Air Force 'shocked' by Chinese actions in space

The prospect of war in space has led to some strategic thinking at the Defense Department about the future of U.S. satellites.

The galvanizing event came in January when China destroyed one of its weather satellites by launching a ground-based ballistic missile.

Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, speaking in Washington Sept. 19, called the incident an egregious act and added that the Chinese were sending a message to the U.S. military that China now views space as a battlefield.

"We were not surprised; we were shocked," Wynne said, at the symposium sponsored by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense policy think tank in Washington. "What was shocking about it was the denial."

The Chinese government has never clearly acknowledged that it carried out the Jan. 11 incident.

Future enemies "want to make sure that you will not want to get involved" in a conflict, Wynne said. China’s satellite shoot-down came “to tell us, ‘Don't think you're safe up there,'" he said. "Space is not a sanctuary anymore."

The move prompted Air Force planners to come up with ways to defend U.S. space assets. “We’re all considering what operational response in space means,” Wynne said.

But Wynne is reluctant to replace a $1.5 billion satellite if it can be destroyed by a $100 million anti-satellite missile.

“I can’t afford to do that exchange ratio,” he said. “These numbers are bad.”

All this has led Wynne to wonder whether "we don't want to put up big, expensive retainer forces.”

“Maybe we should just put up enough to beat the crap out of whoever attacked us,” he added. “Maybe send a message to them. Then we'll put up another expensive satellite."

The Air Force also is facing an aging satellite fleet that is running out of fuel.

“We need to replace our space assets in total over the next 12 years,” Wynne said. “We have developed a way to rendezvous with and refuel satellites — maybe -- but refuelable satellites are not up there now.”

With the Air Force facing an investment of $20 billion per year to replace its satellite constellation, “how much should I pay to defend space?” Wynne asked rhetorically.

"Right now, the satellites have gone up all in a peaceful mode so they are not well defended," he added. "We should have some defense mechanism, but it’s very hard to defend a satellite you’re actually trying to talk to."

Buxbaum is a freelance writer in Bethesda, Md.

About the Author

Peter Buxbaum is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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