On Jan. 11, the Chinese launched a medium-range ballistic missile into space. It targeted an aging Chinese weather satellite orbiting 805 kilometers above the planet. The missile rammed into the target satellite sending out thousands of pieces of debris into orbit of varying sizes and speeds from 1,185 kilometers to 2,370 kilometers per hour, according to Air Force Space Command. This debris has the potential to stay in orbit for years to come.
The United States, with its space surveillance network, will bear the long-term responsibility for warning others of potential collisions, including foreign and commercial operators, and the Chinese. I remember seeing a picture of the space shuttle window after a paint chip collided with it at over more than 27,358 kilometers per hour. Particles a few centimeters in length are large enough to cause major damage. I don’t want to imagine what a collision would look like between one of our satellites and a piece of the destroyed Chinese weather satellite.
This anti-satellite (A-Sat) test is a clear wake-up call for the Bush administration, Congress and the American people that must not be ignored. Since I became chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces in 2002, I have warned of the emerging risk to our commercial and military satellite constellations. I have asked the administration, along with my colleagues in Congress, to devote more attention and resources to the protection of our space-based assets. The United States has more satellites in orbit than any other nation and as such we are more dependent upon their reliable presence to provide us with everything from ATM card transactions to battlefield intelligence and treaty monitoring. The most technologically advanced nation is also the most vulnerable to disruption if our satellites are threatened.
The recent Chinese action was significant and reckless. While the Chinese have firmly denied any mal intent to their recent test, I can only look more broadly to their other activities and remain highly skeptical. Apparently, this single test is part of a series of direct-ascent A-Sat tests, which is part of a broader effort to develop counter-space capabilities, which is consistent with larger military modernization and advanced technology efforts. A similar observation was made in the recent report by the bipartisan U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
China has been a student of U.S. space operations dating back to Operation Desert Storm. China knows all too well the advantage space offers us, as well as the vulnerabilities that exist in that area. China’s military planners have advocated the use of technology that would deny us access to our space assets; a tactic that would be consistent with what many consider China’s unofficial doctrine of asymmetric warfare. This begs the strategic question, why did they conduct the A-Sat test and what do they hope to achieve? We have not seen an A-Sat test in more than 20 years. At the height of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviets had A-Sat capabilities, but we both understood that a satellite attack could mean nuclear war. Today, the implications of an attack that persisted in the Cold War seem to have diminished. In the past few years, we have seen a handful of GPS and satellite communications jamming incidents with few repercussions for the perpetrators. What is most troubling is that these attacks are coming in a period of widespread use of GPS, satellite communications and space-based imagery.
Furthermore, I expect we will see more. Last June, as chairman of the Strategic Forces subcommittee, I held a hearing to better understand our military and economic dependence on space. A witness from Strategic Command provided several examples of how space capabilities are integral to the daily execution of virtually every military campaign, operation and exercise involving U.S. forces today. On the commercial side, an industry association witness estimated that space contributes $90 billion annually to the global economy. Not only has space become essential to modern warfare, it has become a permanent utility in our global commerce.
The much talked about Chinese A-Sat test is but one of a range of potential threats looming on the horizon, including jamming, laser “dazzling,” micro-satellites, direct ascent A-Sats, cyber attacks, physical attacks to ground stations and possibly even a nuclear explosion. Our satellites also are vulnerable to less malicious threats that pose a risk to their operations. These include space debris and close approaches, solar flares and severe weather damaging ground stations.
As a national security space community, and as a nation, we have a vested stake in protecting our interests in space. This includes both the need to protect our space systems and preserve our assured use of space. The Chinese A-Sat is but one striking example of why I believe this requires urgent attention.
I believe we are challenged in addressing these threats. First and foremost, we need to develop space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities. As we learned on Sept. 11, 2001, seemingly benign systems can have latent offensive capabilities. An object that appears to be orbital debris or a research satellite may, in fact, be an A-Sat targeted at U.S. or friendly assets. Likewise, noise in a data link may be accidental interference or intentional jamming. We are limited in what we can do in space without knowing what is going on up there, and being able to attribute a hostile event to the right actor.
We also need to examine various options and courses of action to increase the survivability of our space capabilities, including: rapid replenishment, redundancy, hardening, distributed architectures, alternatives such as unmanned aerial vehicles, active and passive measures, reversible and non-reversible means and non-material solutions.
I have hope for one solution in particular: the 2007 defense bill that authorized the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program office. ORS offers promise not only as a way to supplement a battlefield commander’s capabilities, but also to quickly replace damaged or destroyed satellites to meet the immediate needs of the warfighter. In addition, ORS might serve as a deterrent to nations pursuing programs to threaten our satellites. If we have numerous ORS systems in space along with more traditional military and intelligence satellites, and we can rapidly reconstitute our space assets, we make it a lot harder for an adversary to effectively deny us our space-based capability.
SSA and options for protecting our space assets must be looked at holistically and weighed as part of a space protection strategy. Some of the issues that need exploring include: how threat assessments are incorporated into the requirements process and, in turn, acquisition programs; what the right mix of SSA and protection capabilities might be and how these capabilities fit together; and, lastly, recognizing we will not be able to protect — nor can we afford to protect – all systems to the same level, how should we prioritize what to protect.
The Chinese A-Sat test also rekindles a larger policy discussion on how we use space and how we protect our interests in space. I understand there are differences of opinion. Some have argued for arms control measures that ban “space weapons.” To be frank, I do not support arms control measures. In the space arena where satellites have latent offensive capabilities, I find it extremely difficult to verify and enforce any arms control measures. I believe diplomacy is important, but I also think we need a strong technical and operational foundation.
More to the point, we don’t have a clear definition of “space weapons,” which makes it difficult to engage in serious debate. Here is my definition: A space weapon could be a kinetic or directed energy source going from ground-to-space, air-to-space or space-to-space, and vice versa. It also could include an attack against a ground station, which I would argue has as great an effect on satellite operations as any threat in space. If you use this definition, then space is already weaponized.
I look forward to this debate. We have spent the last few years setting the stage. I believe in leaving all options on the table and discussing their merits and drawbacks. I do not want to see us limit our options in space that are worthy defense needs or hamper our abilities to advance space technologies.
These threats and our vulnerabilities are real. I believe we should defend our space assets and use of space by any means necessary. They are too important to our national security and economy not to protect.
Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.) was chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces from 2002 to 2006, and currently serves as the subcommittee ranking member. This commentary is based on an edited excerpt from the Rep. Everett’s address Feb. 1 to the National Defense Industrial Association National Security Space Policy and Architecture Symposium in Washington.