Air Force Mulls Path Ahead For Protecting Satellites

By Michael Sirak and Dave Ahearn

The Air Force continues to grapple with how to protect its on-orbit space assets in the wake of China's successful test of an anti-satellite weapon in January, according to senior service officials.

"First [we have to] make sure we have the situational awareness," Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne told reporters at the Air Force Association 2007 Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition in Washington, D.C.

"And so our first approach is to be essentially defensive, knowledgeable, create the situational awareness and then have at our [disposal] some operationally responsive space to respond. Beyond that, right now we are, I think, doing all of the right things to examine what kind of defense we should put into place."

As Brig. Gen. William N. McCasland, director of Air Force space acquisition, said a week earlier, Pentagon leaders are engaged in a spirited, "stimulating," discussion of just what systems might be required to protect space assets from attack. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, Sept. 24, 2007.)

Missile Defense Agency leaders guide development of the Aegis, Airborne Laser, Kinetic Energy Interceptor, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and other ballistic missile defense systems. Those leaders have said that MDA hasn't been charged with defeating threats to U.S. and allied military and commercial space assets, such as ground-based anti- satellite missiles or lasers.

Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, commander of the Air Force Space Command, also stressed the urgent need for space situational awareness, saying that will involve sensors based both on the ground and in space. He also spoke before the AFA conference.

"We do not have what we need for tomorrow," he said.

The Chinese test, during which a ballistic missile launched from the Chinese mainland destroyed an old Chinese weather satellite in space, was a sobering wake-up call that has brought the issue of satellite protection to the forefront of deliberations, senior Air ?Force officials said.

That test, in destroying the old satellite, also created thousands of pieces of debris zipping at enormous speeds through near space to endanger satellites, spacecraft and the International Space Station.

Chilton lashed out at the Chinese recklessness, saying, "I'm not a fan of kinetically creating space debris."

In his view, China added insult to injury by then requesting admission to international space activities. "I thought it was chutzpah for them to turn around and" make that request, he said.

"Space, therefore, must be labeled a contested domain and something we need to do [something] about," Wynne told the conference audience.

But while protective measures are under review for future spacecraft, they may be too costly to justify in a war of attrition, and hard to integrate on some of the satellites, Wynne said earlier.

"I do think that we should have some defense mechanisms," he said during a speech last month on Capitol Hill. "But I will tell you that it is very hard to try to defend a satellite that you are trying to talk to. So you are going to have to really think your way through" this.

As defensive options are weighed, senior Air Force space officials continue to echo what Wynne said: the prerequisite for safeguarding satellites is to establish a robust network of sensors that can monitor activities in space and help commanders to understand readily what is happening on orbit.

"We look at space protection as something that has to be integrated and designed into the system, the satellites, the control links, the ground-control system, [and] the user equipment," Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, the Air Force space acquisition arm, said during a meeting with reporters in Los Angeles, Calif. "We likewise have to have situational awareness so that we know, if we should have disruptions someplace in the system, to be able to rapidly assess that, determine whether or not it is the result of just a random failure, or is it some kind of environmental effect, or, indeed, is there some hostile force that is trying to do something to disrupt that service."

Chilton also stressed that issue, saying that "if a satellite stops [working], you have to know why. And if someone is messing with my satellite, who?"

Wynne said at the conference that the ability to discern hostile action from natural phenomena or satellite glitches is crucial.

"We are going to have to be very convincing," he said. "If we state the case that an act of war has occurred, we have to be very aware, very precise."

Currently all U.S. satellites reside "in peaceful mode" on orbit, meaning they are not "well defended," Wynne said

But Beijing's anti-satellite, or ASAT test, by forming a huge field of debris in low Earth orbit, has given pause for thought.

"It was an egregious act," Wynne said. "Were we surprised? Well actually, we were not surprised. We were shocked."

Most disturbing, he said, was the Chinese denial of the incident for weeks afterward.

"Was it part of a plan? Was it not part of a plan? That is what was shocking about it," he said. "Fifteen thousand pieces [of debris] and we now have to steer the [International] Space Station around your debris field."

The act showed that space is no longer a sanctuary and that the United States faces vulnerability with the space systems upon which it relies to conduct military operations and maintain national security, according to Wynne, Chilton and Hamel.

"Those of us who have been inside the military space business for a long time have always been mindful of the potential of having adversaries in some way disrupt or deny our ability to use space capabilities," said Hamel. "Now the Chinese have demonstrated the technical ability to be able to intercept an object in orbit. And so I think what this does is takes us from [having] simply an abstract discussion about what vulnerabilities we think we have to no-kidding, seriously having to consider what is necessary to protect our space capabilities that we have become so critically dependent upon."

As a result of the test, Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley assigned the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) to take a clean-sheet look at plans for monitoring space activities and for protecting U.S. satellites to determine what adjustments to those plans, if any, are warranted.

An initial study of the U.S. space-surveillance network -- terrestrial-based optical telescopes and radar and on-orbit sensors -- was completed earlier this year and briefed to Wynne and Moseley in June at Corona Top, the meeting of the service's four-star generals, AFSPC said.

"That study has been forwarded to the Space and Missile Systems Center and Electronic Systems Center to conduct a cost/benefit analysis and determine system engineering trades, the command told Defense Daily, sister publication of Space & Missile Defense Report, in a written response to a query.

"This integrated effort will develop 'best-value' options and priorities to pursue with respect to the current space surveillance network."

Results of this best-value analysis are expected to be briefed to the AFSPC leadership later this year and help the command as it assigns its priorities for the program objective memorandum for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010.

"So part of the clean-sheet trying to take a fresh look, not just simply at what legacy sensors do we have, but what kind of sensing systems and processing and fusion architectures do we want for the future," Hamel said. "Frankly, yes, events that have occurred over the past year have certainly given us reason to look at the adequacy and the responsiveness that would be necessary to be able to deal with [on-orbit developments], whether that be debris effects in orbit or other things."

Moseley told reporters that the Air Force was waiting for the Senate to approve the nomination of Gen. Kevin Chilton, who currently heads AFSPC, as the new commander of the U.S. Strategic Command.

At that point, Moseley said, Chilton will be able to examine AFSPC's analytical work on space protection from the combatant-commander perspective of his new post.

There is a sense of urgency to establishing the path ahead for protecting space assets, Wynne said. The Air Force must replace its total inventory of on-orbit satellites over the course of the next 12 years since these spacecraft will simply run out of their onboard fuel and cannot be replenished on station, he said.

"And now, of course, with China saying there is no sanctuary, everyone ... is starting to pile on about maybe you ought to protect them, maybe you ought not to be so big," he said. "It's a gray topic."

"I say that if space comes under attack, maybe we don't want to put up big expensive retainer forces," the secretary continued.

"Because I can't afford as a nation to just do an exchange ratio where they send up a $100 million [ASAT] missile and I send up a $1.5 billion satellite. These numbers are bad."

Meanwhile, the Air Force is progressing with plans to increase its space situational-awareness capabilities. The service is not only upgrading existing ground-based radar and optical telescopes, but also developing new systems, some of which will reside in space, such as the Space Based Space Surveillance satellite. The goal is more robust monitoring that is not focused just geographically on activities emanating from the ex-Soviet Union, Hamel said.

"Our immediate near-term priority is to look at ways to try to knot together, net together those sensors in a much more operationally responsive fashion so that we can maintain continuous knowledge of events as situations change," he said. This ranges from detecting any space launch, to monitoring what goes into orbit and the activities of these objects for the duration of their lives, he said.

As part of these activities, Hamel said the Air Force is working with the Missile Defense Agency to integrate the data from new ballistic missile defense sensors into the space-surveillance architecture.

"A number of their X-band radars are extraordinarily capable systems," he said. "We have had discussions...about how we might accelerate being able to bring data from those missile defense radar and other sensor systems into now this integrated space situational awareness architecture. We think it will be very beneficial."

SMC has also developed plans to rapidly prototype new monitoring and defensive capabilities and make them available to warfighting commanders, he said.

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