China Aims High

Beijing's blast sets off a debate about how to protect U.S. satellites.

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Chinese men look at a satellite built by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight.

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Some of the U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq's troubled Anbar province most likely wondered why the Air Force was sending a space weapons expert to help them fight Sunni insurgents. But U.S. forces there had a tough problem. Traditional artillery was too inaccurate for urban hotbeds like Fallujah, and insurgents took cover when they heard attack aircraft overhead.

The Army offered what seemed like a good solution—the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, a mobile battery that fires precision missiles from miles away. The powerful new weapon, however, came with a serious glitch—the launcher sometimes relied on outdated coordinates from GPS satellites, which could send rockets hundreds of yards off target. Maj. Toby Doran, the space expert, helped find creative ways to prevent the error, and the launcher was put into action.

That's just one small example of how integral satellites have become to even the most basic daily operations of today's U.S. military, not to mention the broader U.S. economy. But any sense that this crucial sophisticated technology is out of the reach of potential enemies because it flies hundreds, even thousands, of miles above Earth disappeared early this year. On January 11, China blew up one of its own aging weather satellites with a rocket launched from a space center in Sichuan province.

The test was a vivid demonstration of something that the U.S. Air Force has long worried about behind closed doors—Washington can no longer take its massive and growing reliance on satellites for granted. Even though the Chinese have been working for years to develop an antisatellite weapon (similar to ones tested decades ago by the United States and the Soviet Union), the decision to test now is fueling sharp new fears about the possible militarization of space.

At the U.S. Air Force, it exposed a once top-secret debate over how far America needs to go to protect its valuable satellites—which give America a tremendous military and intelligence advantage over potential enemies. With many officials now pushing for more ambitious defensive capabilities, the skeptics point out that Washington also has the most to lose in a potential space arms race.

Today, satellites provide military capabilities that range from reconnaissance and communications to the link that allows pilots to fly unmanned Predator surveillance planes in Iraq and Afghanistan remotely from a base in Nevada. "We had the military folks do an estimate of a day in the life of the U.S. military if you didn't have space systems," says Gary Payton, the deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space programs. "Fundamentally, you go back to fighting a war like World War II where it's huge attrition rates, huge logistics, and huge expenses."

But even as satellites have grown more important, the U.S. government has spent little to defend them. China's test "was a wake-up call for a lot of folks who had not recognized the fact that space is not a sanctuary," says Gen. Kevin Chilton, who, as the head of U.S. Strategic Command, is charged with long-term planning on issues including space. "When you got into the budget debates...that never seemed to rise to the level of concern." In recent months, Congress did add some $50 million to next year's budget for space-related investment, hardly an impressive amount in the multibillion-dollar world of space projects. The Air Force is pushing for much more.

This is not, of course, simply a military or intelligence issue. Satellites are a $220 billion industry that is central to long-distance telephone calls, Internet service, navigation, just-in-time delivery, and even disaster relief. A special timing signal in GPS satellites is integrated into the country's basic infrastructure, including ATMs and traffic lights.

Arms race. But defending satellites is an expensive, difficult, and often controversial proposition. "There is potential for a revitalized arms race," says Tom Ehrhard, a former Air Force officer now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "As a strategist, I want to see multiple redundancy and a hardening of systems, and I am going to start thinking about an active defense." It's the latter that worries some observers. An "active defense" could be countermeasures like decoys, elaborate missile defense systems, or even full-fledged offensive weapons orbiting Earth.