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Air Force Mulls How To Defend Space Assets, Wynne Says

By | March 26, 2007

      The Air Force is weighing how to defend U.S. space assets against anti-satellite weapon attacks, and wishes to discuss that with Congress, Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said.

      Is it a better defense to harden each satellite individually, or is it better to establish a ballistic missile defense system to block enemy missiles headed toward U.S. satellites? Wynne was asked by Space & Missile Defense Report.

      “That’s a policy question,” and one the Air Force is just now beginning to grapple with, Wynne said. That policy, he indicated, would be set in concert with Congress, and therefore the Air Force wishes to consult with lawmakers on the issue.

      The Air Force move comes after China recently used a ground-based missile to demolish one of its own aging weather satellites, in a hit-to-kill shot that created an immense, and immensely dangerous, debris field to threaten satellites and other space assets of all nations.

      For the moment, Wynne continued, the Air Force is moving ahead on “things we can do” immediately, such as space situational awareness — intelligence of anything that might threaten U.S. space assets — and in mapping out a defense of those assets, “and how to do that.”

      As to whether it would be better to harden each U.S. military satellite, “I don’t have a handle on that, as we replace all of our space assets over the next 12 years,” he said.

      In studying and selecting any U.S. moves to defend space assets, it is necessary to take into account many factors, and to recognize that the solution won’t involve just the Air Force, he said.

      Earlier, Wynne and Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on the Air Force budget request for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008.

      Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the panel, said that China wishes to become a superpower.

      He referred to the Chinese military going on a buying binge, snapping up cutting-edge aircraft, procuring four new types of submarines simultaneously, buying new destroyers, and emplacing hundreds of radar guided missiles.

      China also has engaged in provocative acts, such as the anti-satellite shot; another occasion where China used a ground-based laser to “paint” a U.S. military satellite; an incident where a Chinese submarine surfaced within torpedo range of a U.S. aircraft carrier; Chinese threats to invade Taiwan unless the island nation submits to rule by Beijing; and the provocation of a Chinese fighter aircraft slamming into a U.S. Navy intelligence aircraft flying peacefully in international airspace. The Navy plane was heavily damaged, and almost went into the ocean, which would have killed two dozen Navy men and women in uniform. They were taken captive when they landed the crippled Navy plane on Hainan Island, a Chinese area.

      After China shot down its own satellite, some military analysts said the ASAT capability means China can demolish military and civilian U.S. and allied space assets at will. As it was, the vast debris field created by the kinetic kill for a time imperiled some of those assets.

      Some lawmakers worry that China could opt to take out military intelligence satellites, the global positioning system, the International Space Station, NOAA weather satellites needed for military operations, and satellites that handle millions of commercial transactions each day vital to continued functioning of the economy.

      Wynne told Warner that the successful Chinese ASAT shot “shocked me but did not surprise me.”

      While Wynne indicated he knew beforehand that China possessed the technical capability to do this, he was appalled that a major nation would make such a reckless and irresponsible move as to create space debris imperiling critical space assets of many nations.

      “What shocked me was the cavalier nature of the burst,” Wynne said. In essence, he added, the Chinese are saying to the world that “we are expanding our navy, we are expanding our air force,” and now there is the added capability to take out satellites.

      Moseley confirmed that the test shows that China “can attrit and literally kill satellites.”

      That prompts “a focus on our space situational awareness,” Moseley said.

      Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), voiced concern that such anti-satellite weapons could threaten myriad space assets, such as those providing the global positioning system, which are vital not just for military but for private users as well.

      Moseley agreed that space is “not a sanctuary any more,” but an area fraught with risk.

      In divining just how to protect space assets, “we would welcome that dialogue [with members of Congress] as to what you want us to do next,” Moseley said.

      “Now that space is not a sanctuary, this is serious business,” he added.

      Warner said perhaps it is time for the United States to help form “an international consortium” of parties interested in curbing threats to space assets. As well, Warner asked about affordability of hardening space assets, and requested that Moseley and Wynne “get back to me on that.”

      Other Topics

      In a joint statement to the SASC, Wynne and Moseley testified on the ASAT danger, the urgent high priority of two space programs, and commented on space-based missile warnings, space-based radar, and various other space programs.

      Make no mistake, they indicated, the Chinese ASAT test proves the United States faces a major threat.

      “Recent foreign testing of kinetic ASAT weapon capabilities further demonstrates an explicit willingness to challenge, disrupt, or destroy America’s space assets and capabilities,” they stated. “This testing also demonstrates a disregard for both American and global concerns over space debris and the damage it may inflict upon any object stationed in or traversing through low Earth orbit.”

      Worse, this is but the beginning of a growing risk to U.S. and allied space assets.

      “As technology matures and proliferates, and as access to space becomes available to more countries, organizations and individuals, threats to America’s air, space, and cyberspace capabilities will continue to grow and evolve,” Wynne and Moseley warned. “America’s Airmen aim to be ready to meet these and all other threats to our nation.”

      Wynne and Moseley also commented on the Airborne Laser (ABL), a directed-energy weapon that will be able to kill enemy ballistic missiles as they rise from the launch pad, before they have the ability to pump out multiple warheads or confusing chaff.

      “Directed energy weapons will profoundly transform how we fly, fight, and defend ourselves, and we are integrating them into our broader cyber operations effort.

      “As lasers and radio frequency weapons find applications in the battlespace, their ability to operate at the speed of light will change both offensive and defensive capabilities and tactics. New designs and technology may be necessary to offer adequate protection for our people and capabilities.

      “Weapons in development include the Airborne Laser (ABL), a large aircraft carrying the High Energy Laser for missile defense,” they noted. The Boeing Co. [BA] provides a heavily modified 747 aircraft; Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] provides the laser, and Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] provides the beam control/fire control unit.

      The top-level Air Force leaders also ranked their most pressing priorities, which include some space programs.

      Top Procurement Needs

      “Our top acquisition priorities include: the KC-X [Aerial Refueling] Tanker; the CSAR-X Combat Search and Rescue Helicopter; space communications, space situational awareness and early warning programs; the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter (JSF); and Next Generation Long Range Strike — a new bomber,” Wynne and Moseley told Congress.

      In space programs, they noted that “The Air Force is America’s only provider of space-based missile warning.”

      They added that “providing a robust missile warning capability to the nation through enhanced space-based ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] systems remains a priority in 2007.”

      Finally, they also commented on the need for several programs: the Space Based Infrared System, or SBIRS; the sometimes-troubled National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, or NPOESS; and more.

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