General Urges Protection Of Space Assets Against ASATs
Kehler Also Urges Replacing Aged Satellites
The United States must establish a system for protecting space assets, including military satellites that play an increasingly critical role in U.S. defense operations worldwide, Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of the Air Force Space Command, said.
In assessing the future for the air service, it is clear that the Air Force must "do something else that’s different for the future. And that is … protecting those space capabilities" on which all the U.S. armed forces increasingly rely to be able to prosecute wars, Kehler told an Air Force Association Space Symposium in Los Angeles.
His warning comes as potential U.S. enemies are developing the capability to temporarily disable or permanently annihilate any U.S. military satellite at will.
It is a fact that U.S. forces increasingly are dependent upon space assets, including global positioning hardware, and therefore that American forces would be disrupted if suddenly those systems didn’t exist, Kehler noted.
And that fact isn’t lost on potential and actual U.S. enemies.
"Our adversaries — real adversaries today, and potential adversaries for the future — have noticed as well" this American military dependence on space assets, he said. "So it is naive of us to think that … the space domain will not be challenged. We have seen early on that — there are, in fact, challenges out there."
Kehler specifically singled out Iraq and China as examples.
For instance, "We watched Iraqis during the early stages of operation [Iraqi] Freedom that [attempted] to jam GPS," he recalled.
Additionally, "We see the proliferation of GPS jamming equipment around the world."
As for the rapidly militarizing China, "We watched the Chinese test an anti-satellite weapon," Kehler said.
He referred to China sending a ground-based missile in January to smash to smithereens an aging Chinese weather satellite in orbit, in an anti-satellite (ASAT) test. That created an immense cloud of lethal debris, from tiny bits of matter up to sizable chunks that could cause catastrophic damage to any satellite in a collision. And China also used a ground-based laser to "paint" a U.S. military satellite, temporarily disabling it.
Referring to the Chinese ASAT test, Kehler said that is a perfect example of the threat facing the United States.
"That’s not the first time that’s ever happened in world history, but certainly a recent example of what we need to be vigilant about and how we need to understand what our future might look like and how we have to address that," he cautioned.
Looking ahead, Kehler sketched a vision of the future.
"When I sit here and look 25 years into the future, [his vision] says that if we continue on the path that we are on, we will get improved capabilities. We will get those improved capabilities dealt with in air, space, and cyber domains, which means that we will get them in air, space, and cyber stovepipes. Although stovepipe’s a little harsh. Maybe ‘cylinders of excellence’ would be a better way to describe that," he joked.
But this will mean taking a different approach to the problem, he cautioned, because otherwise the United States will face significant hazards.
"We will not deliver truly integrated air, space, and cyber effects if we continue business as usual," he predicted. "And if we’re not careful, we will also continue to have some vulnerabilities that must be addressed — in our space segments, in our links, and on the ground."
Kehler also was asked about space debris, a critical issue since China conducted that ASAT test to demolish its satellite in January.
Clearly, the general is worried about the immense number of objects, from shrapnel-sized hazards to much larger chunks, zipping through space to endanger U.S. and other satellites and spacecraft.
"We have probably said that we are tracking slightly over 2,000 objects as a result of the Chinese test of the ASAT," he said. "That’s a significant number, in my book. There’s probably, in fact, we know there are other objects that were resulting from that impact that we are not tracking. And you all know this."
Because something may be too small to track doesn’t mean it can’t cause big problems if it slams into a U.S. space asset, he observed. Objects in orbit typically move at 17,500 miles an hour, and at that speed, the impact of even a small item can be devastating.
"You don’t have to have large objects collide with something at those velocities to have real problems," Kehler said. "So as we look into the future, I do think that there are some very significant issues we’re going to have to address about on-orbit operations, about responsibilities across the international community regarding being good stewards, if you will, of the space environment."
But China, while avowing to desire a peaceful use of space free of debris, still proceeded with the ASAT test, proving it can demolish U.S. military and civilian satellites.
That has prompted some Pentagon leaders, including Kehler, to say that the United States must be on guard and aware of potential threats to its objects in space.
"As I look to the future, that’s something very important for us to do, what we believe, is a critical important thing for us, and that is to get better at space situational awareness," Kehler told the symposium audience. "That’s one of our top priorities in the command. It’s going to remain one of our top priorities on my watch. And leaders flat simply have got to get better about knowing what’s up there, tracking what’s up there, understanding the intent of things that are up there, and knowing those pieces in real time."
Satellites Need Replacement
On a related point, Kehler indicated that many geriatric U.S. satellites must be replaced.
While satellites are expensive items, it also is true that they only can function for a given period in the hostile environment of space, a vacuum with radically varying temperatures.
"Someone told me the other day that some of our satellites are now old enough to vote," Kehler deadpanned. "Some will soon be old enough to drink. Here’s the good news. Our good news is that many of our satellites have lasted beyond their timeline.
That’s great news. Here’s the bad news. Many of them have lasted beyond their design life. So we’re finding ourselves in a situation here where, along with the rest of the Air Force, we are trying to recapitalize the entire sweep of satellite capabilities that we are responsible for today."
And that would involve catching up with a huge amount of reinvestment.
"We know that we need to continue to recapitalize," because it is unthinkable to do without the services that satellites provide on a routine basis, he noted. "We’re not going to do with less GPS. We’re not going to do with less communications. We’re not going to do with less missile warning. And so the challenge for us in a constrained budget environment is to figure out how do we make it happen."
While an expensive proposition such as that may not be easy to achieve, it is feasible, he indicated.
"I think there are some very promising programs out there that we have begun," he said. "We see them beginning to bear fruit. We’re about to get into the next generation. We’ve just launched a Wideband Global Satellite here several months ago that is performing well. I think that’s the first of a future step. We’re about to get to AEHF [Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites communication system] a year or so from now," and the United States is considering defense of space assets, he said. "So I think the promise of the force modernization on the horizon here, a reply in the services of the SBIRS [Space Based Infrared System] payload has been spectacularly successful." (Please see separate story on the need for SBIRS.)
But the question remains as to how this can be achieved if Congress doesn’t provide funding increases to cover these moves.
"The question is, can we continue modernization and the scope of modernization in the context of overall Air Force modernization" that includes purchase of new aircraft to replace ancient, rickety planes. "That’s a balancing act [and] we’re going to have to continue to balance. And I know both [Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley], when they’re asked this question on [Capitol Hill] several weeks ago, both said their view was that the United States Air Force at large needs to see budget increases."
On other points, Kehler enumerated some of the important goals that the United States must attain in space.
"I think that ORS [operationally responsive space] has that type of promise," he said. "Let me explain that for just a second. ORS, in my head, is not about operationally responsive space — space. It’s about operationally responsive ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance]. It’s about operationally responsive communications. Whatever it is that the Joint Force Commander needs. If we can develop ORS as a national strategic capability, then in my view, we will have positioned ourselves to add what is a missing link to our [capacity] to deliver capability today. If we can reduce the time, even to understand that those will be the same robust capabilities as we are delivering with other larger platforms, this will still be an important position to us. I’m very excited about what I’ve seen in AFRL [the Air Force Research Laboratory]. I’m excited about what I see in the research lab. We’ve launched TACSAT [Tactical Satellite] here in the last year. We’ve learned a lot from watching the first TACSAT, and I think there’s a promising, very promising area here for us to explore, as we go down the road and work with industry to try to get to the plug and play concepts and other exciting things that will really give us a strategic capability to put smaller payloads on orbit quickly, at the request of the joint forces commander."
The Chinese ASAT test has prompted many Pentagon leaders to say the United States must be able to replace, swiftly and on short notice, any satellites that an enemy nation might destroy.