December 17, 2007

Space: No longer a sanctuary

The US grapples with defending its assets in space in the face of a perceived Chinese threat to extend the battlefield.
By Peter Buxbaum in Washington, DC for ISN Security Watch (17/12/07)

The prospect of war in space has led to some strategic thinking at the Pentagon about defending US satellites. The galvanizing incident came in January 2007 when China destroyed one of its own weather satellites by launching a ground-based ballistic missile.

The secretary of the US Air Force, Michael Wynne, speaking at a Washington conference last fall, termed the shoot-down an "egregious act," adding that the Chinese were sending a message to the US military that China now views space as a battlefield.

"We were not surprised, we were shocked," Wynne said. "Was it part of a plan; was it not part of a plan? What was shocking about it was the denial." The Chinese government has never clearly acknowledged that it perpetrated the 11 January 2007 shoot-down.

Wynne's comments indicate how seriously the US military considers Chinese anti-satellite weapons development. China's satellite shoot-down was meant "to tell us 'don't think you're safe up there,'" he said. "Space is not a sanctuary anymore." Future enemies "want to make sure that you will not want to get involved" in a conflict.

Militarized but not weaponized

Space has been militarized for years, but it has not yet been weaponized. Satellites have been used to provide intelligence, targeting and communications, but no country has actually stationed weapons in space. US military thinkers increasingly believe that China seeks to dominate the military potential of the realm.

"Right now, the satellites have gone up all in a peaceful mode so they are not well defended," Wynne noted. "We should have some defense mechanism but it's very hard."

A Chinese challenge could compromise the US military's increasing reliance on space-borne assets to guide weapons, conduct communications and keep an eye on potential enemies. The question for US military thinkers is how to answer China's anti-satellite capabilities. Alternatives include stationing weapons in space to defend against and counter any threat, to rely on terrestrial systems to defend space and to hedge against a space challenge by relying more on airborne systems circulating in the atmosphere instead of satellites orbiting in space.

A report assessing the Chinese military released by the Pentagon last summer concluded that the satellite shoot-down was a test of China's potential countermeasures to American military prowess. "The test put at risk the assets of all space faring nations," the report stated. China's anti-satellite system is part of a program "to deny others access to outer space."

Another report, released earlier this year by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington-based neoconservative think tank, and authored by retired US Army colonel Larry Wortzel, noted that "space warfare will be an integrated part of battle planning by the Chinese People's Liberation Army in any future conflict."

PLA military doctrine now holds that "control of portions of outer space is a natural extension of other forms of territorial control, such as sea or air control," Wortzel found. Chinese military planners "argue that space supremacy must be an integral part of other forms of supremacy over the battlefield. The bottom line is that the PLA sees war in space as an integrated part of military operations.

"More seriously," the report concluded, "because of American superiority in space, China's military theorists treat the United States as the most likely opponent in that domain of war."

Some, including, perhaps, Wynne, believe that the US should field space-based weapons to defend its assets. Others favor protecting satellites with ground-based systems, arguing that space-based weapons would not be cost effective and that the US should try to avert an arms race in space. Yet another alternative calls for relying more on airborne platforms for the functions now performed by satellites.

According to the AEI report, the Chinese military is exploring a variety of space weapons including satellite jamming technology, kinetic energy weapons, space-to-ground attack weapons, high-power laser and microwave weapon systems, particle beam weapons and electromagnetic pulse weapons. The PLA is also experimenting with directing collisions between space bodies.

Measure for measure

Some in the US may intuitively react to China's growing space capabilities by trying to counter the challenge measure for measure. Steven Kosiak, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), in a report released in October 2007 debunked the future role of space-based ballistic missile defenses, saying they were likely to prove very costly, technologically risky and relatively easy for an opponent to defeat.

But Kosiak acknowledged that some Washington policymakers may perceive the strategic importance of stationing weapons in space for their own sake. "In these cases," he wrote, "[...] the perceived strategic importance of the capability [...] will have to play a dominant role in shaping programmatic and policy choices."

Wynne put the argument in favor of US space-based weapons more succinctly when he said, "Maybe we should just put up something to beat the crap out of whoever attacked us. Maybe send a message to them. Then we'll put up another expensive satellite."

But Wynne's options are constrained by a tight US defense budget and other Air Force commitments. The US Air Force is committed to investing US$20 billion per year over the next several years to replace its aging satellite constellation. "I'm reluctant to replace a US$1.5-billion satellite if it can be destroyed by a US$100-million anti-satellite missile," he said. "These numbers are bad. I can't afford that exchange ratio."

Expensive and unnecessary

Space-based weapons could, in theory, be used to destroy or disable enemy satellites and to protect US satellites by intercepting enemy anti-satellite weapons, according to the CSBA report. Space-based weapons have also been thought of to defend against earth-bound ballistic missile strikes and to attack terrestrial targets.

But Kosiak suggests that there is no compelling need for the US to acquire a dedicated space-based anti-satellite capability, primarily because the US military already possesses or is acquiring a range of terrestrial-based weapons with significant anti-satellite capabilities. In addition, he argued, space-based defensive, or bodyguard, satellites would not be cost effective.

"Their deployment would have implications for sparking or accelerating an arms race in space," Kosiak wrote. "These weapons would also be incapable of protecting against some of the anti-satellite threats most likely to emerge in coming years."

Space-based systems designed to strike ground targets might be less costly than space-based ballistic missile defenses, but terrestrial-based alternatives would generally be more cost-effective in this prompt strike role.

"Space-based weapons designed to strike terrestrial targets, conduct anti-satellite attacks and intercept enemy [anti-satellite weapons] appear to be neither necessary, nor, generally, as cost-effective as terrestrial-based alternatives," the CSBA report concluded.

Kosiak recommended strengthening US space surveillance and tracking capabilities as an important means of improving the security of US satellites. He also argued that the most cost-effective means of protecting US satellite capabilities may be to rely on a range of passive countermeasures such as decoys and terrestrial-based alternatives such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

Airborne communications

Using more UAVs could provide another answer to China's anti-satellite threat by reducing the Pentagon's dependence on satellite systems. Positioning more navigation and communications assets in the atmosphere, rather than in space, would leave fewer targets for enemy anti-satellite weapons to hit.

The US military is already developing and deploying such airborne communications systems. The Air Force's upcoming Objective Airborne Gateway will mount internet protocol communications capabilities on an airborne platform. That project, which is designed to provide US ground forces with access to internet protocol data networks, will be positioned on a manned platform at first before being switched to an unmanned system.

A tactical communications network currently being operated by US forces in Iraq is likely to be transferred to the Objective Airborne Gateway once that platform launches. The so-called radio over internet protocol network, or RIPRNET, extends ordinary military radio communications to the larger network.

RIPRNET, which was completed on an ad hoc basis by the Combined Air and Space Operations Center in Southwest Asia last September, and then moved to a formal project management phase, helps protect coalition ground forces by providing advanced communications capabilities along convoy routes in Iraq.

"As we move forward, RIPRNET will continue to expand to new missions and enhance operations in ways we never could have envisioned," Col Mike Lewis of the Center said in an Air Force press release. "It will save the lives of troops we have never even met. As an Airman, it simply doesn't get any better than that."

Peter Buxbaum, a Washington-based independent journalist, has been writing about defense, security, business and technology for 15 years. His work has appeared in publications such as Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Information Week, Defense Technology International, Homeland Security and Computerworld

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