Enemies could inflict severe damage on the United States and its allies in an attack on American space assets, experts said.

U.S. leaders need to begin deciding now how to initiate capabilities such as space surveillance that could identify an attacker, and also to decide how to respond if a gigantic loss of space capabilities occurs, experts recommended.

Thus far, the Missile Defense Agency hasn’t been tasked with developing defenses against enemy anti-satellite missiles.

Their comments came in several hours of panel discussions organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the George C. Marshall Institute at the Chamber headquarters in Washington.

The sweeping scope of devastation that would follow a massive attack on space assets would be staggering, according to David Logsdon, executive director of the Chamber Space Enterprise Council.

Logsdon said the devastation that would follow a successful attack can be appreciated on a much smaller scale by reviewing how some technicians in San Diego one day altered Global Positioning System (GPS) controllers:

Emergency responders lost access to GPS, and motorists were driving around without their OnStar systems working, and others suddenly lost needed systems.

While this was an accident, it shows how much greater damage could be inflicted in an enemy attack on American satellites, or by a cyber attack, jamming of satellite signals or an attack on ground stations serving satellites, he said.

Both private satellite operating and using firms must begin coordinating with the military to plan for disaster, he added.

A huge attack could produce widespread devastation, because the United States and its allies have become enormously dependent upon space-based systems, according to Ed Morris, of the Office of Space Commerce in the Department of Commerce:

  • Some computers might go offline, and radio signals might be lost.
  • Cell phones might go dead.
  • Credit card transactions might grind to a sudden halt.
  • Communication companies might be disrupted, and remote areas might lose TV reception.
  • Tens of millions of motorists worldwide could suddenly lose GPS capability.
  • Airlines as well might be affected, losing the ability to conserve high-priced jet fuel.
  • In logistics, corporations might lose the ability to track goods from factories to stores, and farmers would lose the ability to have GPS guide their tractors, so as to reduce fertilizer use.
  • Because weather forecasting is so dependent on satellite-gathered imagery and data, if that were lost, then precise forecasts of approaching severe storms would be lost as well. And that could mean needless shutdowns of oil and gas facilities, and ships on the ocean heading to port needlessly.
  • People lost at sea might lose their ability to call for help in an emergency.
  • Rescue efforts after natural disasters could be impeded.

In sum, losing space capabilities that satellites provide “could have a paralyzing effect on our daily lives,” Morris said.

Logsdon agree, saying that “if only a handful of those [disasters] were to occur,” there would be immense disruptions. And if all of those events were to occur, “it would drive our economy and national security back to the 1950s.”

“If all of our space assets failed at the same time, we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs,” said Steven Anderson, chief scientist with Horizon Marine Inc.

Ron Hatch, with John Deere/NavCom Technology, said the loss of GPS would strike farmers a severe blow, in an age when some tractors don’t even have steering wheels, because they are guided by GPS for precision farming.

Agricultural tasks can be done faster and better when GPS steers a tractor, rather than a human, he said.

Thousands of tractors now are GPS guided, he said.

Pete Hays, associate director with the Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies at the Air Force Academy, said both military and civilian satellites provide immeasurable benefits to the armed forces, including precision-guided weapons that vastly reduce collateral damage to civilians and civilian facilities in wartime.

Space capabilities mean that strike missions can take off and head off to place steel on targets, without pilots knowing before taking off what targets will be hit, or where the targets are located.

Civilian satellites, too, are providing increasing value to the military, he noted, such as the IKONOS civilian observation satellite that provided before-and-after pictures of buildings destroyed in the Chechen war.

Imagery is so precise that photographs show detail down to individual houses and streets, he noted.

Satellite photography in Fallujah likewise showed before-and-after imagery displaying the amount of damage done in bombing runs.

Catastrophic Space Losses Loom

The United States would be hard-pressed to maintain its dominance in space if it suddenly lost many key assets, according to retired Air Force Maj Gen. James Armor.

In event of such a massive and crippling attack, “We’re looking at a decade without U.S. preeminence in space, and I think that would be a terrible tragedy,” he said. That would be “the end of the world as we know it.”

Space is critical to ensuring the physical security of the homeland, he added.

Space commerce contributes greatly to prosperity, but that must be protected by the military, he said.

And in turn, that means that “space preeminence is essential to be a great power,” he said.

Presidential leadership is required here to assure security of space, Armor said.

He didn’t express a preference for voters Nov. 4 to elect either Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee, or Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic hopeful.

The United States needs space situational awareness, which would require billions of dollars to obtain, he said. But that would permit American military forces to rapidly attribute any hostile activity in space to the causative agent, he said.

He also suggested forming a National Institutes of Space, and urged supporting the space industrial base.

John Sheldon, with the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base, said large numbers of satellites could be knocked out by natural phenomena, such as solar disruptions, or by man-made threats such as an Electro-Magnetic Pulse.

And that is critical, because satellites have become so inter-woven into daily life, he said.

“Satellites enable most if not all facets of U.S. diplomatic, economic and military activities, as well as [those of] allies,” Sheldon said.

Satellites, he said, have become the physical backbone of the globalized economy, so that “we have become dependent on satellites for man aspects of modern life.”

Without access to satellites, communications would become more expensive and laborious, the economy would be less efficient and reliable, and supply and distribution of goods would be less efficient and more expensive.

Weakened management of transportation would mean thee would be a decrease in the volume capacity of the transportation system. If food and fuel run out, civilization among humans would disappear, he said.

:The world would not end, but life as we know it would,” Sheldon said. Somehow, human activity would continue: “We could do without space at great cost,” he said.

Another reason space security must not be lost is that U.S. space assets make the cost of launching a war that much less acceptable for an enemy, he said.

He decried “a lack of funding for space defenses,” both passive and active.

“Our adversaries and competitors take space very seriously, even if we do not,” he said. “They are catching up.”