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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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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

hibeam September 18, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Thank God we have private companies competing to build launch vehicles now. We can't afford any more boondoggles like the space shuttle.


Thunder350 September 18, 2013 at 4:00 pm

That is one of the biggest lies told by any anti-science politician. The entire history of NASA has been paid for with under 4/10th of a penny of America's tax dollar, and almost everything people use today can be traced back to NASA and the research they've done. We can easily afford to invest in our future, and have an incredible return on that investment, we just choose not too.

You should look up any speech by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and find out the facts about America's budgeting, and what it is we're robbing ourselves, our children, and our childrens children from having by not investing in science.

Unfortunately, the only real way the budgeting will increase without replacing stoneage politicians in Congress, is if Russia/China starts sending people to space in a manner during the cold war, and if that happens the current America will hand over billions to corporations like Boeing to deliver behind schedule, over budget, and under performing platforms…


Ben September 18, 2013 at 4:57 pm

In some ways, I'm glad that NASA's role was reduced though. Do you have any idea what it used to cost to lift 1 pound of cargo into space on the space shuttle? It was around $10,000-15,000 per pound, per launch. Some estimates are even higher.

Now that private spacelift companies have been given a chance, that price has dropped incredibly. I believe a Falcon 9 launch from SpaceX costs somewhere around $1,000 per pound, currently. Elon Musk believes he can further drop that closer to $500 in time.

I'm not saying that private companies can (or should) effectively replace NASA's space exploration or R&D departments, but spacelift needed to be privatized.


blight_ September 18, 2013 at 5:24 pm


Isn't 1,000/pound a little low, at least by these numbers? Though newer numbers would be nice.


Thunder350 September 18, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Spacelift just needed to be advanced, which Space X has successfully done. NASA itself just hasn't had the proper funds to do it themselves.


Ben September 19, 2013 at 11:45 am

Replace the word "funds" with "motivation"

blight_ September 19, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Is comparing the space shuttle against a rocket a fair comparison? NASA's got a fair number of rockets on hand. Don't have the cost data for them though.

I wonder if the Russians can do it for cheaper…


Ben September 19, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Russia can always do it cheaper. Of course you run the risk of not making orbit, but… details.

My guess is still that SpaceX's Falcon 9's are much cheaper than NASA counterparts. They didn't have nearly as much incentive to drive down costs before the private companies hit the scene.

hibeam September 18, 2013 at 10:31 pm

What a crock that is. Let me go back in time and spend that money on private companies in competition with each other. I would be typing this e-mail from the moon right now.


TR September 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm
oblatt1 September 20, 2013 at 12:48 pm

"almost everything people use today can be traced back to NASA"

Yes I laughed out loud too – the reality is that almost nothing people use today can be traced back to NASA. But hey dream the dream.


Thunder350 September 20, 2013 at 5:17 pm


Just to name a few quick ones… The mouse, communications satellites and weather monitoring (hurricanes, wildfires, volcanoes, etc), Healthcare workers being able to monitor multiple patients at once, cochlear implants, cataract detection techniques, lifesears, breast cancer screening, insulin pumps, water filters, attention getters, UV coatings, scratch resistant glass, memory foam, safer more efficient planes, cars, and roads…. all of these and THOUSANDS of other things, can all be traced back to NASA and the work they've done for decades.


greg September 18, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Just let our enemies know that any attack on 1 of our satellites is an attack on American soil and will be dealt with accordingly. Problem solved.


Thomas L. Nielsen September 19, 2013 at 3:58 am

"Problem solved" – provided, of course that
a) the attacker can be identified
b) the attacker cares

Regards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen


blight_ September 19, 2013 at 7:38 am

"We swear, it was space debris from a bad launch"


hunter76 September 19, 2013 at 7:49 am

Time to draw a red line!


Thomas L. Nielsen September 19, 2013 at 10:16 am

In space? You need a big (and I mean BIG!) can o' paint.


Thomas L. Nielsen

*) 19 September: http://www.talklikeapirate.com/piratehome.html


Dayl September 19, 2013 at 10:17 am

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews. Slade’s personal finance column
better be prepared to back the red line statement up!


Anonymous September 23, 2013 at 5:26 pm

So then we'll attack, invade, and occupy a country for 10 years that didn't shoot down our satellite?


Ben September 18, 2013 at 4:47 pm

“Just when our threats are increasing, our budgets are going down."

Not true. The sequester only cut the perpetual spending increase, leveling it off. It didn't really reduce the budget at all.

Military leaders need to stop trying to make excuses and start making better (less wasteful) decisions.


tiger September 18, 2013 at 6:07 pm

The real threat is 60 years of space junk still in orbit.


Thunder350 September 18, 2013 at 7:00 pm

Yea.. shooting thousands of things into orbit probably wasn't the best idea we had as a species… and without a valid way to collect and recycle or safely destroy the junk, the problem is only going to get worst as India, Brazil, and other countries start/expand their own space programs. It would probably even be best for countries to join together, like the ESA (European Space Agency) to reduce cost and/or waste.


Thomas L. Nielsen September 19, 2013 at 4:01 am

And just imagine what a shooting war in LEO would do with regards to space debris.

Regards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen


hibeam September 18, 2013 at 10:47 pm

The biggest threat the air force faces is civilian politicians who are in a race to the bottom buying votes from an increasingly uneducated, greedy and entitled electorate. We might need an Egyptian style solution to avoid a complete collapse of our vote buying system.


Dfens September 19, 2013 at 7:36 am

Replacing the SR-71 with satellites and a slow ass airplane that was being shot down in the 1950's sure looks like a brilliant move now, doesn't it?


blight_ September 19, 2013 at 9:20 am

U-2's over Syria, any day now.


tiger September 19, 2013 at 12:16 pm
Ben September 19, 2013 at 11:41 am

Unshackle Japan, begin exporting the F-22.

That keeps us from assuming responsibility for protecting everyone in the region while at the same time gives us some much needed revenue. You know, like what China is doing.


Ben September 19, 2013 at 11:46 am

Not sure how this post ended up in here. Sorry!


Rest Pal September 19, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Oh great, not only do you not know what you are talking about, you don't even know where you are talking about it. You know, there is no requirement that you talk at all.


Ben September 19, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Glad to see there's people out there who are so much smarter than me.

Care to tell me why you don't agree? Or should we just make fun of each other all day?


Bob September 19, 2013 at 1:48 pm

We for sure need to send this post to Slick Willy Clinton for he and his Idiot vice President Al Gore gave the Missile technology to China with promises not to build offensive space weaponry, Now look at it.


blight_ September 19, 2013 at 2:45 pm

The Loralgate myth lives on.


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