A year ago this week, the People's Republic of China launched one of its ballistic missiles and destroyed a satellite orbiting overhead, creating a field of debris expected to stay in orbit for decades to come.It should have been a call to action, yet a year later, our policies and strategies do not reflect our increasing dependence on space.We need a comprehensive space protection strategy.
Why should we care? Space has become essential to our way of life, even if its role is not fully understood. As we have come to depend on water, electricity — or even the Internet — Americans have increasingly taken for granted what we get from satellites. Every time we turn on the television, refuel our cars using a credit card or visit an ATM, we are using satellite technology.
In the last year alone, more than $200 billion of the world economy was tied to satellites, and this figure will continue to grow in the future. For example, we are looking to satellite technologies to transform and modernize our aging air traffic control system. In addition to increased economic activity, satellites have become a military necessity, as our armed forces use them to command and communicate among dispersed ground forces, navigate through unfamiliar terrain, gather intelligence data from a number of sources and conduct armed unmanned aerial vehicle missions.
Second, we have long viewed the use of space as a privilege for all nations so long as that access is peaceful.This policy has existed since the Eisenhower administration and has been reinforced through subsequent international agreements. It is therefore unacceptable for any nation or non-state actor to have the power to "hold at risk" American satellite systems or any other nation's systems, thereby placing all of the commercial, civil and military uses of space at risk.
China's anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test was a stark reminder of a growing threat that we do not fully understand. The debris created from the test will have to be monitored in the future (the Air Force currently watches over 8,000 objects in space) and Chinese intent is unknown.
Their actions are at odds with their assertion that the test was "peaceful." China continues to increase its ASAT inventory and expand its counterspace capabilities beyond ballistic missiles, according to the Pentagon's annual China military report. We can't assume satellites would be attacked only in times of war or only for military gains. Both Libya and Iran have disrupted satellite operations because they did not agree with TV broadcasts carried over communications satellites.
Less than four percent of our nation's budget for national security space capabilities goes toward protection. This did not change after the ASAT test. Congress called for the secretary of defense and director of national intelligence to develop a comprehensive space protection strategy. It's purpose would be to guide what investments the nation should make to better understand the space environment and take specific actions to defend our satellites and our national security interests in space. I hope the president's budget for fiscal 2009 will request increased investment and a coherent strategy for space protection.
Beyond the necessary budget increases, the Department of Defense must prepare for future challenges to our use of space and our available strategic options if China, or another nation, threatens our space capabilities. We need to understand the consequences of our space capabilities being destroyed or debilitated, and how we would adapt. Have we communicated our possible responses should the Chinese threaten our space systems? More importantly, do we know our own procedures should there be an attack in space? Our national space policy was written before this ASAT test occurred and it needs revision.
Like other issues of the day, space protection demands international cooperation. The best pressure we can apply to China, and any others who might threaten our space capabilities, is multilateral pressure. We should be engaging the international community — our NATO allies are a good start — to put more pressure on China to explain its test and its intentions. This is an opportunity for the United States and our allies to lay claim to the peaceful use of space and put pressure on those who might have different intentions.
It is frankly unacceptable that a year after this test, we still do not have a coherent explanation from China on why they destroyed the satellite in space. Given our reliance on space, we have no choice but to prepare for the worst-case scenario, particularly if China continues to refuse to engage and disclose its intentions.
Rep. Terry Everett, Alabama Republican, is ranking member on the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.