Commentary | Space: The Ultimate High Ground

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Over the past few decades, Americans have become increasingly dependent on space-based technology in everyday life. Satellites orbiting Earth provide support for civil, economic, agricultural, scientific, military and humanitarian and disaster response. In short, America’s investment in and reliance on space is the reason you can use GPS to find a local restaurant, surf the Web, prepare for a storm or even use an ATM. But space technology also gives our warfighters a critical tactical and strategic advantage in all theaters.

Our national security space systems are unique in that they provide global access unhindered by geographic or political boundaries. Intelligence, communications, navigation, weather forecasting and weapons employment are all dramatically improved by space operations. National decision-makers and military commanders have come to depend on these space systems, making them a cornerstone of our national defense and the ultimate “high ground.”

Now more than ever we need to maintain that “high ground.” Our investment in space is necessary in part to protect our nation from counterspace programs being pursued aggressively by China. China has been developing the means to deny its adversaries or competitors access to space capabilities and to defend its position as it enters the space race.

Some examples of counterspace programs include using radio frequencies to interfere with satellite communications, laser systems capable of degrading or destroying satellite subsystems, electromagnetic pulse weapons capable of degrading or destroying satellite and/or ground system electronics, kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons capable of disabling or destroying spacecraft, and advanced cyberwarfare programs.

In February 2012, Gen. Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned of the Chinese threat, stating, “The space program, including ostensible civil projects, supports China’s growing ability to deny or degrade the space assets of potential adversaries and enhances China’s conventional military capabilities.”

The alarm was sounded again this year when Dr. Ashley Tellis, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Jan. 28 that “the dangers emanating from China’s counterspace investments are real and growing.”   

Dr. Tellis went on to warn that “the diversity of Chinese counterspace activities ensures that almost every U.S. space component — the systems in orbit, the links that control them and channel their data, and their associated ground facilities — will face grave perils as current Chinese counterspace programs mature and their technologies are integrated into the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) warfighting arsenal.”

Many are quick to dismiss or downplay such comments as mere hyperbole, or the stuff of a Tom Clancy novel. But they are well founded in recent examples of China’s counterspace activities, and we ignore this reality at our own peril.

In September 2006, U.S. satellite operators began noticing that some U.S. satellites were not functioning properly over China. These anomalies were also detected by satellite tracking sensors and were subsequently determined to be caused by lasers directed from China.

The following year, a Chinese SC-19 direct-ascent ASAT weapon destroyed an aging Chinese weather satellite in low Earth orbit through a successful hit-to-kill intercept, nearly doubling the existing amount of space debris in orbit and thereby posing a threat to all other satellites and the international space station.  In fact, we have to periodically move the ISS to avoid this Chinese space debris.

Just last year China launched a suborbital missile on a ballistic trajectory from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center that went to a high-altitude but did not put a satellite in orbit. According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s annual report to Congress, Beijing claimed the launch was part of a high-altitude scientific experiment. However, available data suggested it was intended to test at least the launch vehicle component of a new high-altitude ASAT capability. If the launch was part of China’s ASAT program, Beijing’s attempt to disguise it as a scientific experiment would demonstrate a lack of transparency about its objectives and activities in space.

Furthermore, such a test would signal China’s intent to develop an ASAT capability to target satellites in an altitude range that includes U.S. GPS and many U.S. military and intelligence satellites. In short, the modern society that Americans have become accustomed to and dependent upon is vulnerable to attacks from counterspace programs.

As reported in a recent article in National Defense Magazine, David Madden, the director of the military satellite communications systems directorate at the Air Force Space and Missile Center, confirmed this reality while speaking at the 2013 Milcom conference in San Diego. “Space is no longer a sanctuary. It is a contested environment,” Madden said. “We have known that for a while, especially with peer competitors.”

How do we protect ourselves? According to Dr. Tellis, the United States is eminently capable of dealing with the threats posed by Chinese counterspace programs through both defensive and offensive counterspace responses of its own. However, this will necessarily require significant investment if we are to maintain our competitive edge. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that there is no arms control solution available to limit the dangers posed by China’s counterspace activities, nor is there universal agreement about what constitutes “weaponization” in space. 

If history teaches us anything, it is that maintaining the high ground is critical to a nation’s security. As a nation we must recognize that a genuine threat exists, and then pursue all means to mitigate it. The National Space Policy states, in part, “The United States will employ a variety of measures to help assure the use of space for all responsible parties, and, consistent with the inherent right of self-defense, deter others from interference and attack, defend our space systems and contribute to the defense of allied space systems, and, if deterrence fails, defeat efforts to attack them.”

China’s aggressive program poses a genuine threat to all nations’ space programs. Our investment in civil and military space is critical to our economic competitiveness as these investments are a driver of advanced competitive technologies. Likewise, these investments guarantee that we do not cede the military high ground. American leadership in space is critical to a free society and a free world.

 

U.S. Rep. Bill Posey (R) represents Florida’s 8th Congressional District, which includes the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and serves on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.