By Bill Gertz
The Washington Times
January 11, 2008
Two orbiting U.S. spacecraft were forced to change course to avoid being
damaged by the thousands of pieces of space debris produced after China
carried out an anti-satellite weapon test one year ago today.
The maneuvering, ordered by ground controllers and conducted several
months after the test, is an example of lingering problems caused by
China's Jan. 11, 2007, missile firing in a bold demonstration of space
weaponry against a weather satellite, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Ted
Kresge, director of air, space and information operations at the Air
Force Space Command in Colorado.
Gen. Kresge, a F-15 fighter pilot, said the Chinese ASAT weapon test
changed the equation for the military, which is working to better
understand strategic threats posed by China's satellite-killing
missiles, ground-based lasers, cyberwarfare and other ground station
The Space Command is conducting a series of reviews to better identify
threats and develop defenses for U.S. and allied military and commercial
satellites against future attack.
"We have embraced the notion that we now operate in a contested domain,"
the one-star general said.
However, other defense officials said the test set off a debate within
the Bush administration over how to respond. Officials who seek to
minimize China's arms development within the U.S. intelligence and
policy communities are said to be playing down the seriousness of the
ASAT weapon test, arguing in interagency meetings that it was a one-time
event that poses no strategic threat.
Military officials, including Gen. Kresge and Marine Corps Gen. James E.
Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, see Chinese
anti-satellite weapons as new threats that could cripple the U.S.
militarily and economically in a future conflict. They said the U.S.
needs to step up spying efforts to learn more about the secret Chinese
weapons program and develop defenses against it.
Chinese military writings have revealed that space weapons should be
built in secret and used for "shock and awe" attacks against U.S.
satellites, said defense analyst Michael Pillsbury who revealed the
plans in a report to a congressional commission.
Gen. Cartwright testified before a Senate subcommittee last year that
conventionally armed Trident missiles are needed to pre-empt space
attacks through strikes on ASAT missile launchers in China.
But, Congress restricted funding for the program in the latest defense
spending bill, and Pentagon civilians did not fight to keep the
conventional Trident program going.
The White House opposed the curbs on the Trident conversion that are
part of what the Pentagon calls "prompt global strike" weapons. The
restrictions "limit the ability to field a near-term capability to
strike globally, precisely, and rapidly with non-nuclear kinetic effects
against high-priority, time-sensitive targets," the statement said.
The Chinese anti-satellite test used a ground-based mobile "direct
ascent" missile that destroyed the orbiting Feng Yun-1C weather
satellite by ramming into it.
By some estimates, China could produce enough space weapons to knock out
all low-Earth orbit U.S. satellites by 2010.
China tried to carry out the test in secret but it was detected by U.S.
intelligence agencies days before the launch. The Bush administration
rejected State Department appeals to try and head off the test, fearing
it would disclose U.S. spying capabilities. Instead, the administration
organized a formal diplomatic protest to Beijing, that was joined by
several other nations, including Britain, Japan and India.
China's government, which advocates a United Nations ban on space
weapons, confirmed the test several weeks later, but Chinese officials
have refused to reveal details of the arms program.
Beijing also is asserting national sovereignty over all space above
Chinese territory, setting up the potential for a future confrontation
with the U.S., which operates intelligence and other satellites that
pass over China.
Gen. Kresge said international treaties protect space from such claims
of national control, "so from my perspective that is an illegitimate
claim on their part."
"If their intent was to enforce that, then we run into a space
protection problem, and that is why we are so aggressively working the
issue," he said.
Options for countering China's space arms include dissuading China from
attacks through political, economic and diplomatic means, and deterring
attacks by threatening U.S. counterstrikes, Gen. Kresge said.
Developing international coalitions with nations that operate satellites
is being considered to help share satellites in an emergency, and
"provide an adversary with a targeting problem," he said.
Defensive measures include maneuvering satellites or shielding them from
damage from ground-based lasers. China fired a laser at a U.S. satellite
in December 2006.
The broad area of wreckage in space is called the "Feng Yun-1C debris"
and threatens about 800 satellites in space, 400 of which are American.
According to the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force
Base in California, the commercial communication satellite Orbcomm FM 36
maneuvered to avoid passing within about 123 feet of the debris field on
April 6. A NASA Earth observation satellite Terra was moved June 22 to
avoid coming within about 90 feet of the debris.
Gen. Kresge said the Chinese ASAT weapon test, after two misses, "made a
mess" in space. There are no indications China is preparing more tests
but doing so would create a "huge" problem, he said.
"Essentially what it did was increase the amount of space debris
orbiting the Earth by about 20 percent," he said.
The debris threatens spacecraft for up to 100 years, he estimated.
Visit InfoSec News