OMAHA, Neb. — A key lawmaker who oversees U.S. Defense Department space activities and programs said the military should use any means necessary to protect its satellites because of the critical role they play in national security and the economy.
U.S. Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.) , chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, told reporters following a luncheon speech here at the Strategic Space and Defense Conference that he did not wish to see the Pentagon instigate space warfare , but at the same time does not want the military to limit its defensive options should U.S. satellites be attacked .
Everett, who devoted significant time in his speech to touting the military and economic benefits of satellites , closed by saying the Pentagon should have the option of using temporary or non-reversible measures to protect its space-based assets. Non-destructive measures, he said , should remain the first option in the event of an attack, he told reporters.
Space control, which covers a range of capabilities that include orbital surveillance, satellite protection and denial of space capabilities to adversaries, was a major theme at the conference.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. William Shelton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space, said the United States needs to improve its space control capabilities across the board, including denying enemy use of space. “We are not very good at that last part,” he said.
Everett, who also serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has been outspoken over the past several years about the importance of protecting U.S. satellites . Following the speech, he said his view that the Pentagon should take destructive measures if necessary to protect its satellites was based on information that he has known for some time.
Everett acknowledged the recently disclosed incident in which China allegedly illuminated a U.S. satellite with a laser, but told reporters there was not much the United States could do in response. The Chinese laser did not pose a “serious threat” to the U.S. satellite, he said. The Chinese likely fired the laser in an attempt to demonstrate their technology, and possibly gauge the U.S. response, he said.
In the event that a U.S. satellite was seriously threatened, space policy dating back to 1996 gives the Pentagon a full range of options for responding, Everett said. That policy has been superseded by one released by the White House Oct. 6, but the updated version does not mark a significant change in terms of the military’s space control options.
Everett said the Pentagon should not shy away from research and development into space-based anti-satellite weapons, despite the fact that they are controversial . One avenue for such research could be a second copy of the Near Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE) satellite that includes a kill vehicle, he said.
The NFIRE satellite, slated for launch next year, is being developed by the Missile Defense Agency to gather data to distinguish between an incoming missile’s body and its exhaust plume . The agency initially planned for the satellite to also include a missile-seeking projectile , but that drew criticism from congressional Democrats who said such an experiment would pave the way for space-based anti-satellite or anti-missile weapons .
The agency maintained that the projectile was merely intended to get a closer look at the incoming missile, but later dropped it from the experiment due to technical difficulty.
Everett expressed disappointment with that decision , and said building another NFIRE satellite, this time with a kill vehicle, could lead to a valuable capability to defend U.S. assets.
Everett told reporters that he helped provide the U.S. Air Force with $1 million in 2007 to study the economic impact on the United States if its satellites were attacked.
During his speech, Everett said his committee held a hearing on space security this past summer where one witness stated that satellites contribute more than $90 billion to the world economy.
Despite the talk of striking enemy assets, Everett said the first order of business in protecting U.S. satellites is improving the military’s ability to monitor and track objects on orbit.
With current orbit monitoring capabilities, it is difficult to tell the difference between a piece of debris or a science satellite and a weapon aimed at a U.S. or allied satellite, he said. Similarly, interference with a communications satellite could be intentional or accidental, he said. “As we learned on 9-11, seemingly benign systems can have offensive capabilities,” Everett said.
The Pentagon should consider a variety of ways to protect space assets including hardening , in-orbit redundancy, distributed architectures, rapid replenishment capabilities and augmentation from unmanned aerial vehicles, he said.
Colin Clark contributed to this story.