COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A senior U.S. Air Force officer in charge of space activities is begging to differ with critics who charge that the service’s rhetoric about the importance of monitoring objects and events in Earth orbit is not being matched with action.
Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said he is taking a number of steps to improve so-called space situational awareness. These measures include information-system upgrades that will enable the Air Force to better utilize data from existing and planned surveillance systems, he said.
In recognition of the U.S. military’s growing dependence on satellites, Pentagon officials have labeled the ability to monitor potential threats to space-based systems a top priority in recent years. Shortly after taking over at Space Command this past summer, for example, Chilton said the Air Force needs the ability to identify the type and purpose of non-U.S. satellites almost immediately after they reach orbit.
But the Air Force’s 2008 budget request, submitted to Congress in early February, deferred funding for planned upgrades to a key surveillance system: the Space Fence, a network of ground-based radars across the southern United States that tracks orbiting objects as they pass overhead.
During a press conference April 12 here at the 23rd National Space Symposium, Chilton said several other measures are in fact under way to improve U.S. space situational awareness. He ticked off examples that he said have gone largely unnoticed by critics:
Funding has been provided to Air Force Maj. William Shelton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space, to update computers at the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The computers at the center, which serves as the focal point for providing space capabilities and services to deployed U.S. forces, are in many cases more than 15 years old, Chilton said.
As part of the upgrade, the center is working to automate the fusion of data from a variety of space-surveillance platforms, providing a more complete picture of the orbital environment more quickly, Chilton said.
The Air Force is moving its 1st Space Control Squadron from Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station in Colorado Springs to Vandenberg this year to better coordinate space-surveillance activities , Chilton said. The 1st Space Control Squadron maintains a catalog of man-made objects in space.
Chilton said he initiated a study last summer of current and planned space-surveillance capabilities. The study, he said, could result in new investments and other changes — such as the repositioning of ground-based radar and optical space-surveillance sensors, both existing and planned.
During a speech at the symposium, Chilton said improved space situational awareness begins with better intelligence on foreign satellites before they get off the ground. This could put the Air Force in the position of being a “step ahead of the enemy, not playing catch up,” he said.
Chilton’s comments failed to impress some critics, however. While the efforts at the Joint Space Operations Center are a step in the right direction, the Air Force is not allocating the money or manpower to make the improvements that Chilton envisions, according to Pentagon sources.
Recent actions by China, including the test earlier this year of a ground-based anti-satellite missile, have focused public and congressional attention on threats to satellites. Chilton said during his speech that this threat can take many forms, such as satellite-signal jamming and hacking into the computers at ground control facilities.
Mother Nature also poses a threat, Chilton said. Phenomena such as solar flares, which can disrupt a satellite’s sensitive onboard electronics as well as its communications signals, need to be monitored closely as part of an integrated space situational awareness picture, he said.
Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, director of air, space and information operations at Air Force Space Command, said in an April 9 interview that natural phenomena, along with accidental radio frequency interference from U.S. systems, are responsible for most disruptions to the nation’s military space capabilities today.