It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic wake-up call for U.S. space security efforts than China’s stunning anti-satellite demonstration Jan. 11.
A ground-based ballistic missile scored a direct hit on a defunct Chinese weather satellite, proving China’s capability of destroying space-based equipment.
The test underscores the importance of the U.S. National Security Space (NSS) efforts in light of our reliance on these advanced systems for military and intelligence missions — and the ability of other nations to attack them.
The lesson is simple: Sustained and adequate investment in NSS programs must continue so our nation’s warfighters and intelligence personnel can continue to rely on state-of-the-art communications, navigation, surveillance, weather and missile-warning assets. These superior systems are providing the United States and its allies with the asymmetrical advantages critical to our military success, and have proven themselves time and time again.
While there is no suggestion our satellites are under imminent threat, the Chinese demonstration reminds us that direct strikes against space-based assets are possible. What this means to the United States is that we not only need to invest in advanced satellite technologies, but a safe, reliable and nimble launch infrastructure able to respond quickly to future challenges.
No one questions the impact space systems continue to make on the battlefield. Their effect on precision weaponry and communications has been visible for some time. For example, just four tons of all-weather Joint Direct Attack Munitions equipped with satellite-guidance systems can drop an enemy bridge span. That is a fraction of the 200 tons of unguided bombs required to do the same mission during the Vietnam War. Operation Iraqi Freedom expended more than 6,500 of these joint direct attack munitions. Moreover, warfighters have increasingly relied on significantly more satellite communications (satcom) than ever before. According to a U.S. Central Command report, the number of military satcom and commercial satcom terminals increased by 12 times and 56 times, respectively. Satcom improved friendly force tracking, enabled long-distance, real-time cooperation and conferencing, and delivered ground commanders critical battlefield information for effective command and control.
In the coming decade, the Department of Defense expects the demand for satcom capacity to jump by an order of magnitude — from 13.6 gigabytes per second in 2006 to 160 gigabytes in 2015. To help fulfill this demand, it is critical that programs such as Wideband Gapfiller, the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite system , the Mobile User Objective System and the Transformational Communications Satellite (T-Sat ) meet their initial operating capabilities. T-Sat , with its high-data-rate laser communications system, is an enabler for the revolutionary, high-resolution intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities that will be a reality with Space Radar. Additionally, the Defense Department must avail itself of commercial satcom to fill the capacity shortfall in unsecured communication demands.
Through its Back to Basics program, the Air Force is improving space system development and procurement, ensuring that our next generation of communication, navigation, missile warning, surveillance, weather and space situational awareness systems will continue to be second to none. This initiative, although not a new, radical concept, appropriately emphasizes deliberate risk apportionment to continue to advance leading-edge concepts and technologies in the early stages while basing system production on mature technologies for the lowest risk.
Through proper technological advances, innovative concepts and robust funding, our national security space programs will remain out in front of threats to U.S. interests at home, abroad and in space. The Defense Department is organizing the Operationally Responsive Space Program Office, a congressionally mandated entity that will develop plans to quickly launch satellites based on immediate need. The Chinese test underscores the importance of this capability.
No matter how successful initiatives such as Back to Basics are within the acquisition community, third-generation systems such as T-Sat and Space Radar, and innovative concepts like operationally responsive space, will never be developed and deployed without a consistent, robust funding stream. Rather than shift resources away from the NSS infrastructure; Congress, the Defense Department and the intelligence community must refocus their management and oversight efforts on stabilizing mission requirements, adequately funding promising new concepts and technology, and evolving plans and capabilities to ensure the protection of our vital space assets.
It is true that cost overruns and schedule delays have occurred in the past. The Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office must continue to build on their improvements in this regard. Similarly, congressional stakeholders must strive to eliminate unstable funding profiles that only undermine program performance and execution. This recovery from program instability in recent years could not come too soon. There are significant signs the national security space system is strengthening. The Air Force’s 49 operational launch successes in a row provides irrefutable evidence that it has more than turned the corner in launch vehicle acquisition and mission success following six launch failures in the late 1990s. This includes 15-for-15 for operational Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle missions, which is unprecedented for a new program.
Complementing this success for launching large space systems, ongoing efforts between industry and the government to develop more responsive space lift vehicles and facilities should be strongly encouraged so that new capabilities can reach orbit in as short a time as possible.
With the vulnerability of our space assets suddenly in plain view, we cannot afford to under-invest in this critical sector of our national security program.
John Douglass is president and chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association.