June 22, 2006

Space protection called key to nation's future security
U.S. must "be aware of the potential risks" of attack on satellites and other systems, experts say, and take appropriate steps.

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Space-based systems are key to America's way of fighting and an increasingly vital part of the U.S. economy but are potentially vulnerable to attack, a House panel was told Wednesday.

"Space assets really allowed the American way of war," which involves pervasive and timely intelligence and weather information, global communications, accurate ground, air and ocean navigation, and precision attack, said Air Force Lt. Gen. C. Robert Kehler.

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But "space is not a sanctuary for the United States -- we see a key imperative to protecting space assets," Kehler, deputy commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, told the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces.

Michael O'Hanlon, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution, praised the vast increase in satellite-aided military capabilities since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but warned that those capabilities could be vulnerable to a wide array of hostile actions.

"I'm not suggesting a 'space Pearl Harbor'," O'Hanlon said, recalling a term used by Donald Rumsfeld as chairman of a presidential space commission before becoming defense secretary. "But we have to be aware of the potential risks."

O'Hanlon said any nation that has a ballistic missile capability potentially could damage U.S. satellites by exploding a nuclear weapon in space and "micro-satellites, which are becoming more common, are a latent anti-satellite weapon."

Kehler noted that communications and global positioning satellites also are vulnerable to jamming from Earth-based systems, something that already has happened a number of times.

And he conceded that a serious loss of space assets "would cause the military to step back in time and fight largely as we did in Vietnam," resulting in slower operations and increased casualties.

In addition to its military value, "space has also become increasingly vital to our nation's economic interests, presenting lucrative business opportunities and enabling the development of major infrastructures with practical uses here on Earth," said Edward Morris, director of space commercialization in the Commerce Department.

Businesses and individuals benefit from such space-based capabilities as satellite-guided navigation systems, high-speed and long-range communications, business data transmission, accurate weather forecasting and detailed mapping and imagery, Morris and David Cavossa, executive director of the Satellite Industry Association, told the panel.

Cavossa said the sale and operations of communications and imaging satellites contribute $90 billion to the global economy and facilitate enormous additional economic activity.

The economic effects of the loss of low Earth-orbiting satellites, which usually have the imaging systems, could be "significant," but damage to the higher-altitude geo-synchronous orbiting satellites, which include most of the communications systems, could be "catastrophic," Cavossa said.

O'Hanlon suggested a number of steps the government should take to reduce the danger of losing space assets, including developing duplicate systems, the ability to replace satellites quickly, "taking a technical step back" by using more aircraft-based systems, and providing future satellites with sensors to detect threats.

Kehler was reluctant to discuss current efforts to protect military satellites but said "we are looking at what can be done to reduce vulnerabilities."