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U.S. Military, Commercial Space Assets Vulnerable To Attack: Experts

By | June 26, 2006

      By Dave Ahearn

      U.S. military and commercial satellites, long seen as above the fray and out of harm’s way, are vulnerable to multiple types of attack, an assault that a determined enemy someday will attempt.

      So said military, government, industry and think tank experts testifying before the House Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee.

      Defending against such an attack in the long-peaceful realm of space can be accomplished, but at a price: military, government and commercial satellite owners would have to provide more money to companies making the satellites, according to testimony. They include The Boeing Co. [BA] and Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT], but scores of companies, both U.S.-based and others, provide space wares.

      Especially in the military area, however, it is certain that in a conflict with American forces, any enemy would like to destroy or disable U.S. satellites, so as to deny those forces one of the greatest advantages they enjoy today against other military groups.

      “It would be imprudent for us to not assume that a determined adversary would try to eliminate what is one of our greatest warfighting advantages,” said one subcommittee witness, Air Force Lt. Gen. C. Robert Kehler, deputy commander of the U.S. Strategic Command. He spoke with defense journalists after the hearing.

      During the session, Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, a moderate Washington think tank, said potential adversary nations currently don’t have the ability to launch a major attack on U.S. space assets, but some day they may. Then, there could come a major attack with effects “close to catastrophic” in harming U.S. military capabilities, such as communications networking, weapons guidance and much more, or some lesser but still significant degradation of American military capabilities.

      Space assets are critical, because they “emable the American way of war,” Kehler said. There already is enemy action to jam American GPS capabilities, he noted.

      O’Hanlon set forth how, for a price, satellites may be protected from, or made less vulnerable to, attack:

      • Redundancy. Instead of placing just one satellite inorbit that can handle certain missions, say, have two or three birds in space.
      • Have an ability to replace damaged satellites, rapidly. That might mean buying spare satellites from the manufacturer, even if those sats aren’t launched immediately.
      • Harden satellites. For example, hardening satellites from radiation such as a nuclear blast might create is possible, although such assets might be more expensive than unprotected space gear. Since the end of the Cold War, use of hardening may have lessened, and “that is probably a mistake,” according to O’Hanlon.
      • Non-space redundancy can be provided. For example, airborne platforms can be used in addition to satellite networks. Or fiber optic land lines can provide a backup to communications satellites.
      • Endow satellites with the capability to sense danger. Sats can be equipped with sensors on board that could, say, spot an approaching enemy micro-satellite. Witnesses said an enemy lacking the advanced sophistication of the U.S. space program nonetheless could loft micro-satellites, each equipped with an explosive charge, and then maneuver close to a U.S. satellite before detonating the charge.
      • The United States should avoid a problem that would arise if it were to assume that potential enemies are ignorant about U.S. space matters.

      O’Hanlon also said some smart moves might include minimizing U.S. use of space bandwidth capacity in event a satellite or other asset is lost, such as jettisoning use of video in videoconferences and retaining only the audio transmission.

      Examples of attacks that conceivably might occur would include North Korea firing a missile tipped with a nuclear weapon and detonating it in space to knock out satellite capabilities. Or China could detonate a nuclear weapon well east of Taiwan and harm electronic networking capabilities of U.S. aircraft carriers in that region, or facilities on Taiwan.

      Kehler agreed with O’Hanlon’s call for redundancy in satellite systems, the ability to replenish damaged sats, and the need for hardening space assets quickly.

      O’Hanlon said that if a terrorist group such as al Qaeda were to obtain a long-range missile with a nuclear weapon payload, the group would do far more damage by sending the missile to destroy a Western target on land, rather than using it to destroy satellites.

      As far as the greater expense of satellite makers hardening the sats they manufacture, “if our customers ask for that and are willing to pay for it, we can do that [at] substantial additional cost,” said David Cavossa, executive director of the Satellite Industries Association.

      In military space assets, “some of our systems [already] are very well protected, and have been since the Cold War,” Kehler, the Air Force general, said.

      But satellites must be equipped with systems able to comprehend an emergent threat, and to understand which nations are at what locations in space, and to what ends, he said.

      “The No. 1 thing we need to do is improve our space situational awareness,” Kehler said. The United States must comprehend “who’s on orbit, and what are they doing there,” he said. If something unusual occurs, the United States must be able to determine whether it is a harmless anomaly, or whether it is “a hostile attack” on an American satellite.

      Subcommittee members and witnesses also discussed whether there should be military rules of engagement that would apply in space.

      Kehler observed there already are some rules on locations of spacecraft, adding that there currently are some 9,000 objects in space, and U.S. officials need to know where they are and will be. “We have to work this very carefully,” he said.

      While there should be limitation on debris in space, the U.S. military may not wish to tell other nations where it is shifting space assets, such as those which can scan the ground below to track movements of people, vehicles, ships and other items. “We don’t want to be obliged to tell people where we’re moving” satellites, he said.

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