Magazine article National Defense

New Chinese Threats to U.S. Space Systems Worry Officials

Magazine article National Defense

New Chinese Threats to U.S. Space Systems Worry Officials

Article excerpt

Last year, China launched a mysterious missile from its southwest region. While Chinese news sources said it was a scientific experiment, there is widespread speculation that the payload was a more advanced anti-satellite test.

Satellites are vulnerable to an array of weapons and disruptive technologies like anti-satellite missiles and sophisticated cyber attacks that can have potentially devastating results from degrading capabilities to complete annihilation, experts said.

There is strong evidence that the anti-satellite weapon China tested in May 2013 went higher than low-Earth orbit, said Charles Miller, president of NextGen Space LLC, a space and public policy consulting group. If China continues to make strides and develops weapons that reach farther, it could one day threaten key satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

The damage caused by an anti-satellite missile is two-fold: Not only does it destroy its target, but it also causes a massive ripple affect with debris from the collision striking other satellites. China's 2007 test created a large debris field, which could damage other spacecraft, said Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command.

The Air Force in June took new steps to better track and observe man-made debris in space. The service awarded Lockheed Martin a $915 million contract to develop the Space Fence, which has been in the works for years and is now entering final system development with the delivery of increment 1 and an operations center. The system will track objects in low-Earth orbit and some in higher orbits. The Air Force plans to have the system operational by 2019, and the contract leaves open the possibility for a second radar site.

In February, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said potential adversaries are hard at work developing weapons that could degrade or destroy some of the United States' key satellites that provide essential communication to the military, the government and U.S. citizens.

"Threats to U.S. space services will increase during 2014 and beyond, as potential adversaries pursue disruptive and destructive counter-space capabilities," Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Chinese and Russian military leaders understand the unique information advantages afforded by space systems and are developing capabilities to disrupt the United States' use of space in a conflict."

In the months since his testimony, top U.S. military officials and policy analysts have echoed the same concern. As U.S. dependence on satellites grows, so does the vulnerability of its space assets.

Satellites beam essential information down to Earth. From mapping services to phone calls to Internet access, both the military and civilian world rely on timely and secure connections. The armed services use GPS satellites to guide unmanned aerial vehicles, missiles and other weapons. Reconnaissance satellites track enemy movements.

The military utility of satellite technology cannot be understated, said Shelton. Capabilities provided by satellites help the military conduct humanitarian, disaster relief and combat operations, he said.

"In space, our sustained mission success integrating these [satellite] capabilities into our military operations has encouraged potential adversaries to further develop counterspace technologies and attempt to exploit our systems and information. Therefore, I believe we are at a strategic crossroad in space," Shelton said before the SASC in March.

"We are so dependent on space these days. We plug into it like a utility. It is always there. Nobody worries about it," Shelton said. "You do not even know sometimes that you are touching space. So [to lose our space capabilities] it would be almost a reversion back to ... industrial-based warfare."

Bill [degrees]strove, a space systems analyst at Forecast International, a Newtown, Connecticut-based marketing and consulting firm, agreed that the military stands to lose much in the event of an attack on satellite systems. …

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