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US Working On Satellite Defenses In The Shadow Of Chinese Test

Shields up

The Chinese test appears to have solidified a political consensus in favor of defensive measures, particularly efforts to improve "situational awareness" in space, analysts and lawmakers say.
by Jim Mannion
Washington (AFP) March 9, 2007
The US military has been quietly working on an array of defenses against attacks on its satellites, including tiny new satellites that could one day be armed for wars in space, analysts say. That may explain the muted US response to China's anti-satellite test two months ago.

When China destroyed one of its own weather satellites with a ballistic missile in the January 11 test, the White House waited a week until news of it leaked and then issued only a mild expression of concern.

Experts said the test came as no suprise to the US military, which had anticipated that China would develop an anti-satellite capability to put US spy satellites at risk in the event of a conflict over the Taiwan Straits.

A US military satellite already had been dazzled by a Chinese laser in September, and the successful January 11 test had been preceded by earlier missile shots that apparently had failed to hit their target.

"From what I understand, everybody knew the Chinese were working on that and they (the US military) had already taken the appropriate measures," said Vincent Sabathier, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The US military has been preoccupied by the vulnerability of its unprotected networks of satellites at least since 2001 when a commission led by Donald Rumsfeld warned of the danger of a space "Pearl Harbor."

US reliance on satellites is pervasive. The military depends on them for high speed communications, reconnaissance and the navigational signals that guide precision bombs and ships at sea. Civilian uses are myriad.

US counter-measures are cloaked in secrecy and difficult to ascertain.

But three years ago, a program to build stealth satellites popped out of the black amid a political outcry over its cost, reported to be nearly 9.5 billion dollars.

John Pike, director GlobalSecurity.org, said he believes the stealth satellite program was put in place around the turn of the century in response to the anti-satellite threat from China.

The Pentagon's virtual silence about the Chinese test "is hard for me to understand except to conclude they already felt they had already dealt with this problem some time ago," he said.

Analysts say the military is pursuing other so called "counter-space" strategies -- some defensive and some with offensive applications.

The Chinese test appears to have solidified a political consensus in favor of defensive measures, particularly efforts to improve "situational awareness" in space, analysts and lawmakers say.

There is also broad support for an air force program to blunt the impact of missile attacks with smaller, relatively cheap spy satellites that can be rapidly launched and replenished in a conflict, they said.

The consensus unravels, however, "when you start talking about issues like, 'Well, do we now need space-based missile defense so we can shoot down China's ASAT on the pad?... Do we need shoot back systems in space,'" said Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information.

The United States has had no declared anti-satellite program since 1985 when it destroyed one of its own satellites in space with a missile launched by a fighter jet.

Some argue US missile defense interceptors could be employed, and not just to defend against Chinese or other missiles.

"That's essentially what the Chinese tested. A ground based interceptor with a kill vehicle at the top," said Hitchens.

The Missile Defense Agency is asking for 10 million dollars to study the feasibility of a "test bed" to develop space-based missile defenses.

Both the United States and China have been working on ground-based lasers that could be used for satellite attacks. The US military fired a powerful ground-based laser at an aging air force satellite in 1997 to see what effect it would have.

Budget documents unearthed by Hitchens and her colleagues also point to intriguing military research into other exotic, dual use space technologies.

These include work on maneuverable micro-satellites and nano-satellites weighing less than 10 kilograms.

A projected funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) aims to develop ways to quickly put "small, hard-to-detect nanosatellites" into orbit to "perform rapid response reconnaissance on any spacecraft," according to budget documents.

These nano satellites would have "advanced robotics technologies that would allow satellites to reconfigure on demand."

"It sounds like these things could go from taking pictures to actually taking action .. by reconfiguring themselves into something that could do damage," Hitchens said.

earlier related report
Republican Criticizes Muted US Response To China Test
Washington (AFP) March 8 - An influential Republican criticized the US administration Thursday for not speaking out clearly against China's recent anti-satellite test and affirming US intent to defend its access to space. Senator Jon Kyle, from Arizona, said he was "surprised and concerned" over the administration's muted response to the January 11 test, in which China destroyed one of its own satellites with a ballistic missile.

"The best way to defend against attacks on our satellites is to deter in the first place, something that is only possible if we clearly stake our interest in space and unambiguously declare our intent to defend those interests," he said.

"The Chinese are very smart. They know what they want and they are interested in what our response is. Tell them," he said.

Kyle made the comments in a panel discussion with Representative Jane Harman, a Democrat, on how the United States should respond to the test.

Kyle advocated developing "offensive counterspace systems," a euphemism for US anti-satellite systems, as well as better space defenses and other efforts to detect and monitor man-made objects in space.

Harman, until recently the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said she had a "shade of a difference" with Kyle over developing offensive space weapons, adding, "It's not that I say 'never.'"

"But my worry would be this: if we polarize this conversation right this minute, not just internationally but domestically, ... I think we lose the opportunity to perhaps develop better policy," she said.

The repercussions of the Chinese test have rippled through US policy circles over the past two months, prompting debate among experts but little public comment by either the Pentagon or administration officials.

The White House's first commented on the test only after news of it leaked a week later.

Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman on national security issues, said at the time that the United States had expressed its "concern" to China and that the test was "inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area."

Some analysts have speculated that the administration was reluctant to pick a fight with China on satellites when it was helping with North Korea.

Harman pointed out that the test occurred on the sixth anniversary of the release of a 2001 Rumsfeld Space Commission report that highlighted the vulnerability of US satellites and warned of a space "Pearl Harbor."

She said it was an interesting symmetry that "perhaps was intended. We really don't know."

Source: Agence France-Presse

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