WASHINGTON – The Air Force’s top general has ordered a wide-ranging review of the vulnerabilities of U.S. military satellites – one that could lead to the lifting of restrictions on using force against another country’s space capabilities – because of continuing alarm over a successful Chinese missile test.
The review, ordered last month by Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, comes amid concern over the Chinese government’s failure to explain why it destroyed one of its own weather satellites in January. That test created a large debris field that continues to expand in low-Earth orbit.
China’s secrecy has led to concerns that Beijing is attempting to perfect a wide array of anti-satellite weapons, including jammers for navigation and communications satellites, and possibly the deployment of small “space mines” that could disable U.S. military satellites in the event of a conflict.
Both the United States and Russia have demonstrated the ability to knock down satellites, but neither has done so since tests they conducted during the Cold War.
Although there are treaties that govern weapons in space, many standards about harming another country’s satellites are based on international norms rather than law.
As part of the review, Moseley has asked senior Air Force Space Command officials to recommend whether new arms programs – known as “offensive counter-space” systems – that could disable enemy space systems are needed.
The review is unlikely to recommend arms in space. But experts said it could suggest weapons – either on the ground or aboard aircraft – that are based on current missile defense technologies.
“What I’m looking for is just a better way to think through the challenge, now that other people have a capability to kill a satellite,” Moseley said. “It is a contested domain now. I’ve asked a bit of an open-ended question.”
Moseley has requested preliminary results of the review be completed by June.
The renewed intensity of the debate over military space policy is a reflection of growing Pentagon concern about Beijing’s steps to build up and modernize its military.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, questioned Chinese officials during a visit there last month, but said he received no explanation about why they conducted the test that destroyed the weather satellite.
“I don’t know what their policy is. … So I am still, as are others, confused about what their intent is,” Pace said.
Moseley was concerned about the vulnerability of U.S. satellites even before China’s test. Besides more than 100 military and intelligence satellites, there are hundreds of commercial satellites that are vital to communications and commerce around the globe.
Still, the subject of militarizing space remains highly controversial. Moseley insisted that he was not proposing space-based weaponry. But he acknowledged his concern that current U.S. policy restricted the Pentagon’s ability to attack an adversary’s space capabilities if commanders detected a threat. Moseley said he may present the review to Defense Secretary Robert Gates to spur policy debates.
“If you asked: What are your notions of … offensively dealing with objects in space, I would tell you that that’s not an engineering problem; that’s a policy discussion,” Moseley said.
Preliminary findings could be presented at the next gathering of all Air Force four-star generals, scheduled for June.
Air Force Space Command officials remain wary about escalating military tensions in space, noting that the U.S. is more reliant than almost any other country on satellites. The Pentagon’s ability to operate globally depends on keeping space free of weapons and debris that would hamper its communications and reconnaissance satellites.
Instead of offensive weaponry, Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, who as head of Space Command will lead the review Moseley has called for, has been pushing for additional systems that would allow the Pentagon to better track and identify all objects launched into space.
Currently, the U.S. must rely on about half a dozen ground-based radars and electronic telescopes to monitor launches. But since 1996, the Air Force has been operating a test satellite, the MS-X, that has been perfecting ways to track orbital objects from space.