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Air Force Faces Increasing Space Threats: Shelton

by Kris Osborn on September 18, 2013

Satellite LaunchU.S. satellites are expected to face an increasing number of threats ranging from interceptor weapons to jamming equipment and lasers, the commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command told audiences at the 2013 Air Force Association Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition, National Harbor, Md.

“Threats to our assets range from reversible to the very destructive,” said Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command. “There’s not an operation conducted anywhere at any level that is not somehow dependent upon space and cyberspace. This is true across the spectrum of conflict. Air Force Space Command has to make its capabilities more resilient.”

Shelton said the U.S. military will have to find ways to fight through jamming. He said more resilient or resistant antenna designs can help this effort.

“Jamming is easy to do. It is cheap and proliferated,” Shelton told the audience.  “Big jammers can be targets. As they radiate and perform their operations we can identify them and geo-locate them.”

Shelton made reference to the Chinese effort in 2007 to shoot down a satellite as a way to explain a potential “interceptor” threat because the technology exists to be able to do that.  The Chinese made headlines in 2007 with an anti-satellite missile test in which a Chinese weather satellite was destroyed by a kinetic energy kill vehicle launched on a missile.

He also warned about laser weapons, saying various classes of lasers already exist and that high-powered lasers were in the works for the future as well.

“This is a critical juncture for space and cyberspace. Our dependence on both of these domains has never been higher and threats are increasing,” he said.

Shelton emphasized a difficult predicament in which many military planners currently find themselves. In particular, he said that continued sequestration would have a crippling effect upon space programs.

“Just when our threats are increasing, our budgets are going down. We’re spending time on budgetary issues. If we don’t get flexibility soon we are doing to be in big trouble with operational capability. Because of the way the sequestration law works, which is a cut to every line item, I think  every program is going to be broken in FY15 (fiscal year 15),” Shelton told reporters.

In light of the fast-changing threat equation, it will be even more important to maintain and upgrade significant space capabilities, Shelton explained.

He outlined a handful of space platforms, including the the Space Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, an infrared telescope engineered to scan the globe and protect the U.S. from 22,300 miles up in space, Shelton said.

“We can tell you when something’s launched, we can tell you the launch point, we can tell you what kind of missile it is and we can tell you the impact point. This critical to the defense of the homeland,” Shelton explained.

The SBIRS is 5,600 pounds and engineered to operate in what Shelton called existential circumstances, meaning it is a hardened satellite designed to operate in nuclear environment if necessary.

Shelton also mentioned that Advanced Extremely High Frequency, the heaviest satellite weighing 9,000-pounds and engineered with strategic and tactical communications. This satellite is programmed with special waveforms and frequencies, he said.

The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program is a 2,600-pound satellite able to provide key relevant information such as soil moisture, cloud cover, storm traffic and other details needed for military operations, Shelton said.

Wideband Gobal Satcom is a 133-foot long military satellite designed to provide secure, wideband communciations, and GPS satellites provide navigation, timing and a wide range of guidance technologies ranging from mapping capabilities to munitions.

Also, the Joint Space Operations Center Mission Systems will run sensor information and other data through high-performance computers, Shelton said.

One analyst said it is more difficult and expensive to defend space assets such as satellites than it is to attack them.

“It costs a lot more to try to protect these assets than it does to take them down,” said Andrew Krepinevich, President of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Shelton likened the current challenge to the point in history when adversaries improved air defenses technology.

“We found ways to fight through the challenges. We look at stealth and EW (electronic warfare). We developed countermeasures to what the adversaries were doing. We can do the same thing in space and cyber. We’ve got to fight through the challenges.

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