HUNTSVILLE — The U.S. military officials monitoring rocket launches around the globe need the ability to more quickly determine whether launch vehicles might be carrying anti-satellite weapons, according to the U.S. Air Force’s top space officer.

The emphasis today is on determining whether the vehicle in question is a ballistic missile or a satellite launcher, said Lt. Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Air Force Space Command. If the rocket is identified as a satellite launcher, U.S. military monitors tend to relax, he said, even though a launcher carrying a satellite to orbit would have the same trajectory as one launching an anti-satellite weapon.

Because of their reliance on satellites, and the vulnerability of those satellites, U.S. forces no longer have that luxury, Chilton said during an Aug. 15 speech at the 2006 Space and Missile Defense Conference and Exhibition here.

Speaking at the same conference, Air Force Maj. Gen. James Armor, director of the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office, said r ecent intelligence reports indicate that threats to U.S. satellites have been evolving faster than previously thought.

Armor’s office was recently tasked by Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, to develop a new architecture for systems that play a role in space security, including sensors and offensive measures that could be used to protect U.S. access to satellites and deny enemy use of space systems. Armor said that new architecture would likely be completed in the summer of 2007.

Armor declined to elaborate on the nature of the threats following a speech at the conference later that day, but he said the data on the increasing threats came as part of the development of a new National Intelligence Estimate on space security that is expected to be completed in January.

These threats need to be taken seriously, given DoD’s heavy reliance on military satellites as well as civilian satellites involved in the operation of the nation’s power grids, automatic teller machines, and other aspects of daily life that are taken for granted, Armor said.

A study conducted as part of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which was released in February, indicated that an attack that wiped out half of the Pentagon’s satellite fleet would send U.S. military capabilities back to their Vietnam War levels, making it difficult for troops to penetrate the “fog of war,” Armor said. The QDR is intended to help guide Defense Department planning and budgeting, “Space support is like oxygen – if you have it, you don’t think about it; if you don’t have it, it’s the only thing you want,” Armor said.

Chilton said during his speech that he wants to know whether a rocket has launched an anti-satellite weapon before the object in question has completed its first orbital pass.

Some of the characteristics that the military needs to watch for include whether a spacecraft appears to be equipped to maneuver or release a microsatellite, Chilton said.

Space Command is currently conducting a study of current and planned space surveillance systems to ensure that it does not duplicate other efforts as it works to improve its space surveillance capabilities , Chilton said.

Systems that will be critical to improving space situational awareness include the Space Based Space Surveillance System, which is expected to include the launch of a pathfinder satellite later this decade followed by a constellation of more capable spacecraft at some point after 2010, Chilton said. The Space Based Space Surveillance System is a planned constellation of satellites that is being designed to monitor other objects in Earth orbit.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency also is working on ground-based optical sensors that aid in that mission, Chilton said. While Chilton did not cite specific programs, budget justification materials posted on the agency’s Web site include details about programs such as the Ground Based Imaging, which is intended to complement existing radar technology by enabling the military to take sub-meter resolution imagery of non-rotating objects in geostationary orbit, and Deep View, which is intended to take high-resolution imagery of small objects in both low Earth and geostationary orbits.

The military also can make considerable progress towards its goal to better characterize the nature of objects in Earth orbit by doing a better job networking existing ground-based sensors and computers, and by developing better desktop visualization tools, Chilton said.

Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank, said that she was pleased to see Chilton putting a higher priority on space surveillance, and said that she hopes that the general’s interest in the matter would result in more resources for this task.

“The U.S. space surveillance network is the best in the world, but it isn’t good enough,” Hitchens said.

However, Hitchens said that increasing levels of small particles of debris in orbit, which could cripple a satellite in the case of a collision, are likely a much greater threat in the near term than anti-satellite weapons. While Hitchens said that she believes the threat of anti-satellite weapons is “highly unclear,” she noted that neither the threat posed by such weapons nor orbit debris could be addressed without better space situational awareness.