Lawmakers Fear Space Assets Face Multiple Risks
Key congressional lawmakers voiced fears that space assets face multiple threats, including the danger of destruction by anti-satellite weapons or an electromagnetic field.
Their comments in a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee came after China in January used a kinetic (hit-to-kill) anti-satellite missile to demolish one of its own aging weather satellites, creating a vast field of lethal space debris.
One worried legislator was Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), the subcommittee chairman, who said she wants to be sure that “our war fighters retain the advantage space-based systems provide, and that this advantage is not degraded by the Chinese test or other future attacks.”
They might come, she noted, “not from the likes of a kinetic kill ASAT, but also from ground-based lasers and electronic jammers.”
China last year used a ground-based laser to “paint” a U.S. military satellite. Lasers can disable or “blind” sensor-filled satellites.
“It is also possible that an enemy might directly attack the ground-based components or communications links used by satellites,” Tauscher added.
Worse, “Our satellite capabilities may be vulnerable to attacks through cyber-space as well.”
Rep. Terry Everett of Alabama, ranking Republican on the panel, also voiced concerns.
“I am deeply troubled by the Chinese anti-satellite test that occurred in January,” Everett said.
To him, the incident shows that China is capable of attacking space assets at will.
“This test clearly sent a message that the Chinese have a capability to hold our military and commercial satellites at risk,” Everett said.
“But it’s not the only threat to space. As I’ve discussed in previous sessions, we must also pay attention to other threats, such as [satellite communications and global positioning system] jamming, lasers, orbital debris, space weather, and the vulnerability of our ground stations.”
To Everett, all of this proves an urgent need for the United States to be aware of a rapidly emerging threat.
“We must place emphasis on increasing our space situational awareness and developing a comprehensive strategy for the protection of our space assets,” he said. “I also believe we should think strategically about the longer-term implications these threats have on our nation’s space architecture.”
Another subcommittee member, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), raised the specter of an enemy creating an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) field to ruin satellite operations.
Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, commander of the Air Force Space Command, said he couldn’t discuss that possibility in an open, unclassified hearing, but did tell the panel that military satellite systems such as the Milstar Satellite Communications System “are designed to produce the communications that the president needs in times of nuclear conflict.”
A nuclear blast, especially at a high altitude, can create EMP.
Chilton was asked later by Space & Missile Defense Report if he is concerned that aside from military satellites being protected somehow against attack, that a huge number of crucial commercial satellites aren’t hardened and would be vulnerable to attack.
But Chilton said the key here may lie in dissuading would-be enemies from attacking, rather than just attempting to counter attacks with hardware.
“Before we start talking about how we provide space protection, we need to understand what’s going on with space,” Chilton said. “You need to have surveillance in place, you need to have the tools in place that include a knowledge of what’s being launched, what it’s capabilities are, if it maneuvers, why [does it maneuver], the intelligence requirements for intent, to try to determine why they might be [doing] what they’re doing,” Chilton said, referring to a potential enemy.
But before getting to the question of hardening satellites or erecting ballistic missile defenses to protect space assets, one first must examine whether diplomacy would work as well, he said. The key here is being able to trace back any attack on a satellite to the nation responsible, and then bring pressure to bear on that country.
“Ultimately, [one must establish responsibility, or] attribution: because that’s what’s key. Once you have attribution, you can open up for the president … a plethora of options that the United States government has to bring to bear to either deter or dissuade or actually make someone stop, if they started doing these types of things,” Chilton said. “And so that’s where I’d put our emphasis on.”
He was asked further if the United States can prevent a rogue nation from launching an anti-satellite attack before they even start.
“If you know what’s going on, and you have the capability, you can bring [pressure on that nation] … Look at what’s happened because of the Chinese ASAT test, because we were able to attribute that to them,” the general said.
There was “diplomatic pressure from around the world.”
Chilton offered just one example of how the United States could squeeze China in response to its reckless test.
“They had reached out to NASA,” Chilton recalled, “and said ‘We would like to join the International Space Station program.'”
Shaking his head, Chilton said, “It sure doesn’t look like you want to join the International Space Station program if you’ve just created over a thousand pieces of debris that put manned space flight at risk, not to mention commercial operations in low Earth orbit.”
Thus, Chilton said, there are many means short of launching a retaliatory attack on a nation mounting an ASAT offensive, if one wishes to pressure that nation into halting such assaults.
“So there’s other tools, whether it be diplomatic, international pressure, that are available to our country … not just military,” he said. “But you can’t use a single one of them if you cannot attribute” an attack on a satellite or other space asset to the nation that initiated the assault.