks by simply smashing into their target or attaching themselves to it and putting it into an unstable orbit. Lasers or chemical sprayers could be employed to blind or damage optics. Any satellite able to get very close to another in orbit would also have the opportunity to gather various kinds of intelligence.
A space-based interceptor could employ many of the same attack tactics to engage a hostile killer satellite.
“Because of the highly classified nature of many space operations, SpOC requested that Herter rely on historic space planes and his own imagination,” Christopher Rumley, Space Force's command historian, said in a statement.
However, the design is said to be partly inspired by the X-20 Dyna-Soar, which is particularly evident from the delta-wing platform and the vertical stabilizers on the wingtips. The X-20 was a reusable spaceplane design that Boeing worked on for the U.S. Air Force during the 1960s. That program was canceled shortly after production of the initial prototype began.
Dyna-Soar was to have been launched using a large rocket booster. It would then glide back to Earth after completing its mission, landing on a traditional runway, not entirely unlike the Space Shuttle that came decades afterward. The U.S. military was heavily involved in the Space Shuttle program, as well. Herter's fictitious spaceplane has distinct shuttle-like features, especially in the look of its forward fuselage, as can be seen in the comparative images below.
"The most challenging projects are when a client gives the artist a general concept of what they want but can’t give specifics," Herter said in a separate statement. "In order to get the proportions and angles of the vehicle correct within the painting, I built a crude model of my space plane design, which I could then use as my reference point."
Even if the spaceplane is made up, the painting and its central theme are real. It is hard not to see Space Operations Command's decision for its first official artwork to reflect an engagement in orbit as significant in itself.
Dr. Brian Weeden, the Director of Program Planning for Secure World Foundation, an independent organization that advocates for policies to support "secure, sustainable and peaceful uses of outer space," succinctly highlighted this point in a post on X, formerly Twitter.
"After decades of ridiculing anyone who suggested the Space Shuttle or X-37B might be used as a weapon, the Space Force's first official painting is....a spaceplane being used as a weapon?" he wrote.
There has been much discussion over the years about whether or not the X-37Bs, the first of which entered Air Force service in 2010, have one or more 'secret' missions, including potentially acting as space-based weapons. Officially, these uncrewed spaceplanes, which now belong to the Space Force, are experimental platforms that are used to support a wide variety of research and development efforts.
The two X-37Bs, which can stay in orbit for years at a time, have truckbed-sized adaptable internal payload bays and also be fitted with auxiliary payload adapters. They are also extremely maneuverable, making them ideal for getting very close to other objects in space.
There have certainly been hints that the X-37Bs might have more 'combat'-like operational mission capability, or that the U.S. military is interested in spaceplanes that can perform tasks like intercepting an enemy satellite. For one, the two mini-shuttles are now under the purview of Space Force's Space Delta 9, which has the primary mission of conducting "orbital warfare." The War Zone was the first to report on this in 2021.
Space Force's first capstone doctrine publication, simply titled "Spacepower," which was published in 2020, defines orbital warfare as:
"Knowledge of orbital maneuver as well as offensive and defensive fires to preserve freedom of access to the domain. Skill to ensure United States and coalition space forces can continue to provide capability to the Joint Force while denying that same advantage to the adversary."
In 2019, then-Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson had reignited discussions about what the X-37Bs might be capable of beyond space-based research with still curious comments at the annual Aspen Security Forum.
It "can do an orbit that looks like an egg and, when it's close to the Earth, it's close enough to the atmosphere to turn where it is," she said. "Which means our adversaries don't know – and that happens on the far side of the Earth from our adversaries – where it's going to come up next. And we know that that drives them nuts. And I'm really glad about that."
Back in 2015, now-retired Air Force Gen. John Hyten, then head of Air Force Space Command, who would later go on to Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a cryptic answer to CBS News' David Martin when asked about the X-37B's ability to act as a weapon system in an interview for "60 Minutes."
"Here's your chance to really end all the speculation about what the spaceplane is really for," Martin told Hyten.
"It's really for cool things," Hyten responded.
Martin pressed Hyten specifically to confirm or deny the possibility that the X-37B could evolve into a "weapon system."
"The intent is, uh – I cannot answer that question. ... I'm not going to say what it's going to become, because we're experimenting."
It is worth noting that the X-37Bs are also just the U.S. spaceplanes we know about publicly. It is possible that there have been or continue to be other spaceplane-related developments in the classified realm.
We do know that Boeing, the company behind the X-37B, worked on another spaceplane between 2017 and 2020 as part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) effort focused on a reusable design capable of rapidly putting satellites into orbit. Boeing ultimately pulled out of the project for unspecified reasons and no prototypes of what was tentatively designated as the XS-1 are known to have been built.
Stratolaunch, the company behind the world's current biggest airplane, the one-of-a-kind Roc, also previously pitched a spaceplane concept called Black Ice. Since that firm came under new management in 2019, it has focused its efforts more on hypersonic testing within the Earth's atmosphere.
In the same interview, Gen. Hyten explicitly said that the United States had additional means of safeguarding its space-based assets beyond measuring them out of the way of hostile threats or terrestrial electronic warfare systems, but that he could not say what they were. Currently, the U.S. military publicly acknowledges having just one so-called counter-space system, a ground-based electronic warfare jammer known as the Counter Communications System (CCS). Space Force is now in charge of the CCS program and is in the process of acquiring a new, more capable variant, also known as Block 10.3 and by the codename Meadowlands.
Last year, the U.S. government did announce a self-imposed moratorium on destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing, and has since pushed for other countries to make the same pledge. However, this does not prevent the U.S. military from carrying out other forms of testing in support of the development or fielding of direct-ascent anti-satellite capabilities or of other ways of engaging hostile space-based assets.
What is well-established is that the U.S. military faces a variety of threats, including from direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles and killer satellites, as well as electronic warfare systems and directed energy weapons, to its space-based assets. Russia and China have been especially prolific in their development and fielding of these capabilities, or ostensibly non-military ones that have clear dual-use potential.
Space Force has said in the past that U.S. satellites are subjected to "reversible attacks" from Russia and China on a daily basis. This category of attacks could things include jamming, temporarily blinding of optics with lasers, and cyber attacks.
This is a reality The War Zone has been calling attention to for years now. It has only become an ever-more serious issue for the U.S. military, which heavily relies on space-based assets to provide critical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, aid in navigation and weapon guidance, help forces communicate and share data around the world, and more.
The U.S. military is looking now at large distributed satellite constellations that are harder for opponents to target and neutralize, as well as ways to rapidly repair or replace space-based systems. However, Potential adversaries, such as China, are already looking at ways to defeat large numbers of targets in orbit.
SpOC's new painting only underscores how this is all increasingly translating into discussions about the potential for actual conflict in orbit.
“We’ve got to … stop debating if it’s a warfighting domain, stop debating whether there are weapons, and get to the point of: how do we responsibly, as part of the joint and combined force, deter conflict that nobody wants to see, but if we do see it, demonstrate our ability to win?” U.S. Space Force Maj. Gen. David Miller, the Director of Operations, Training, and Force Development for the joint-service U.S. Space Command (SPACECOM), said at an event hosted by the Air & Space Force Association's Mitchell Institute in June.
Breaking Defense subsequently reported that Miller's remarks had come after the circulation of an internal "commander's note" from Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman , the Chief of Space Operations, Space Force's top officer, that had emphasized the need to be prepared for actual kinetic conflict in space.
"The 'logic of space superiority' has changed and that defending the Joint Force 'from space-enabled attack' [emphasis his] is an equal part of the Space Force’s space superiority mission – a mission that has been part of US military operations since long before the service’s establishment in 2019," Saltzman declared, according to Breaking Defense.
Altogether, the unveiling of Space Operations Command's first official painting, its fictitious spaceplane notwithstanding, comes amid a very real surge in serious discussions about the potential for a war outside the Earth's atmosphere.
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