Rising Threats To Military, Civilian Satellites Prompt Soaring Need For Space Situational Awareness

By | March 10, 2008 | Satellite News Feed

Space Acquisition Programs At Risk For Cost Increases, Schedule Delays: GAO

Space is becoming a steadily more dangerous place for satellites and spacecraft, not only because of the threat of deliberate attacks such as military anti-satellite (ASAT) strikes but also because that huge, black void is getting crowded.

All of this shows that the United States needs, now and urgently, improved space situational awareness and the ability to protect U.S. space assets.

So said Lt. Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee.

He spoke after China last year used a ground-based interceptor missile to demolish one of its own aging weather satellites, creating a cloud of threatening space debris traveling at 17,500 miles an hour to imperil satellites and spacecraft.

"This irresponsible space operation by the Chinese left over 2,300 pieces of orbital debris that we’re still tracking, and tens of thousands of likely smaller pieces our sensors can’t track," but which at those speeds can be catastrophic.

All told, tallying everything from the International Space Station and military and commercial satellites down to the smallest pieces of debris, there are 18,000-plus man-made objects in orbit, Shelton said.

"Space is more crowded than ever," he reported. "The potential for a catastrophic collision in space increases as the number of objects" increases.

Combine that with the rising threat of ASAT strikes by enemy nations, and it is clear that space is not a safe and peaceful place.

"Several nations are working on high-energy lasers that could damage or destroy our satellites," Shelton warned.

Worse, what if some nations decides to use the bomb in space?

"The potential proliferation of nuclear weapons is also a threat to space systems," Shelton said. "Such a device could cripple our space assets with the persistent effects of an exo-atmospheric electromagnetic pulse," or EMP. This would involve detonating a nuclear weapon in space, generating an electromagnetic pulse covering a sizeable portion of the Earth and disabling satellites. It also would disable most things on the planet using electricity, ranging from planes in the air, cars, trucks, buses and more, to refrigeration, electrical generating plants, hospital equipment and much more. People would starve to death as food supplies in cities disappeared.

"Clearly, we can no longer view space as a sanctuary," eh said.

Or, put differently, "Our nation’s growing dependence on space-based capabilities, coupled with the increasing risks we face, creates corresponding potential economic and military vulnerabilities.

"Therefore, we must protect our space assets against intentional and unintentional acts in order to preserve our essential space capabilities."

At this point, the Missile Defense Agency hasn’t received any directive to be able to protect U.S. space assets against attack by enemy anti-satellite systems. Rather, the agency is forming a multi-layered shield against enemy ballistic missiles attacking the United States and its allies.

Shelton said there is a critical requirement for space situation awareness, to know matters such as why a satellite ceases functioning: the cause of that, and from whence the problem arose.

"The United States’ absolute dependence on space across our military, civil and commercial sectors, coupled with the increased and diverse threats to our space assets, requires improved [space situational awareness] and command and control capabilities to ensure our ability to effectively operate in an increasingly dynamic environment," Shelton said.

Cost, Schedule Risks

The subcommittee also heard that military space programs typically are afflicted with soaring costs and delays far beyond schedules.

This can be a serious problem, given that the Pentagon may spend more than $10 billion yearly to develop and procure satellites and other space systems.

Cristina T. Chaplain, director of the Government Accountability Office acquisition and sourcing management area, said that cost overruns and delays have become the norm, driving up costs by hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars.

Sometimes, after all that, the result is failure, where capabilities aren’t delivered to the armed forces.

"The majority of major acquisition programs in [the Department of Defense (DOD)] space portfolio have experienced problems during the past two decades that have driven up cost and schedules and increased technical risk," she testified.

"At times, cost growth has come close to or exceeded 100 percent, causing DOD to nearly double its investment in the face of technical and other problems without realizing a better return" for that money.

Programs also are experiencing delays of as much as seven years behind schedule, according to the GAO assessment.

These flaws don’t erupt by happenstance, but because of poor program management, according to the watchdog agency:

First there may be too optimistic cost and schedule estimates. Then programs may be started with too many unknowns about technology that must be developed. Poor contracting strategies can compound the weaknesses. Technical expertise may be lost, exacerbating the other problems. There may be capability shortfalls among contractors. There also may be rifts between laboratories developing technologies and acquisition programs attempting to put those technologies to practical use. There may be differing needs for users of systems being developed. And topping it off, there may be leadership problems.

The Air Force has taken several corrective steps, which are a move in the right direction and can become effective if more accurate cost estimates are provided, and if capacity shortfalls are addressed, according to Chaplain.

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