BOSTON — Despite speculation to the contrary, the U.S. Air Force is not planning to use China’s test of an anti-satellite weapon in January as a pretext for developing space weapons, according to the service’s top uniformed official.
Air Force officials in recent years have said that space weapons may be necessary to protect U.S. satellites. But in aftermath of China’s Jan. 11 destruction of an aging weather satellite with a kinetic strike from a ground-based missile, the service is limiting its focus to exploring opportunities to better protect its satellites and improve its ability to monitor objects in orbit, Gen. Michael T. Moseley, Air Force chief of staff, told the Defense Writers Group during an April 24 press conference in Washington.
Moseley said he recently asked Air Force Space Command to study those issues and that any decision to develop and deploy space weapons would have to come from senior U.S. government officials outside the Air Force, Moseley said.
Moseley described the Jan. 11 test as a “strategically dislocating event” on par with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 50 years ago.
“Two things are immediately obvious,” Moseley said. “One, space is not a sanctuary; and two, now we have a debris field at those orbital altitudes that will be there for at least a decade. Either one of those is a problem.”
The mobile nature of the system used by Chinese military to launch the missile that destroyed the weather satellite would make it a challenging threat to counter in an operational scenario, Moseley said. A mobile system could be deployed outside the country of its owner, or sold to another potential enemy of the United States, he said.
While the Chinese test demonstrated the capability to destroy a satellite in low Earth orbit, Moseley said it is likely the Chinese will extend the range of that type of weapon to strike objects in geostationary orbit as well.
“If you can hit something at 500-plus miles [805 kilometers] in orbit then you can certainly hit something out beyond 20,000 miles [32,186 kilometers],” Moseley said. “It’s just a physics problem.”
Satellites used by the United States as well as other countries are already vulnerable due to the debris in low Earth orbit created by the Chinese test, Moseley said. While the debris may be confined to low Earth orbit, the threat extends to geostationary orbit due to the fact that satellites on their way to the higher orbit may pass through the debris field, Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee April 19.
Despite the Chinese use of a ground-based missile in its anti-satellite demonstration, the Air Force should not limit its vulnerability assessment to examining assets in space, Moseley said. Air Force Space Command needs to assess the vulnerability of its satellite ground stations and command and control links as well, he said.
After Air Force Space Command completes its review, the service may need to explore ways to back up its space capabilities with aerial assets to ensure redundancy, Moseley said.
Pentagon officials and congressional aides also have said recently that the Chinese demonstration of anti-satellite weapon capabilities has bolstered the case for developing small satellites based on the TacSat experiments — satellites that can be launched on short-notice to replenish a satellite that has been destroyed, thus serving as a deterrent to enemy development and use of anti-satellite weapons.
While studying the vulnerability of U.S. satellites is a logical response to the Chinese demonstration, Air Force Space Command’s analysis is unlikely to uncover any solutions that can make more than a marginal difference in protecting space-based capabilities, according to Michael Krepon, president emeritus of the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank.
Krepon compared the desire to protect satellites to that of the desire to protect major cities during the Cold War, and said that this is another case where a vulnerability is far easier to attack than to defend.
“The fundamental vulnerability of satellites is harder to accept when you are the world’s sole superpower,” Krepon said. “I suspect the frustration level is higher as a result.”