‘Silent Barker’: Dramatic US spy satellite plan to counter Russia, China threats

From Bllomberg,
Published by Hindustan Times, 7 June 2023

The Silent Barker satellite constellation is scheduled for launch after July on board.

 The US Space Force is set to launch a constellation of satellites this summer to track Chinese or Russian space vehicles that can potentially disable or damage orbiting objects, the latest step in the burgeoning extra-terrestrial contest between superpowers. 

Dubbed “Silent Barker,” the network would be the first of its kind to complement ground-based sensors and low-earth orbit satellites, according to the Space Force and analysts. The satellites will be placed about 22,000 miles (35,400 kilometers) above the Earth and at the same speed it rotates, known as geosynchronous orbit. 

“This capability enables indications and warnings of threats” against high-value US systems and will “provide capabilities to search, detect, and track objects from space for timely threat detection,” the Space Force, which is developing the satellites with the National Reconnaissance Office, said in a statement.

The Silent Barker satellite constellation is scheduled for launch after July on board an Atlas V booster operated by the Boeing Co.-Lockheed Martin Corp.’s United Launch Alliance, the NRO said in a statement. The launch date will be announced 30 days in advance on Facebook and Twitter — quite a change for an agency that’s been around for decades but whose existence wasn’t declassified until 1992.

Silent Barker is a response to efforts by China and Russia to develop systems capable of being launched into orbit and taking out other satellites, something that’s a growing concern to the US.

The new constellation “will dramatically increase Space Force’s ability to track on-orbit, adversary satellites that could be maneuvering around or in proximity to our satellites,” said Sarah Mineiro, former lead staffer on the House Armed Services Committee strategic subcommittee that oversees space programs. 

Grappling Satellites

Silent Barker addresses the limitations of ground or lower-orbit surveillance systems and allows the US to “really figure out what is going on up there in space,” she said.

In its annual threat assessment this year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said China has weapons intended to target US and allied satellites, and “counterspace operations will be integral to potential PLA military campaigns,” referring to the People’s Liberation Army. 

One example is China’s SJ-21 satellite, which was launched in 2021 and later successfully pulled a defunct Chinese satellite several hundred miles into a higher orbit. Another Chinese satellite, the Sijian-17, is equipped with a robotic arm that “could be used for grappling other satellites,” according to a 2022 Defense Intelligence Agency report.

In congressional testimony in March, Gen. James Dickinson, the head of the US Space Command, said the SJ-21 “could clearly serve in a counterspace role and hold our geosynchronous satellites at risk.”The SJ-21 is the type of satellite Silent Barker would track as it seeks “to detect or discover new objects,” Space Force said.

The Space Force and NRO wouldn’t detail how many satellites would make up the Silent Barker constellation except to say that there will be “multiple space vehicles” involved.

Surveillance from space augments ground sensors and “overcomes ground sensor limitations by providing timely 24-hour above-the-weather collection of satellite data,” the Space Force said. Ground-based sensors of objects in geosynchronous orbit “are limited by distance, geography, and weather” but “Silent Barker will overcome observation gaps,”  it said.

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