Marines must contribute to the fight for space. No, this is not some far-flung future of Colonial or UN Space Command Marines fighting alien hordes. And despite its ongoing force transformation, the Marine Corps is not going to add a space-shuttle door-gunner military occupational specialty any time soon. The most recent “Force Design 2030 Update” argued that “the enduring function for [Stand-In Forces] is to help the fleet and joint force win the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance (RXR) battle at every point on the competition continuum.” General Berger explains RXR as the ability to rapidly sense, decide, and initiate action or subsequently deny those capabilities and kill chains to an adversary. While much of these tactical battles for RXR will be terrestrial, Ukraine’s use of Starlink amid the Russian invasion demonstrates the necessity of space for RXR on the ground. General Berger says as much, stating that “in a conflict with a peer adversary, first moves may be in space and cyber, so we must enable our [SIFs], [Marine expeditionary units], and [Marine expeditionary forces] to integrate with, and have access to, those capabilities now.” As of this year, Marine units are starting to integrate commercial space contracts into their planning, but the Marine Corps must look further for the coming fight over space in the Indo-Pacific.
To conduct RXR, the Marine Corps should integrate with the U.S. Space Force to practice denying adversary space capabilities from expeditionary advanced bases. In addition, as part of ongoing experimentation and wargaming, the Marine Corps should explore organic BeiDou jamming capabilities for littoral combat teams. Concepts for active space jamming or denial may appear to conflict with the Commandant’s desire for small footprint, low-signature forces. However, counter-space-reconnaissance is a natural complement to the electronic warfare and signals intelligence capabilities being added across the Marine Corps and an additional tool for the joint force. Further, the Marine Corps is uniquely equipped to provide expeditionary lift and force protection to Space Force antisatellite capabilities operating from various austere bases in theater. As for jamming, existing commercial technology and concept development offer ready tools for future experimentation. The Marine Corps must win the RXR battle from key Indo-Pacific islands to outer space above them. Incorporating space capabilities—and planning for their absence—will better prepare the force for the fight to come.
Counterspace: The Next Clime and Place
Global counterspace capabilities are proliferating rapidly. They are generally sorted into four categories: kinetic physical, nonkinetic physical, electronic, and cyber. Given the cost and complexity of kinetic physical antisatellite weapons, or connectivity and myriad other factors required for cyberattacks, the Marine Corps’ best counterspace-reconnaissance role will be found in nonkinetic physical and electronic weapons. The former includes lasers that “temporarily dazzle or permanently blind the sensors on satellites or cause the components to overheat,” or high-powered microwave (HPM) weapons that “disrupt a satellite’s electronics or cause permanent damage to electronics or processors.” Electronic counterspace weapons instead “target the electromagnetic spectrum through which space systems transmit and receive data.” These techniques include uplink or downlink jamming, spoofing (attempting to replicate a real signal), or even “meaconing,” which “rebroadcasts a time-delayed copy of the original signal (including the encrypted military P[Y] GPS signal) without decrypting it or altering the data.” Electronic counterspace weapons are generally reversible, commercially available, and inexpensive, while nonkinetic physical weapons are the opposite.
Pentagon assessments argue that China’s “space enterprise continues to mature rapidly . . . employing more sophisticated satellite operations and [China is] probably testing dual-use technologies in space that could be applied to counterspace missions.” Seeking to meet that challenge, the Space Force has deployed the Counter-Communications System (CCS) Block 10.2, which reached initial operational capability in March 2020. The CCS provides the ability to cause “reversible . . . temporary disruption [to enemy] satellite communications signals.” A CCS Block 10.3 upgrade named Meadowlands is scheduled to finish development in 2022. The Space Force is planning to build 26 of the systems.
Why should the Marine Corps be involved in any way with CCS deployments or use? Because of orbits, latency, and risk. The overwhelming majority of satellites used for space-based reconnaissance or communications are in low Earth orbit (LEO), with an orbital period of 90–120 minutes. Any satellite jammer will be most effective by directing its energy within the satellite’s field of view (FOV), the constantly moving cone area in which the satellite either transmits or receives signals. Consequently, if the Space Force is seeking to deny adversary LEO space capabilities in the Indo-Pacific with the CCS, any temporary jammer probably needs to be in theater to optimize its employment windows. The Space Force could certainly operate the CCS or any other counterspace systems from locations such as Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base, but much has been written about the likelihood of overwhelming Chinese attacks there and on other bases out to the second island chain. The Marine Corps could enable terrestrial counterspace-reconnaissance from more mobile expeditionary advanced bases less likely to be attacked at the start of conflict.
General Berger has identified an “issue for further analysis”: the role of RXR liaison officers (RXR LNOs), who would “enable enduring reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance and rapid integration of Marine capabilities into theater crisis response.” RXR LNOs will certainly work on an array of focus areas, but Space Force and CCS integration must be one of them. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) at Camp Pendleton, California, is best postured to support experimentation. Los Angeles Air Force Base and Camp Pendleton are less than 90 miles from each other, and I MEF units could explore whether the CCS and its subsystems could be deployed along with Marines. The Air Force has no heavy-lift helicopters in service, and its tiltrotor variant, the CV-22B, operates exclusively for Air Force Special Operations Command. The Marine Corps could meet this need. Satellite dishes may have to be sling-loaded below CH-53E/K heavy-lift helicopters, while other systems or Space Force Guardians could be carried by MV-22 Ospreys. A Marine littoral combat team and Space Force units could even practice sequencing counterspace-reconnaissance missions with subsequent long-range precision fires from the Navy-Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS). Last, to support these high-power counterspace-reconnaissance systems and the lift to move them, the Marine Corps must continue to explore expeditionary energy strategies such as “moonshine hydrogen.” Provided with these capabilities, future Marine littoral regiments will maneuver and fire from and through shore, sea, the electromagnetic spectrum, and space. Yet the Marine Corps should not rely solely on the Space Force to conduct counterspace-reconnaissance.
Every Marine a Jammer
Beyond traditional communications and intelligence satellites, both militaries and the private sector have come to rely upon the ubiquitous availability of GPS, which reached full operational capability in 1993 and has since been opened for global use. China deployed its BeiDou position, navigation, and timing (PNT) system after the “unforgettable humiliation” of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. PLA analysis concluded multiple missile failures around the waters of Taiwan were the result of GPS disruption by the United States. GPS and BeiDou both provide global PNT data by broadcasting radio signals from orbit to terrestrial receivers. These receivers then process the time difference from multiple satellites to compute location and time for the receiver, in a manner similar to a maritime navigational cross-fix. The PNT data is critical for everything from getting an Uber to firing missiles or navigating aircraft.
In a military context, a lack of PNT could deny maneuver and fires, because the applicable combat systems lack sufficient data to place a weapon precisely on a target. Given U.S. reliance on GPS, Russia and China have developed and deployed GPS-jamming and denial systems from the Black Sea to the Spratly Islands. Cheap, small, and widely available jammers can easily disrupt weak PNT signals. Retired PLA generals argue that today there is “no chance now for the US to use its GPS to interfere in our operations at all,” given BeiDou’s global deployment. The Marine Corps should return the favor and equip its stand-in forces to block BeiDou.
BeiDou has key differences from GPS that make it harder to spoof. BeiDou is designed to enable two-way short message services (SMS) between the BeiDou constellation and a ground station. The messages, called the Positioning Report Service, allow up to 120 Chinese characters per transmission, and academic efforts are underway to secure the SMS capability from interception. Second, the Chinese Satellite Navigation Office described in 2020 how BeiDou transmits each message with a cyclic redundancy check (CRC), a short-length code that represents the overall content of the message. Whenever a receiver or satellite processes a message, BeiDou can mathematically confirm if the message has been modified in any way. This means location data of U.S. or Chinese can be reported by any BeiDou-equipped aircraft or surface vessel, including a Chinese fishing fleet that by some calculations numbers “from 200,000 to 800,000 fishing boats.”
While BeiDou’s message verification architecture likely precludes spoofing, if the Marine Corps wants to truly “stand in,” then its forces must be able to jam BeiDou. Given the weakness of PNT system signals, any BeiDou jammer would target not the satellites, but ground receivers. If Marine Corps systems can jam along the appropriate frequencies, raising the noise level above the underlying BeiDou signal, SMS spoof-proofing will be irrelevant; no messages will get through, and Chinese forces may lose the reliable PNT signals necessary to attack.1 But given that BeiDou developers layered its frequency bands close to GPS’s, jamming one will almost certainly jam the other, except GPS’s L2 band, which broadcasts at 1227.60 MHz. Jamming BeiDou and operating without GPS may be necessary.
For localized jamming, the Marine Corps should look first to the platforms in its unmanned and helicopter squadrons, including the MQ-9A Reaper, AH-1Z Viper, UH-1Y Venom, and the Navy’s MH-60S, the latter often embarked within an amphibious ready group. While helicopters are short-range compared with fixed-wing airborne electronic attack (AEA) aircraft, rotary-wing-mobile systems could deny BeiDou to Chinese receivers in the littorals. Every deployable platform with kinetic or electronic weapons is another system the Chinese must account for in their targeting problem.
Yet far more important than the platforms are the payloads. The Marine Corps has experimented with the AN/ALQ-231 Intrepid Tiger II electronic warfare (EW) pod from the UH-1Y Venom. The Army, Navy, and Air Force are each deploying helicopter or unmanned EW pods, but the Air Force’s “Angry Kitten” system is likely the best option for the Marine Corps. The Georgia Tech Research Institute originally designed “Angry Kitten” adaptable EW training pods using “commercial electronics, custom hardware, and novel machine-learning,” but they proved so effective they are now being tested as an AEA system. Adapting these flexible EW pods for Marine Corps air and ground units should increase the service’s ability to sense and target adversaries passively when not denying Chinese PNT. In addition, any programmable radio of sufficient power transmitting in the 1.1–1.6 GHz band could be used to target BeiDou. Even a 1-kilowatt jammer can block GPS receivers up to 80 kilometers away. BeiDou remains critical for Chinese reconnaissance across the Indo-Pacific, and Marines must be equipped to counter it.
In World War II, Marine Raiders and coast watchers inserted and persisted across the various Pacific islands, providing vital intelligence and raiding Japanese forces. Today, the Commandant has rightly argued that stand-in forces will help the fleet and joint force win the RXR battle amidst an environment characterized by sophisticated sensors and precision weapons. The Marine Corps must work with the Space Force to conduct counterspace-reconnaissance and develop its own BeiDou jamming systems. Open-source architecture, history, and good engineering principles provide the path to more resilient and more lethal stand-in forces. Marines will fight as their forebears did to fight and win over space.
1. Shaohua Dou et. al. “Analysis of Signal Quality and Navigation Performance for Beidou System.” Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017 J. Sun et al. (eds.), China Satellite Navigation Conference (CSNC) 2017 Proceedings: vol. I, Lecture Notes in Electrical Engineering 437, DOI 10.1007/978-981-10-4588-2_57.