The Pentagon has quietly established an office to deal with the increasing number of threats to the United States' space assets -- a pretty big deal given the fact that space officials have been fretting about the overcrowding and militarization of space for years now.
Calling it DoD's "ace in the hole" against military threats to U.S. satellites, National Reconnaisance Office director Bruce Carlson told reporters during a breakfast in Washington this morning that the Pentagon has stood up the Joint Space Protection Program (JSPP) to figure out how to defend against everything from attacks to accidents in space:
It's becoming very congested [and] we recognize that it's becoming very contested because other countries are launching a lot of stuff, sometimes more than we do and it's becoming very competitive. There's only so much space up there because there are really only about three, maybe four, (orbital) regimes that you can use and everybody knows what those are, they're defined by natural laws, so we all have to operate in the same space. I don't think it's any secret that the Chinese are becoming more active in space and that concerns us because we're not absolutely sure of their intent. So we have worked very, very closely with [Air Force] space command, first Gen. Bob Kehler and now Gen. William Shelton, and we have a Joint Space Protection Program. I have to tell you that the exact elements of that are very closely held because that's going to be our ace in the hole should somebody try to do something. We also use the space protection program to work around the congestion problem; how do we make sure that we don't run into something else up there by accident.I've got to wonder what, if any, role the Air Force's mysterious X-37B robot space planes (pictured above) play in the JSPP. Many believe they can be used to launch small spy satellites and even monitor other nation's satellites up close. The first X-37B flight lasted 220 days and amateur spotters noticed the craft switched orbital patterns numerous times during this extremely long spaceflight.
Enter the China Question:
Carlson's remarks about China echo those of current and former Pentagon officials who wonder what the PRC plans to do with all of the weapons -- from MRAPs to stealth fighter jets, aircraft carriers and military satellites -- that it is buying. In 2010, China overtook the U.S. in the number of satellites launched in one year.
While China and Russia are capable of launching a ton of satellites, they aren't nearly as good at space operations as the U.S., according to Carlson. This means that countries like China will likely focus on how to take out the Pentagon's space assets (mitigating the advantage they give the U.S.) rather than competing against them directly. This, according to Carlson, makes space protection -- and therefore space situational awareness (SSA) -- all the more important. While the Pentagon is getting better at knowing what objects could threaten its satellites, it Pentagon still has a long way to go with SSA, added the former Air Force general.
He went on to say that while China is an "incredibly modern" nation, it's ancient military tradition includes deception as a key element of operations:
I'd be a lot happier if knew exactly what their intent was. They're an incredibly modern society but their military philosophy goes all the way back to probably, 4,000 years ago. They believe in deception, that's just one of their mantras so I remain concerned about their intent and exactly what it is, I do not know -- but I'm concerned about it.