U.S. gauges the threat to satellites
The Air Force’s top general has ordered a wide-ranging review of the vulnerabilities of U.S. military satellites -- one that could lead to the lifting of restrictions on using force against another country’s space capabilities -- because of continuing alarm over a successful Chinese missile test.
The review, ordered last month by Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, comes amid concern over the Chinese government’s failure to explain why it destroyed one of its own weather satellites in January. That test created a large debris field that continues to expand in low-Earth orbit.
China’s secrecy has led to concerns that Beijing is attempting to perfect a wide array of anti-satellite weapons, including jammers for navigation and communications satellites, and possibly the deployment of small “space mines” that could disable U.S. military satellites in the event of a conflict.
The U.S. and Russia have demonstrated the ability to knock down satellites, but neither has done so since tests they conducted during the Cold War.
Although there are treaties that govern weapons in space, many standards about harming another country’s satellites are based on international norms rather than law.
As part of the review, Moseley has asked senior Air Force Space Command officials to recommend whether new arms programs -- known as “offensive counter-space” systems -- that could disable enemy space systems are needed.
The review is unlikely to recommend arms in space. But experts said that it could suggest weapons -- either on the ground or aboard aircraft -- that are based on current missile defense technologies.
“What I’m looking for is just a better way to think through the challenge, now that other people have a capability to kill a satellite,” Moseley said. “It is a contested domain now. I’ve asked a bit of an open-ended question.” He wants the review’s preliminary results by June.
The renewed intensity of the debate over military space policy is a reflection of growing Pentagon concern about Beijing’s steps to build up and modernize its military.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, questioned Chinese officials during a visit there last month, but said he received no explanation about why they conducted the test that destroyed the weather satellite.
“I don’t know what their policy is.... So I am still, as are others, confused about what their intent is,” Pace said.
Moseley was concerned about the vulnerability of U.S. satellites even before China’s test. Besides more than 100 military and intelligence satellites, there are hundreds of commercial satellites vital to communications and commerce around the globe.
Still, the subject of militarizing space remains highly controversial. Moseley insisted that he was not proposing space-based weaponry. But he acknowledged his concern that current U.S. policy restricted the Pentagon’s ability to attack an adversary’s space capabilities if commanders detected a threat. Moseley said he may present the review to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to spur policy debates.
“If you asked: What are your notions of ... offensively dealing with objects in space, I would tell you that that’s not an engineering problem; that’s a policy discussion,” Moseley said.
Preliminary findings could be presented at the next gathering of all Air Force four-star generals, scheduled for June.
Air Force Space Command officials remain wary about escalating military tensions in space, noting that the U.S. is more reliant on satellites than almost any other country. The Pentagon’s ability to operate globally depends on keeping space free of weapons and debris that would hamper its communications and reconnaissance satellites.
Instead of offensive weaponry, Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, who as head of the Space Command will lead the review Moseley has called for, has been pushing for additional systems that would allow the Pentagon to better track and identify all objects launched into space.
Currently, the U.S. must rely on about half a dozen ground-based radars and electronic telescopes to monitor launches. But since 1996, the Air Force has been operating a test satellite, the MS-X, that has been perfecting ways to track orbital objects from space.
Chilton, a former space shuttle astronaut, said he hoped to launch next year new satellites that would provide a more complete picture of space. He argues that military commanders need the same data on potential threats in space that they have for land and sea.
“If something goes wrong with one of our satellites tomorrow, we have to be able to answer to the president: Was it a systems malfunction, was it because of a solar flare on the sun, or was this a nefarious act by an adversary?” Chilton said in an interview.
Moseley appears intent on spurring a debate within the Pentagon and Bush administration about how aggressive the U.S. should be in dealing with threats to space assets.
Moseley compared the shoot-down of the Chinese satellite to the first downing of a military airplane in 1914. Like today’s military satellites, Moseley said, World War I-era airplanes were used largely for uncontested reconnaissance missions -- until both sides began arming their flying machines.
“You have a choice: You can either defend the machines or you build something that flies higher and faster,” he said.
Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute think tank who has consulted for the Air Force on satellite issues, said he doubted that Moseley would push for weaponry in space.
But, Thompson added, certain technologies being developed for the Pentagon’s missile defense system, particularly a high-energy laser to be used from a converted 747 to shoot down missiles as they were launched, could be turned into effective anti-satellite weapons.
“The U.S. has maintained a public stance that space should be open to everybody and therefore we will not threaten the space assets of another nation,” Thompson said. “The reality is that some programs that we are developing, such as the airborne laser, have intrinsic anti-satellite capability.”
Many of the military’s intelligence-gathering satellites operate in low-Earth orbit, just a few hundred miles up, where they are the most vulnerable to an anti-satellite attack.
Military officials declined to discuss which systems operate in such low orbits. But Thompson said many belong to the National Reconnaissance Office, the intelligence agency responsible for operating the spy satellites that take high-resolution photos of sites on Earth.
Low-Earth orbit is also where military satellites responsible for eavesdropping on communications of adversaries are believed to operate.
Most of the large commercial satellites used in broadcasting and telecommunications orbit in deep space about 22,000 miles above Earth in order to remain in geosynchronous orbit. But there are as many as 175 commercial satellites in low orbit, including civilian research spacecraft and smaller communications systems.
U.S. officials have said little about the intelligence gathered on Chinese anti-satellite capabilities. In Capitol Hill testimony last month, Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, said China launched three missiles as part of the anti-satellite test in January, hitting the target on the third try.
“What was impressive was that in three attempts, they made significant changes each time,” Cartwright said.
The Pentagon has made some efforts to protect U.S. satellites. Cold War-era satellite systems are equipped with “hardening” technologies -- such as reinforced circuitry and sensors -- as well as limited abilities to move to different orbits to avoid threats. But those technologies are mainly aimed at protecting the satellites from radiation in space.
In order to deal with the potential destruction of satellites, some Air Force officers favor the use of satellites that could be quickly deployed as replacements for lost capabilities.
Air Force Brig. Gen. C. Donald Alston, a senior member of Chilton’s staff, said that a demonstrated ability to quickly send up new satellites may in itself deter adversaries, because anti-satellite missiles are expensive and difficult to operate.
The Air Force also has explored making satellites more maneuverable in order to dodge threats. But most military satellites are so large -- many are the size of a bus -- that they would be unable to “outrun” a fast-moving missile.
Many military officials believe the best way to deal with potential threats to satellites is to knock out anti-satellite weapons before they reach space.
“Space is a bad place to fight,” Alston said. “I want to solve this problem someplace else.”
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There are nearly 850 active satellites in orbit. Here’s a breakdown of who has them:
Rest of the world: 274
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists