Two orbiting U.S. spacecraft were forced to change course to avoid being damaged by the thousands of pieces of space debris produced after China carried out an anti-satellite weapon test one year ago today.
The maneuvering, ordered by ground controllers and conducted several months after the test, is an example of lingering problems caused by China's Jan. 11, 2007, missile firing in a bold demonstration of space weaponry against a weather satellite, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Ted Kresge, director of air, space and information operations at the Air Force Space Command in Colorado.
Gen. Kresge, a F-15 fighter pilot, said the Chinese ASAT weapon test changed the equation for the military, which is working to better understand strategic threats posed by China's satellite-killing missiles, ground-based lasers, cyberwarfare and other ground station attack capabilities.
The Space Command is conducting a series of reviews to better identify threats and develop defenses for U.S. and allied military and commercial satellites against future attack.
"We have embraced the notion that we now operate in a contested domain," the one-star general said.
However, other defense officials said the test set off a debate within the Bush administration over how to respond. Officials who seek to minimize China's arms development within the U.S. intelligence and policy communities are said to be playing down the seriousness of the ASAT weapon test, arguing in interagency meetings that it was a one-time event that poses no strategic threat.
Military officials, including Gen. Kresge and Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, see Chinese anti-satellite weapons as new threats that could cripple the U.S. militarily and economically in a future conflict. They said the U.S. needs to step up spying efforts to learn more about the secret Chinese weapons program and develop defenses against it.
Chinese military writings have revealed that space weapons should be built in secret and used for "shock and awe" attacks against U.S. satellites, said defense analyst Michael Pillsbury who revealed the plans in a report to a congressional commission.
Gen. Cartwright testified before a Senate subcommittee last year that conventionally armed Trident missiles are needed to pre-empt space attacks through strikes on ASAT missile launchers in China.
But, Congress restricted funding for the program in the latest defense spending bill, and Pentagon civilians did not fight to keep the conventional Trident program going.
The White House opposed the curbs on the Trident conversion that are part of what the Pentagon calls "prompt global strike" weapons. The restrictions "limit the ability to field a near-term capability to strike globally, precisely, and rapidly with non-nuclear kinetic effects against high-priority, time-sensitive targets," the statement said.
The Chinese anti-satellite test used a ground-based mobile "direct ascent" missile that destroyed the orbiting Feng Yun-1C weather satellite by ramming into it.
By some estimates, China could produce enough space weapons to knock out all low-Earth orbit U.S. satellites by 2010.
China tried to carry out the test in secret but it was detected by U.S. intelligence agencies days before the launch. The Bush administration rejected State Department appeals to try and head off the test, fearing it would disclose U.S. spying capabilities. Instead, the administration organized a formal diplomatic protest to Beijing, that was joined by several other nations, including Britain, Japan and India.
China's government, which advocates a United Nations ban on space weapons, confirmed the test several weeks later, but Chinese officials have refused to reveal details of the arms program.
Beijing also is asserting national sovereignty over all space above Chinese territory, setting up the potential for a future confrontation with the U.S., which operates intelligence and other satellites that pass over China.
Gen. Kresge said international treaties protect space from such claims of national control, "so from my perspective that is an illegitimate claim on their part."
"If their intent was to enforce that, then we run into a space protection problem, and that is why we are so aggressively working the issue," he said.
Options for countering China's space arms include dissuading China from attacks through political, economic and diplomatic means, and deterring attacks by threatening U.S. counterstrikes, Gen. Kresge said.
Developing international coalitions with nations that operate satellites is being considered to help share satellites in an emergency, and "provide an adversary with a targeting problem," he said.
Defensive measures include maneuvering satellites or shielding them from damage from ground-based lasers. China fired a laser at a U.S. satellite in December 2006.
The broad area of wreckage in space is called the "Feng Yun-1C debris" and threatens about 800 satellites in space, 400 of which are American.
According to the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the commercial communication satellite Orbcomm FM 36 maneuvered to avoid passing within about 123 feet of the debris field on April 6. A NASA Earth observation satellite Terra was moved June 22 to avoid coming within about 90 feet of the debris.
Gen. Kresge said the Chinese ASAT weapon test, after two misses, "made a mess" in space. There are no indications China is preparing more tests but doing so would create a "huge" problem, he said.
"Essentially what it did was increase the amount of space debris orbiting the Earth by about 20 percent," he said.
The debris threatens spacecraft for up to 100 years, he estimated.