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A Coming War in Space?

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Air Force Space Command's evolving mission to protect U.S. military and spy satellites was recently featured in a "60 Minutes" report.

The Aug. 3 segment gave an interesting look at the command based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, as well as its subordinate units and its leaders, including Gen. John Hyten, whom we covered earlier this year at the annual Space Symposium.

Besides cool footage of the laser firing at the Starfire Optical Range in Albuquerque, New Mexico (the laser helps a telescope better track adversary satellites), the segment was noteworthy for its discussion of the possible coming war in space -- and America's limited ability to thwart attacks against its most prized spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit.

Without assets in space to provide GPS coordinates to precision-guided bombs, imagery from drones and communication links to troops, among other advantages, "You go back to World War II. You go back to Industrial Age warfare," Hyten told the CBS News program.

The U.S. has more than 500 satellites in space -- more than any other country -- and spends upwards of $25 billion a year on space, including intelligence and classified programs, according to the segment. Yet 11 countries can now launch objects into space, including North Korea and Iran, and China in particular has been developing anti-satellite technology, it reported.

The U.S. and Russia have long agreed to avoid attacking each other's geosynchronous satellites, which orbit some 22,000 miles above Earth, maintain the same position in space relative to the planet's surface and are critical for relaying everything from commercial television to military communications. The U.S. and China, however, don’t have a similar agreement.

Indeed, China in May 2013 secretly launched a ballistic missile to nearly geosynchronous orbit, possibly as high as 18,600 miles above Earth. Chinese officials defended the mission as a science experiment, but American analysts concluded it was really designed to test the potential of the anti-satellite missile Dong Ning-2. What's more, later that year, a Chinese satellite reportedly used a robotic arm grabbed another satellite, a move that may be used to to service -- or disable -- another.

When Hyten was asked whether U.S. military satellites can maneuver to avoid an incoming missile, he told the program, "It depends on a huge number of variables ... It depends on the satellite. It depends on the mission. It depends on when it was built. It depends on how old it is. It depends on when we know the threat is coming."

The general agreed with a congressional report that concluded China will be able to threaten U.S. satellites in every orbital regime in five to 10 years.

"I think they'll be able to threaten every orbital regime that we operate in," he told the program. "Now we have to figure out how to defend those satellites, and we're going to. Space Command is making its new satellites more maneuverable to evade attack, and also more resistant to jamming. It's building a new radar system that will enable the space operations center to track objects in space as small as a softball. And it's deployed two highly maneuverable surveillance satellites to keep watch on what other countries are doing high up in geo-stationary orbit."

As we previously reported, Hyten touted these new so-called neighborhood watch satellites at the Space Symposium. The spacecraft can perform so-called rendezvous and proximity operations, in which they maneuver to objects of interest for closer surveillance with tremendous detail, according to an unclassified Air Force fact sheet about the program. Data will be sent from the spacecraft to ground control stations and collected for analysis at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado.

Even so, on the television segment, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James was clear that the satellites aren't designed for offensive operations. When asked whether the U.S. has any weapons in space, she replied, "No, we do not."

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