Chinese Satellite Kill Worrisome, But Not Surprising: Air Force General
LANGLEY AFB, Va.–China’s recent test of an anti-satellite missile is worrisome in highlighting vulnerabilities of U.S. space-based assets, but is not a paradigm-shifting event that will usher in an abrupt change in Air Force policies and priorities, the head of the Air Combat Command (ACC) said.
“It may have been a seminal event for somebody, but for those of us in the business, this is what we have been worried about for a long, long time,” ACC Commander Gen. Ronald Keys told reporters. “It doesn’t change my thinking because we know that they and a number of countries have been working on stuff like this for a long time.”
Still, Keys said the test is indeed disconcerting in illustrating the real-world threats to which the U.S. military’s communications and sensing satellites are exposed, especially by a potential near-peer adversary such as China.
“I am worried now and they just fired a test now and hit,” he said. He noted it is his job to ensure combat air forces are prepared.
“When I group the places that I may have to go, I have always grouped the Taiwan Straits and North Korea, Iran, as those are places out there where we could miscalculate,” he said.
Keys is not the Air Force lead for space matters; Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of the Air Force Space Command, is. But assets under Keys’s command are heavily dependent on space assets for communications, data and more, including the combat aircraft, bombs, missiles and information-sharing systems that are provided to combatant commanders in regions of the world containing potential flashpoints such as the Taiwan Straits, Middle East/Near East and North Korea.
“I have got a lot riding on my nets, and my adversaries — particularly my near-peer adversaries — understand that,” Keys said.
“They understand that you can get into my nets, or they can take my nets down. And a lot of that net rides on the spaceborne satellites…so I need a backup, so it becomes less attractive [to an enemy] to do those sorts of things.”
Accordingly, he said, the Air Force has been investing in airborne networks to supplement its space systems.
“That is why we are looking at things called the Battlefield Airborne Communications Network, BACN, which is so that space doesn’t become a single point of failure,” he said. BACN is a Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC]-built system to link disparate communications systems and pass information that supports tactical operations.
The service also is pursuing a different airborne network under an effort of the Air Force Research Laboratory and The Boeing Co. [BA], Project Marti. It utilizes near-space assets such as balloons or fixed-wing unmanned aircraft that cruise for extended periods in upper reaches of the atmosphere to pass data from lower flying aircraft to individual users over wide areas within the near-space vehicles’ line of sight.
Keys said airborne networks like BACN are meant to assure that the U. S. military does not have to resort to “grease pencils” to pass information if its space-based networks are degraded.
The Chinese satellite kill spread numerous pieces of debris in space that could pose a danger to other satellites in coming years, reports said. The event caused a flurry of high-level criticism from Western and Asian governments, questioning Chinese intentions and lack of transparency.
While firing a ballistic missile may not be the most technologically dazzling way to lame a satellite, Keys said, when asked, it should not be dismissed.
“A 9 mm [pistol] can seem pretty primitive, but if I shoot you with it, you are dead,” he said. “[The missile] is a direct-ascent weapon, so you have got very little warning, and about the time you come over the horizon, you go, ‘Whoa, Christ, we’ve been shot at.’ And now you have got very little time to figure it out.”
The United Stated released a revised national space policy late last year, reaffirming its sovereign right to defend its space assets with the means necessary in a conflict and reserving its freedom of action to prevent an adversary’s use of its own space assets during war.