Defending the High Frontier
Drudge has a link to a timely warning from General Kevin Chilton, a former astronaut who recent took the helm of the U.S. Air Force Space Command. Speaking at an annual missile defense conference in Alabama, General Chilton emphasized the need to more quickly identify space payloads launched by other countries, and determine if they pose a threat to U.S. platforms and capabilities.
"We need to know what the intent of that launch is," he said, including whether an object could jam or otherwise harm satellites or spread micro-satellites that could do so.
Chilton said his goal was to learn all this in the object's first orbit of the Earth so the United States could take unspecified actions "before an adversary can cripple us."
As General Chilton indicates, the potential threat in space is very real--and growing. Potential adversaries--most notably China--are well aware of our reliance on space-based intelligence and communications platforms, and are investing in technology that could degrade our satellites, destroy them, or simply prevent us from using them. The PRC's anti-satellite (ASAT) programs have grown almost geometrically over the past decade, and Beijing is actively pursuing both space and ground-based weapons that could be employed against western platforms. Hence, the need to identify--and quickly react to--space payloads that may represent a threat.
As we noted a couple of months ago, the growing challenge on the high frontier is receiving increased attention from both the White House and Capitol Hill. But providing the resources to counter that threat is a different matter altogether. Developing more viable space defenses is a costly proposition, and it will entail more than the situational displays and analytical tools that General Chilton referred to. The U.S. needs defenses for its space platforms, and a resurrection of our ASAT program.
I used that term because we once had a viable ASAT weapon (launched from an F-15 fighter), but we shelved it more than a decade ago. Bowing to international pressure to avoid "the weaponization of space," the U.S. ASAT effort was cancelled, while our adversaries pressed ahead with their own programs. At the time, the U.S. could (at least politically) afford to put its ASAT deployment on hold, since we held a substantial technological lead over other countries.
Unfortunately, much has changed since those days, and the U.S. can no longer afford such an egalitarian position. Our advantage has largely dissipated, and we now face growing threats to space systems that form the backbone of our military and economic infrastructures. The real question is: will the administration and Congress actually follow through and adopt a more realistic policy toward space defenses, before it's too late? Reading between the lines of General Chilton's remarks, it's clear that the time for that decision is now at hand.