China jamming test sparks U.S. satellite concerns
Reuters – October 5, 2006
China has beamed a ground-based laser at U.S. spy satellites over its territory, a U.S. agency said, in an action that exposed the potential vulnerability of space systems that provide crucial data to American troops and consumers around the world.
The Defense Department remains tight-lipped about details, including which satellite was involved or when it occurred.
The Pentagon's National Reconnaissance Office Director Donald Kerr last week acknowledged the incident, first reported by Defense News, but said it did not materially damage the U.S. satellite's ability to collect information.
"It makes us think," Kerr told reporters.
The issue looms large, given that U.S. military operations have rapidly grown more reliant on satellite data for everything from targeting bombs to relaying communications to spying on enemy nations.
Critical U.S. space assets include a constellation of 30 Global Positioning Satellites that help target bombs and find enemy locations. This system is also widely used in commercial applications, ranging from car navigation systems to automatic teller machines.
The Pentagon also depends on communications satellites that relay sensitive messages to battlefield commanders, and satellites that track weather in critical areas so U.S. troops can plan their missions.
"Space is a much bigger part of our military posture than it used to be, so any effort by the Chinese or anybody else to jam our satellites is potentially a big deal," said Loren Thompson, defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute.
Clearly, the incident sparked fresh concerns among U.S. officials and watchdog groups about the U.S. ability to determine if satellite problems are caused by malfunctions, weather anomalies like solar flares, or targeted attacks.
Air Force Space Commander Gen. Kevin Chilton said it was often difficult to know exactly what happened to satellites orbiting from 125 to 22,400 miles above the earth.
"We're at a point where the technology's out there and the capability for people to do things to our satellites is there. I'm focused on it beyond any single event," Chilton said.
Satellites are also vulnerable to man-made and natural events affecting their ground stations and the links between the station and the satellite, he told reporters last week.
Theresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the Chinese incident.
Beijing may have been testing its capability to track satellites, not damage them, Hitchens said. "We don't know their intent, and we don't have the capability to know."
Hitchens also noted current technology made it difficult to identify anything smaller than a baseball in the orbits where spy satellites fly, a capability that needed to be improved.
At the same time, she said, the Pentagon would be prudent to use lower-cost and lower-risk systems closer to earth to do some critical tasks like surveillance and communications.
Hitchens also emphasized that it would be extremely difficult to disable a satellite with a laser -- and even U.S. scientists had not developed a system to do that.
But there is growing concern among lawmakers about U.S. efforts to develop such anti-satellite weapons.
House of Representatives lawmakers tried to block a planned test of Starfire, a satellite and star tracking program, for fiscal 2007 after learning it could also be used as an anti-satellite weapon. The funds were reinstated only after the Air Force assured lawmakers it would be used only for tracking.
The Chinese incident also underscored the need to develop an international code of conduct for space. Currently, there are no specific rules or treaties governing behavior of the 40 countries that operate satellites, and about a dozen countries that have launch capability, Hitchens said.
Last updated 08/10/2006