– As worldwide attention focuses on
‘s first successful anti-satellite missile test,
officials are questioning why some Chinese spacecraft are in orbits that bring them close to key
satellites, according to military sources.
The big question is the scale and progress of the Chinese anti-satellite program, including whether the Chinese spacecraft are benign or time bombs that can someday be used to threaten the space assets on which the U.S. military and economy depend for everything from reconnaissance and dropping bombs to communications and navigation.
The Chinese spacecraft don’t appear to be conducting any particular mission. Rather, “there is a menu of missions that could be performed that we are not yet clear about,” said one source. “These things aren’t being sent up there to be space rocks.”
For more than a decade,
officials have warily eyed
‘s growth as a space power, particularly its interest in developing anti-satellite systems to counter an overwhelming American superiority in space.
Interest peaked after a ground-based missile destroyed an obsolete Chinese weather satellite Jan. 11.
stressed that the test should not be viewed as threatening, but it comes on the heels of revelations last year that
had illuminated a
satellite with a ground-based laser.
In a Jan. 19 report for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Pentagon
expert Michael Pillsbury said
‘s military is examining a range of anti-satellite capabilities. The report is based on the writings of more than 20 Chinese military strategists, particularly three colonels at
between 2001 and 2005.
The commission is a congressionally chartered bipartisan panel that advises lawmakers on the strategic U.S.-China security and business relationship.
Pillsbury declined to discuss whether
has already launched into orbit elements of a covert space fleet, but stressed that
‘s military strategists appear focused on designing a broad set of anti-satellite capabilities.
“We have three books and several-dozen articles from China that go back 10 years, all of which advocate all types of anti-satellite weapons and they have a consistent theme – they have to be deployed covertly so that in a crisis with America, China can shoot down some satellites as a deterrent message,” Pillsbury said.
“These documents advocate multiple approaches to pre-emptive strikes on satellites, from plasma clouds, pellets, directed-energy weapons, orbiting spacecraft and attacking ground stations with special forces,” he said.
China, Pillsbury said, is convinced the United States is weaponizing space and Beijing has concluded it must develop a like capability, while simultaneously pressing for an international space weapon ban.
“What’s interesting is that no matter how hard you try, you don’t find anything in Chinese writings that argues the opposite, that if you attack U.S. military satellites you will have World War 3 on your hands, which is why it’s better to initiate a space weapons dialogue and never have a crisis in the first place,” Pillsbury said.
A Chinese military official said he could not comment on the matter.
Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, said it is difficult to determine whether the authors quoted by Pillsbury represent fringe or mainstream Chinese military thought.
“The hard part of dissecting China is that we know so little of who’s who and we can’t necessarily tell as outside analysts which are credible sources,” she said.
“It would be dangerous to either underestimate or overestimate Chinese capabilities, but you have to be more aware of overestimation because you don’t want to be in a situation where you panic.”
China in 2002 called on the United States to send a delegation to Geneva to negotiate a space weapons ban. But Washington refused because Beijing rejected verification measures and defined space weapons as including missile defense components.
The Outer Space Treaty, which the United States signed in 1967, prohibited nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in space. But American officials say that while they are committed to the peaceful use of space, they will not be party to an agreement that could hamstring their ability to defend space assets.
The U.S. Congress barred the Air Force from building anti-satellite missiles in 1986, after an Air Force F-15 fighter launched a missile that destroyed an orbiting U.S. satellite. The Soviet Union also flexed its anti-satellite capabilities in the 1980s. And now China has joined the club.
Asked about the anti-satellite threat posed by China, Lt. Col. Michael Pierson, a spokesman for the U.S. Air Force Space Command, declined comment. “As a matter of principle, we do not discuss specific vulnerabilities, threats, responses or steps to mitigate,” he said.
“In broad terms, the U.S. has an inherent right of self defense and we take all threats to our sovereign space systems seriously. We monitor activities that threaten our right to use space peacefully and take appropriate steps to defend our systems against current and future threats.”
Part of the problem, Pierson said, is the sheer number of operational and long-defunct spacecraft orbiting Earth. “In 1957, there was one man-made object in space. Today, we are tracking more than 14,000 man-made objects in space. So, the environment has changed,” Pierson said.
And better awareness of what’s exactly in space and why has become a major initiative for the Air Force since the release of a 2000 report by the blue ribbon Space Commission panel that declared that America was vulnerable to a “space Pearl Harbor.”
The panel was chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, who would become defense secretary months later and spearead changes to the military space organization, including subsuming the U.S. Space Command into the U.S. Strategic Command to ensure a single management point for strategic space.
The Pentagon in recent years has developed a number of experimental satellites to improve U.S. space-surveillance capabilities, among them XSS-11 and Angels. These satellites are designed to be highly maneuverable, allowing them to perform up-close inspections of objects near their orbits, an attribute that has led some to charge that they are thinly veiled demonstrations of anti-satellite capabilities. XSS-11 was launched to low Earth orbit in 2005, and Angels is slated to launch to geostationary orbit around 2009. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver is prime contractor on both satellites.
Another legacy of Rumsfeld’s tenure as defense secretary is a series efforts collectively known as Operationally Responsive Space. The concept entails rapidly building and launching low-cost satellites that address emerging military needs and which can be tasked by commanders in the field.
In the wake of China’s anti-satellite test, Operationally Responsive Space advocates have seized upon another key attribute of the concept: Safety in numbers. Space architectures that distribute capabilities over a large number of relatively small and easily replaceable platforms are inherently less vulnerable than those based on a few large, complex satellites, these advocates say.
To test Operationally Responsive Space concepts, the Pentagon hatched a number of quick-reaction launcher and satellite programs, most notably the TacSat series of low-cost spacecraft. The first of those, TacSat-2, was launched in December aboard a Minotaur rocket.
“Pearl Harbor was said for effect and may have been overstated, but we need to get serious about protecting the assets in space, not just the spacecraft, but the nodes and ground stations that contribute to that,” said Lance Lord, a retired Air Force general who until 2006 headed the service’s space command. “To underscore the importance of space situational awareness we reordered our priorities to space surveillance, defensive counter space and last, offensive counter space.
“Defensive counterspace is key. You have to have defense in depth so that if you lose one spacecraft or a space-borne capability, you can reroute in a self-healing system to avoid single-point vulnerabilities. In terms of the overall system, it’s relatively robust, but not as good as it needs to be.”
Space, like the sea, is open to all nations for peaceful and select military applications like reconnaissance, surveillance, communications and weather forecasting, and with that openness comes challenges, Lord said.
“You have an inherent right of self defense in the commons of space and if someone is using space against you, you can take a variety of actions to defend yourself,” he said. “That is even more important now that the Chinese have proven that they are technically capable of large projects and want to be a full player in the environment and we have to appreciate how that plays into their doctrine.”