Air Force Again Mulls ASAT Protection After China Test
By Michael Sirak
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley has commissioned a study to reassess the vulnerability of U.S. military space systems in the wake of China’s recent test of an anti-satellite weapon.
Moseley told the Defense Writers Group that he has directed Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) to gauge the capacity of the United States to monitor the activities of objects in space that could threaten U.S. spacecraft. He also wants the command to explore the nation’s ability to protect its space assets from disruption or destruction.
The Air Force refers to the first mission area as space situational awareness, and to the protective measures as defensive counterspace.
“What I have asked AFSPC to do is to look at our contributions in space situational awareness to be able to see, to archive, [and] to understand what is out there, and then to look at opportunities in defensive counterspace,” Moseley, the top Air Force general, said.
He was careful to point out that the scope of the study stops with defensive measures and does not delve into offensive capabilities to deny an adversary from utilizing its own space-based assets during a conflict.
“I believe that anything beyond defensive counterspace now requires a policy discussion and a set of decisions at a higher level than Air Force Space Command or the Department of the Air Force,” he said.
The Air Force desire for better situational awareness in space is not new. Nor is the move towards greater protective measures for satellites as well as the satellites’ ground stations and communications links. Efforts to improve these areas have been under way for years. But what has changed since the Chinese test is the strategic climate, Moseley said.
On Jan. 11, China destroyed one of its old low-Earth-orbit weather satellites with a missile.
“This anti-satellite shot was a direct-ascent shot from a mobile system,” Moseley said, characterizing it as “a strategically dislocating event…no different than when the Russians put Sputnik up in October 1957.” Sputnik was the first-ever man-made satellite placed in orbit; its launch came as a surprise to the United States.
“If this thing is truly mobile, it can be deployed, it can be exported, it can be sold, and it is a direct-ascent shot, so it goes straight from the surface to the satellite and hits it,” Moseley said of the Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) system. A mobile system would also be harder to find and negate on the ground before launch compared to a fixed- site variant, he said.
“This is a different game,” Moseley said of the new strategic climate, noting that space is no longer a sanctuary.
“Killing another nation’s satellite is an act of war,” he said, adding that it would be no different than shooting down a military aircraft or sinking a naval ship. “To be able then to hold an entire constellation at risk now it creates a whole different set of strategic- and operational-level challenges.”
Further, the on-orbit debris created by the weather satellite’s destruction poses a lingering danger to other spacecraft, Moseley said.