China’s test of an anti-satellite weapon increased the number of space-debris pieces threatening U.S. and other nations’ satellites by more than 9 percent, a senior Air Force Space Command official said.
Brig. Gen. C. Donald Alston, the command’s director of space operations, told The Washington Times that the Jan. 11 test also triggered a comprehensive review of space-monitoring efforts within the military’s primary space defense command.
“We’re tracking, actively, 15,000 objects [in space]. It was 14,000 or so prior to Jan. 11, so there’s an additional 1,000 as a consequence of the Chinese test,” he said, noting that the tracking is a full-time job at the command.
In the anti-satellite test, China fired a missile into space, ramming a weather satellite about 500 miles above the Earth. Other officials have said that the number of pieces is about 1,200 and that they will pose a threat to orbiting satellites for 20 to 30 years.
Gen. Alston said the test proved that space is a “contested” realm and has made it more difficult to know the cause of satellite failures.
“Before, you may have almost exclusively attributed a failure to a space environmental concern; now there’s more ambiguity about what is the root cause of the problem,” he said.
Hostile threats to satellites include ground-based lasers, electronic jammers to disrupt ground-to-space communications, and kinetic and explosive anti-satellite weapons.
China has made a major investment in space, including manned spaceflight and space sensors in addition to its space arms, Gen. Alston said. He also said he is aware of reports that China will have enough anti-satellite missiles to destroy all U.S. low-Earth orbit satellites by 2010.
The Chinese “have not been forthcoming about what their intentions are, so the fact that they’ve proven this capability is of concern to us,” he said. Space Command also is worried that China “could build sufficient force structure to magnify that threat,” he said.
To deal with space weapons from nations such as China, the Space Command works to “understand the environment and ensure that we preserve [the] capability” of U.S. space systems that provide “asymmetrical” advantages to U.S. military forces, he said.
Gen. Alston said the command is conducting a “clean-sheet” examination of space-surveillance needs, which sensors are available now and what will be needed. The review also will look at whether needed upgrades are being done fast enough.
“In most cases, I think the answer to that will be yes,” he said.
One urgent need is the deployment of a new space surveillance satellite in fiscal 2008, which begins Oct. 1.
“That’s important to us that we get that up there,” he said, noting that the only current surveillance satellite, a 15-year-old MSX satellite, has “so exceeded its expected life that that could fail at any time.”
The Chinese test also raised the question of whether space systems can be repaired or upgraded while in space to reduce their vulnerabilities to attack or environmental disruption.
Gen. Alston said reducing the threat from space attacks should be part a “broad-based effort” beyond military countermeasures.
“If we try to solve this kind of problem in one dimension, say a military dimension … our discussion becomes, do we fight in space? None of us find that attractive,” he said.
Other elements of national power should be used to reduce the danger of war in space, including diplomacy, economic measures and “engagement” to produce a dialogue aimed to preventing space attacks, he said.
Military leaders also are looking at the sensitive question of whether to develop offensive space weapons as a strategic deterrent to China’s space arms. An alternative to developing new space weapons would be to develop “operationally responsive space” — satellites that would be ready to launch at any time in order to replace immediately those destroyed by an enemy.
Gen. Alston said there are no indications that U.S. satellites have been damaged by space debris, although there were reports that a French satellite was harmed and space shuttles have been hit by junk that produced “pockmarks.”