Air Force Pursues Strategy to Defend Against Chinese Anti-Satellite Attacks

While several countries are known to be making investments in the development of space weaponry, Chinese activities have engendered a particular concern among Pentagon leaders, analysts and threat assessment professionals.

The Air Force and Pentagon are pursuing a strategy aimed at countering the fast-emerging weaponization of space and preparing to defend against space-war anti-satellite attacks, service officials said.

The Air Force Secretary told lawmakers the service needs to acquire new space technologies more quickly to ensure U.S. dominance in space as the domain rapidly becomes more contested.

“The last Defense Authorization Act gave authority back to the Air Force for buying space hardware and services. We need to fully implement those changes in order to get space capabilities we need on faster timelines,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told the Senate Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee May 17.

The service mapped out a multi-dimensional space weapons defense plan, resulting from several years of space-focused analysis and research. In 2014, the service conducted a Space Strategic Portfolio Review in which the entire space architecture was assessed.

By 2015, the Air Force had completed a “space situational awareness” review highlighting the range of key space security issues as a foundation for the changing strategy.  

“Space superiority, like air superiority, is not an American birthright; it requires vigilance and action. We have many more steps ahead of us,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein told Congress.

The idea, naturally, is to prepare the U.S. Space enterprise for a more threatening, high-risk contested environment wherein anti-satellite technologies proliferate around the globe.

The Air Force is investing $5.5 billion over the next five years as part of this effort.

“Potential adversaries have taken notice of how we use space and have taken steps to replicate those capabilities for their own use and to devise capabilities to take them away from us if they ever got into a conflict with us,” said Winston Beauchamp, former Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Space.

While several countries are known to be making investments in the development of space weaponry, Chinese activities have engendered particular concern amongst Pentagon leaders, analysts and threat assessment professionals.

“America is dependent on space and our adversaries know it. Space will be contested in any future conflict,” Wilson said in her first Congressional hearing as Air Force Secretary.

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The Chinese fired a land-based kinetic energy SC-19 missile at a satellite in space several years ago, an action which inspired worldwide attention and condemnation.

Pentagon officials say the Chinese program is very advanced.

“As long ago as 2007, they launched an ASAT (anti-satellite) test of a low-altitude interceptor. They struck and destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite and created tens of thousands of pieces of debris,” Beauchamp explained. “Much of that debris is still in orbit today and it continues to imperil the U.S. and other countries orbiting space.”

In response, the U.S. Joint Space Operations center has issued a warning to other countries which operate satellites to stay clear of potentially damaging space debris.

Identifying the Chinese test-firing as “not a type of activity that we would deem to be responsible behavior,” Beauchamp explained that the Chinese have continued to conduct live-fire tests of ASAT weapons while avoiding repeated attacks on actual satellites.

The U.S. operates Advanced Extremely High Frequency, or AEHF, communication satellites which have replaced the older Milstar systems; they operate at 44 GHz uplink and 20 GHz downlink.

Although many of the details pertaining to the U.S. space defenses and countermeasures are secret, there are some discussable elements of the Air Force effort to foster more resilient space assets.

Disaggregation and diversity are among the most heavily focused-upon techniques which seek to deploy multiple satellites carrying both conventional and nuclear systems; diversity tactics are aimed at using multiple satellites to achieve the same goal.

“The satellite architecture is not as vulnerable as many have maintained,” an Air Force official familiar with the plan told Scout Warrior.

For instance, U.S. equipment can use both GPS and Europe’s Galileo navigation system, Air Force officials said.  Naturally, this technique would allow U.S. forces to use allied assets if U.S. satellites were disrupted or destroyed by enemy attack.

The distribution strategy is designed to spread satellites apart should some assets be destroyed. Deception tactics are used so that potential adversaries are not aware of which satellites perform certain functions. “There is no one node that is invulnerable to attack,” a senior Air Force official said.

Some satellites are purely SATCOM, whereas others are GPS oriented or geared toward what Air Force professionals describe as Space-Based Infrared, or SBIR, assets. SBIR assets are engineered to detect the large thermal signal from an enemy intercontinental ballistic missile launch to better enable missile defense technology to intercept an approaching attack.

Proliferation and protection are also part of the strategic initiative; this involves deploying multiple satellites to perform the same mission and taking specific technical steps to harden satellites against attacks. While many of the specifics of these techniques are secret, officials do acknowledge they are likely to contain various countermeasures, investments in remote sensing technologies and maneuverability tactics.

Hardening satellites will involve developing methods of allowing them to operate in an environment where there might be electronic warfare attacks.

Overall, the Air Force and Defense Department have stepped up space development and collaboration designed to properly respond to what experts cite as a commercial renaissance in space research, development and technological advances.

For instance, DARPA has formally handed over its high-tech, wide-angle view Space Surveillance Telescope which, among other things, can detect potentially dangerous asteroids or attacks at farther distances than previous systems could, a Pentagon statement said.

U.S. military functions are reliant upon GPS technology, including air-dropped bombs such as Joint Direct Attack Munitions, communications systems, weapons, drones and other assets.

With this is mind, the Pentagon and the various services are making progress developing position navigation and timing technologies which can operate in what is called a GPS-denied environment.

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