Analyst: U.S. Satellites Likely To Be Hit In A Hot War

The United States must prepare for war in space, because any enemy nation will be tempted to offset the immense U.S. space dominance by attacking American satellites, James A. Lewis, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) technology and public policy program director, predicted.

Lewis spoke at a CSIS panel discussion on whether space will become a “shooting gallery” in future wars.

While great attention has been paid to the Chinese use of a ground-based missile to destroy one of its aging weather satellites in orbit last year, proving that China can obliterate U.S. satellites, that isn’t where the great threat lies, Lewis said.

Rather, he said, the real threat lies in disabling satellites with directed energy weapons, such as lasers. The means of attack that is “most likely is directed energy weapons,” he said.

In a much less noticed incident, China used a ground-based laser to hit and disable a U.S. military satellite.

Both China and Russia have a range of anti-satellite (ASAT) tactics at their command, and other nations are joining the ranks of those with ASAT capabilities, Lewis and others said.

If the United States is confronted with a shooting war with China (it has vowed to force Taiwan to submit to rule by Beijing), then that war “may extend to space,” because China isn’t yet the military equal of U.S. forces, and thus must strike at American weaknesses, according to Ashley Tellis, senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Therefore, the United States must prepare for war involving action in space, he said.

Another capability that many nations are developing is jamming, Tellis said. It could be simpler for less advanced nations to jam data uplinks and downlinks between satellites and Earth, he said.

Jamming “is where the outliers have played,” said Michael Krepon, co-founder of the University of Virginia Henry L. Stimson Center and a diplomat scholar.

Identifying which nation has used jamming against a U.S. satellite or spacecraft would be “much more difficult” than identifying which nation used an ASAT missile to obliterate the satellite, Lewis said.

Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, agreed that “you can see if someone launches something at you,” while lasers and other “electronic kinds of attacks” are tough to see and track.

Asked what systems are required for space situational awareness of attacks, she said many existing systems are old, and Congress currently isn’t providing enough money to upgrade to new, effective systems. While currently the United States is spending in the millions of dollars in this area, it should be “in the low billions of dollars,” she said.

The next president, who will be chosen in the November general election, “will have a new policy” on space use and assets, Tellis said.

But regardless of whether Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, or Sen. Barak Obama of Illinois, the presumptive Democratic hopeful, is elected, there will be “no way to legislate away a threat,” Tellis said.

One key caveat in all this is the realization that in the Cold War, the United States confronted a very tough but rational adversary in the Soviet Union.

But today the United States is confronted with regimes such as those ruling Iran, North Korea and China, Lewis noted.

The policy of deterrence, threatening a massive responsive if some nation attacks U.S. satellites, may work well with a lucid opponent, but in the case of nations such as Iran and North Korea, “many may not wish to assume that,” Lewis said.

Iran has fired multiple-missile salvos; launched a missile from a submerged submarine; and announced plans for a space capability, which would involve much the same technologies as those required for an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also has said Israel must be wiped from the map, and that Israel soon won’t exist.

North Korea has fired multiple missiles in a salvo test, and is developing an ICBM. Also, it has detonated an atomic weapon underground. While North Korea has made some peaceful overtures, it has yet to surrender even one of its nuclear weapons to international arms inspectors.

And even though it has admitted to a plutonium-producing program for its nuclear weapons, it hasn’t admitted to a parallel highly enriched uranium program.

Clearly, both Iran and North Korea are developing missile technology that at some point could yield ASAT capabilities.