A top Pentagon official leveled sharp words at China Wednesday, reacting with some of the most candid and unambiguous language yet to that country's destruction in January of a satellite in space with a ground-launched ballistic missile.
Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne called the shoot-down an "egregious act" and said the Chinese sent a clear message to the U.S. military that its aging satellite force is under threat.
"We were not surprised, we were shocked," Wynne said at a Sept. 19 meeting hosted by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense policy think tank. "What was shocking about it was the denial."
"Was it part of a plan; was it not part of a plan?" Wynne wondered. "That's what was shocking about it."
Wynne said the shoot-down of a 1990's-era Chinese weather satellite in polar orbit has forced astronauts aboard the international space station to avoid the debris field scattered in the intercept, and he concluded that China now claims space as a legitimate battlefield.
Future enemies "want to make sure that you will not want to get involved" in a conflict, Wynne reasoned.
"They can pin-prick you, they can threaten you - as China has with shoot-down of the satellite - just to tell us 'you don't think you're safe up there,' " he said. "Space is not a sanctuary anymore."
The Chinese government was silent on the shoot-down - and the international condemnation that resulted - for weeks after the Jan. 11 hit, and has been murky on the issue ever since. In June, U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Peter Pace said he had not raised the issue with his Chinese counterparts during a meeting in May.
A Pentagon report released this summer assessing the Chinese military said the test was an example of China's pursuit of asymmetric countermeasures to American military prowess.
"The test put at risk the assets of all space faring nations and posed dangers to human space flight due to the creation of an unprecedented amount of debris," the report stated. "The direct ascent ASAT system is one component of a multi-dimensional program to generate the capability to deny others access to outer space."
Wynne's comments are some of the strongest yet from a senior Pentagon official and indicate how seriously the military considers Chinese anti-satellite weapons development. America's increasing reliance on space-borne assets to guide weapons, conduct long-range communications and keep an all-seeing eye on potential enemies could become the Pentagon's Achilles Heel in a future conflict, many analysts fear.
The move prompted Air Force planners to redouble their efforts to come up with ways to defend U.S. space assets from destruction. But officials are reluctant to replace a $1.5 billion satellite, only to have it destroyed by a $100 million ASAT missile.
"If space comes under attack, maybe we don't want to put up big, expensive retainer forces, maybe all we want to put up is just enough to kick the crap out of whoever shot at our satellite - kind of send a message to them," Wynne said. "And then we'll put up another expensive satellite."
Other experts wonder whether the Pentagon could reduce its dependence on satellite systems - particularly those used for GPS navigation - and position more assets in the atmosphere, leaving fewer targets for enemy ASAT weapons to hit.
Whatever defensive solution is adopted, the Air Force faces an aging fleet of satellites that are running out of fuel to keep them in orbit, Wynne said. Now, the service is faced with a potential investment of $20 billion per year to replace its space-borne fleet in the face of an aggressive threat from ASAT weapons.
"Right now, the satellites have gone up all in a peaceful mode," Wynne said. "I do think we should have some defensive mechanisms, but it is very hard to defend a satellite you're actually trying to talk to."