From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]


Name the Rogue Satellite Operation
By Noah Shachtman  /  February 19, 2008

The military hasn’t officially named the operation, to shoot a rogue
satellite out of orbit — or, at least, they haven’t told us civilians
the name, yet.  So we figured we’d give ’em a hand, by coming up with
some names of our own.  Vote up or down on the titles below — or come
up with your own.  You’ll be doing your country a tremendous


Operation “Hold my beer — watch this”
by Nick

Operation yankee showboat
by Anonymous

Operation Mr. Splashy Splashy
by Anonymous

Operation Hydrazine Freedom
by ThatsNotPudding

Operation Frequent Manhood
by TheHoldSteady!

Operation Space Cowboy’s Last Rodeo
by spenfree

SKYNET Termination Program
by Lorenzo “Tachikoma” Pinto

White Owl Final Shriek
by Marko Komljenovic

The Alan Parsons Project
by Dr. Evil

Operation Afternoon Delight
by Anonymous

Operation Reagan’s Ghost
by RE


How to Blow Up a Satellite
BY Noah Shachtman  /  November 19, 2007

Ever since the Chinese wasted one of their satellites in January, more
and more U.S. military officials have been freaking out about how to
protect America’s eyes and ears above the sky — and talking more
openly about taking down hostile orbiters, too.

The new defense budget has $64 million (that we know about) devoted to
“‘counterspace systems’ that would warn of impending threats to U.S.
satellites, destroy or defend against attackers, and interrupt enemy
satellites,” the Washington Post notes.

This month’s Discover looks at “eight ways to kill a satellite” —
from space nukes to hack attacks — and ranks “the threat level of

The magazine declares “an interceptor launched from Earth, guided to
its target by a ground-based laser or radar system” to be “the gravest

That, I’m not so sure about.  Most of the smart folks I’ve talked to
about this think satellites’ biggest vulnerability comes from the
orbiters’ “need for constant housekeeping from the ground,” as MSNBC
puts it.  Those orders from back here on Earth are eminently

“The best ASAT [anti-satellite device] is not a weapon that
detonates next to an enemy satellite,” said William E. Burrows, a
journalism professor at New York University who is also the author of
“Deep Black,” a book on spy satellites. “Instead, it would be a signal
that would tell the satellite to take the rest of the afternoon off.”

Since 2004, the U.S. Air Force has had in its arsenal a series of
radio frequency jammers, to interfere with satellite operations. Three
or four times a year, small groups of junior officers gather at an Air
Force Research Laboratory facility in New Mexico to figure out how to
take American satellites off-line using nothing more than sweet talk
and off-the-shelf gear.


Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Dragon?

DT editor emeritus Noah Shachtman send us a heads up on a cool post at
his current gig, The Danger Room. Here’s an excerpt:

For years, the American armed forces have worried about an attack
on US satellites; this could be how it begins. The United States
military has become increasingly dependent on space. It uses photo-
reconnaissance satellites to observe potential adversaries, GPS
satellites to guide munitions with pin-point accuracy, communications
satellites to handle the flow of information into and out of a theater
of operations, and early warning satellites to detect and track enemy
missile launches to name just a few of the better known applications.
Because of this increasing dependence, many analysts have worried that
the US is most vulnerable to asymmetric attacks against its space
assets; in their view US satellites are “sitting ducks” without any
sort of defense and their destruction would cripple the US military.
China’s test of a sophisticated anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon a year
ago, Friday — 11 January 2007, when it shot down its own obsolete
weather satellite — has only increased these concerns. But is this
true? Could a country–even a powerful country like China that has
demonstrated a very sophisticated, if nascent, ability to shoot down
satellites at all altitudes–inflict anything close to a knock-out blow
against the US in space? And if it was anything less than a knock-out,
how seriously would it affect US war fighting capabilities?


Russia, China Propose Space Arms Treaty
BY John Borland  /  February 12, 2008

No surprise here, but it’s still worth watching: At a disarmament
conference in Geneva today, Russian and Chinese diplomats proposed a
new draft treaty that would ban the deployment of space-based weapons.

The two countries have been pushing for talks on this issue since the
beginning of the decade, largely against resistance from the United
States. Which is a shame.

Sure, it’s true that the United States has a technological lead that
could allow it to dominate this field for some time. Our potential
rivals want to mute this lead. But what if this isn’t such a bad idea
after all?

Put aside the fact that a significant number of scientists and policy
experts say space-based weapons are inherently vulnerable to attack,
and thus provide little or no real military superiority. Weaponizing
space – as some military officials have pressed for since the
beginning of the decade – will almost certainly cause an arms race in

Indeed, the test of the Chinese satellite-killing missile in early
2007 is already proof positive of that. That test set off a fresh
round of concern in military offices around the world, prompting air
force officials even in South Korea to talk about the need of
developing space-based weapons.

United States officials, in repeated policy speeches and in their 2006
National Space Policy, have argued that the country should not let its
hands be tied by international agreements such as this proposed
treaty. But if the gains from a temporary superiority lead simply to
another expensive, destabilizing arms race, this time in space, well,
that doesn’t seem like such a good deal to me.

Here’s Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as quoted by the BBC:

“Weapons deployment in space by one state will inevitably result
in a chain reaction,” he said. “This, in turn, is fraught with a new
spiral in the arms race both in space and on Earth.”

The Russian foreign minister also warned the US against
complacency over its technological lead, making a comparison with the
nuclear arms race after World War II.

China and Russia aren’t the United States’ best friends on this issue.
But that’s no reason to reflexively ignore what they propose — that’s
a sign of weakness, not of strength.



Dangerous driving in the heavens  /  Jan 17th 2008
The world needs a better code of conduct for spacefarers

ON THE roads, at sea and in the air, mankind has invented sensible
rules to avoid accidents. In space, something like a free-for-all
prevails. On a good day, spacefaring nations observe certain
understandings, such as how to launch objects safely into orbit. On a
bad day, it is celestial road rage.

A year ago, the Americans fumed when China tested a missile by
shooting up one of its own weather satellites. One thing that made the
test look anti-social was that it created the worst-ever cloud of man-
made debris in the heavens. Ever since, other satellites have had to
be moved periodically to avoid the shrapnel. And bumping into things
is not just a matter of collecting scratches. At orbital speeds,
colliding with an object the size of a pebble can ruin the day of a
multi-billion dollar spacecraft.

There was, however, a second reason for America’s anger over the
Chinese test. America is space’s pre-eminent military power. Or, more
exactly, given that America has held back from putting weapons in
space, it has used space to preserve and extend the pre-eminent
military power it enjoys on earth. By using a missile to blow apart
one of their own satellites, the Chinese showed that they could if
they chose blow apart the spy and navigation satellites on which
America’s armed forces (and grateful drivers everywhere using GPS
systems) depend. Indeed, the Chinese test may have been intended to
send precisely this warning.

Given the dangers of a clash in space, and the degree to which the
military and civilian uses of space have blurred together (see
article), why have the big powers so far failed to negotiate either
arms-control agreements or simple rules of the road, as they have on
earth? In the case of arms control, the explanation is that America is
suspicious. Russia and China have offered to negotiate a treaty
banning space weapons. The Americans are not sure whether that is

How, for example, do you define what is a weapon, since any flying
object can be made into one simply by bashing it into someone else’s
satellite? Besides, the Americans fear that as top space power, with
ambitious plans for anti-missile systems still in the pipeline, they
would end up losing from any new treaty, while Russia and China would
have to give up less. On January 23rd a conference on disarmament is
due to reopen in Geneva, but on this point it is stuck. America says
it is ready to talk in general about space security, but only if
others agree to negotiate a treaty to stop production of fissile
material for nuclear weapons. Thanks to the opposition of China and
Pakistan, that may not happen any time soon.

America’s reluctance to sign any arms-control agreement that might
jeopardise its national security is understandable. But its refusal
even to begin to talk about a weapons ban in space has been unduly
rigid. Once negotiations started, some of its doubts about the
possibility of a useful and verifiable treaty might be dispelled.
Besides, it is not at all clear that America itself would lose from
the existence of such an agreement. Since the Americans have invested
most in space, it is they who could suffer more if war or accident
were to fill space with clouds of debris and kill or blind their

At least write a spaceway code

In the meantime, the big spacefaring countries ought to consider
negotiating some less formal rules of the road. These would seek to
stop dangerous driving, maintain safe distances and, most importantly,
avoid harm to each other’s satellites. If they co-operated on
surveillance of space, such countries could also do a much better job
of monitoring space debris. America would still have the fanciest
spacecraft, and could reserve its judgment on arms control. But in
heaven as it is on earth, the more eyes on the road, the safer for


How China Loses the Coming Space War
BY Geoffrey Forden, PhD  /  January 10, 2008

“A year ago to the day, China knocked a weather satellite out of
orbit, and threw the international community into panic.  Some figured
the satellite-killer test was the harbinger of a future war in space
— the kind of conflict that could cripple a tech-dependent United
States military.   Geoffrey Forden, PhD — an MIT research associate
and a former UN weapons inspector and strategic weapons analyst at the
Congressional Budget Office — examines the possibilities of an all-
out Chinese assault on American satellites.” – Noah Shachtman

High above Asia, as the bars and clubs of Beijing begin to fill up at
the end of another work day, a US early warning satellite spots the
tell-tale plume of a missile streaking out of the wastes of Western
China.  Warning bells sound all through the Pentagon. Tensions have
been running high between China and the United States, as the two
countries struggle to resolve the latest installment of the Taiwanese
crisis.  And China has had a run of unprecedented activity in space:
the past two days have seen China launch four large missions into deep
space, three within the last six hours.. Fortunately, a high-
resolution American spy satellite will be over that second launch site
within minutes, giving the US a unique ability to determine what is
going on.  But even though tasking orders are given to photograph the
suspected launch site, none are returned.  The satellite, code-named
Crystal 3, no longer responds to commands.  Within minutes, US Space
Command reports that four NAVSTAR/GPS satellites–used to guide
American drones and precision bombs–have stopped broadcasting.
China’s space war against the United States has started.

For years, the American armed forces have worried about an attack on
US satellites; this could be how it begins.  The United States
military has become increasingly dependent on space.  It uses photo-
reconnaissance satellites to observe potential adversaries, GPS
satellites to guide munitions with pin-point accuracy, communications
satellites to handle the flow of information into and out of a theater
of operations, and early warning satellites to detect and track enemy
missile launches to name just a few of the better known applications.
Because of this increasing dependence, many analysts have worried that
the US is most vulnerable to asymmetric attacks against its space
assets; in their view US satellites are “sitting ducks” without any
sort of defense and their destruction would cripple the US military.
China’s test of a sophisticated anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon a year
ago, Friday — 11 January 2007, when it shot down its own obsolete
weather satellite — has only increased these concerns.  But is this
true?  Could a country–even a powerful country like China that has
demonstrated a very sophisticated, if nascent, ability to shoot down
satellites at all altitudes–inflict anything close to a knock-out blow
against the US in space?  And if it was anything less than a knock-
out, how seriously would it affect US war fighting capabilities?

The answers to these questions should influence how the US responds to
the threats China’s ASAT represents.  There is at least one way to
answer these questions: “war-gaming” a massive Chinese attack on US
satellites, where China is only limited by the laws of physics and the
known properties of their ASAT, and see how much damage could be
done.  Such an exercise also reveals what the US could do, and what it
could not do, to minimize the consequences.  The results of my
calculations are reported here.  They assume that China launches a
massive attack and that everything works exactly as planned: every
ASAT launches, the US does not respond until after the attacks are
launched even though it will have overwhelming evidence ahead of time,
and every ASAT hits its target.  Thus, this is a worst case scenario
for the United States.  In the end, we’ll show, the US would still has
sufficient space assets to fight a major conventional war with China,
even after such an attack.  America’s military capabilities would be
reduced, for a few hours at a time.  But they would not be crippled.
Back in 2001, a commission lead by Donald Rumsfeld warned of a “space
Pearl Harbor,” a single strike that could cripple America’s satellite
network.  It turns out, there is no such thing.

Let’s start with what we know about China’s ASAT capabilities today.
And we know quite a bit.  Because there are few, if any, secrets in
space.  Amateurs around the world track most, if not all, of the
classified US military satellites from their backyards, posting their
positions on the internet. NORAD,is capable of tracking objects as
small as four inches across. In fact, NORAD’s measurements of the
debris caused by China’s January 2007 test were posted on the web.  In
the case of the Chinese test, the orbital tracks of that debris can be
used to reveal the capabilities and limitations of China’s ASAT weapon
by reconstructing the collision — much like forensic scientists
reconstruct a crime scene.  By backtracking the debris to the point
where they all converge, we can determine the two most important
aspects of the Chinese ASAT: how China destroyed that satellite, and
just how capable its satellite-killer really is.

The interception was almost head on at a combined speed of almost
18,000 miles per hour.  The pieces of debris wound up with the
greatest speeds–much higher than the original satellite.  This means
that China accomplished the most sophisticated of space maneuvers: a
hit-to-kill interception, the equivalent of hitting a bullet with a
bullet.  This is equivalent to what the US is trying to develop in its
national missile defense system and is much more sophisticated than
the ASAT the Soviet Union was working in the 1980s: little more than a
space mine that slowly snuck up on its target and detonated near by.

We also know that the ASAT was highly maneuverable.  Yes, the target
satellite’s orbit was known well ahead of the interception.  However,
that does not mean that the satellite’s position was known well enough
that the ASAT did not need to steer itself to hit the target.  In
fact, it is very likely that the interceptor needed to maneuver at
high speeds, perhaps as much as six times the acceleration of gravity,
to hit its target.

The orbital speed of the target satellite, which is determined by its
altitude, also provides us with significant insight into the
interceptor’s capability.  The closing speed of the interception,
which is a combination of the target satellite’s orbital speed and the
speed of the interceptor, determines how much time is available to
make final adjustments.  For instance, just one second before the
collision on January 11th, the interceptor and target were five miles
apart.  During that one second, the interceptor had to make any final
adjustments to its trajectory to hit a target smaller than six feet
across.  Any decrease in the closing speed makes the attack that much
easier.  Since orbital speeds decrease with increasing altitudes, the
Chinese interceptor would find it considerably easier to hit a target
in higher orbit.

Finally, the interceptor needed to track its target, so that it could
determine where it should move to place itself in front of the
obsolete weather satellite; we have a good sense of how that was done,
too.  The most likely method it employed to track the oncoming
satellite was an on-board telescope using visible light.  Locking onto
a target this way — as opposed to focusing on the infrared light
emitted by the heat of the target, the way the US missile defense
interceptor does — imposes significant limitations on the system.  In
particular, until it develops a far-infrared capability, which is
probably decades away, its ASAT will be forced to attack satellites
while they are in bright sunlight.  Indeed, even though the site from
which the interceptor was launched was cloaked in darkness, the target
satellite was high enough to be brightly illuminated by the sun.
Until China does develop better sensors, this imposes a very severe
constraint on how and when it could attack other satellites: it must
wait to attack low Earth orbit satellites when they are in bright
sunshine.  Attacks against satellites in significantly higher orbits,
such as GPS or geostationary satellites, are less constrained by this
requirement since they are almost always in direct sunlight.

China has informally stated a number of times that it will “never do
this again.”  But after having paid a very high price for testing the
system once, both in resources and in political capital, it seems
unlikely that they would abandon it altogether.  Fortunately for
China, it can continue to develop the system–including its on board
tracking, guidance, and control systems–in the guise of a missile
defense system.  Such interceptions could be arranged at similar, or
even greater, closing speeds as the January 2007 test.  Only now,
China could arrange to have both the target and the interceptor
collide when they are both in downward portions of their trajectories,
much like the US does during its missile defense tests.  That way,
they can test their system again – without creating orbital debris
that might harm their own and other nation’s satellites.

If China and the US are going to come into armed conflict with each
other in the next several decades, it will almost certainly be over
the status of Taiwan.  China has, for instance, indicated that it
would be willing to use force if Taiwan took steps to formalize its
independence from the main land or otherwise prevent its eventual
reunification under the rule of the People’s Republic.  In such a
scenario, it is entirely likely China could consider trying to negate
or drastically reduce the US ability to use space at a tactical

But China could not launch the massive attack required to have
anything like a significant effect on US ability to utilize space
without months of careful planning and pre-positioning of special,
ASAT carrying missiles around the country.  It would also have to
utilize its satellite launch facilities to attack any US assets in
deep space: the GPS navigation satellites and communications
satellites in geostationary orbit.  Most importantly, it would have to
time the attack so as to hit as many US satellites as simultaneously
as possible.  And, despite all that movement, Beijing would somehow
have to keep the whole thing secret.  Failure to do so would
undoubtedly result in the US attacking the large, fixed facilities
China needs to wage this kind of war before the full blow had been
struck.  Even if the United States failed to do so, China would
undoubtedly plan for that contingency.

Based on the orbits of US military satellites determined by the
worldwide network of amateur observers, there appears to be a large
number of low Earth orbit military satellites over China several times
each week.  To hit them, China would have to preposition its ASAT-
tipped missiles and their mobile launchers in remote areas of China,
one position for each satellite.  (If reports of low reliabilities for
these missiles are correct, two or more missiles might be assigned to
each satellite.)  Furthermore, these positions are really only
suitable for a particular day.  If China’s political and military
planners have any uncertainty at all about which day to launch their
space war, they would need to pre-position additional launchers around
the country.  Thus, attacking nine low Earth orbit satellites could
require as many as 36 mobile launchers–enough for two interceptors
fired at each satellite with a contingency day if plans change–moved
to remote areas of China; areas determined more by the satellite
orbits than China’s network of road.  (As will be discussed below,
nine is about the maximum they could reasonably expect to hit on the
first day of the space war.)

At the same time that China would be trying to covertly move its
mobile missile launchers around the country, it would also have to
assemble a fleet of large rockets — ones normally used for launching
satellites. The more large rockets China uses for this task, the more
deep-space satellites it can destroy.  At present, however, China only
has the facilities for assembling and launching a total for four such
rockets nearly simultaneously.  Two would have to be assembled out in
the open where they could be observed by US spy satellites and two
could be assembled inside a vertical assembly building during the 18
days it takes to stack and fuel the Long March rocket’s stages while
preparing to launch. [See right.] Even the two assembled indoors would
need to arrive by train and eventually would have to be moved, one
after the other, to the launch pad.  Each of these rockets, usually
reserved for launching satellites into geostationary orbits, could
carry three to four interceptors and their special orbital maneuver
motors to attack either US navigation satellites, at about 12,000
miles altitude, or communications satellites at about 22,000 miles.

Four days prior to the attack, China would launch the first of its
Long March rockets carrying deep-space attack ASATs; the same launch
pad would have to be used for the second rocket stacked inside the
vertical assembly building.  As the technicians renovated that pad,
the first rocket’s payload would circle the Earth in a parking orbit
at about 200 miles altitude waiting to be joined by the other deep-
space ASATs.  This would appear to be a tell-tale sign of an impending
strike.  But China could explain the delay to the international
community by claiming that the third stage, intended to take the
payload it its final altitude, had failed to fire and that they were
working on it.    Roughly six hours before the first the attack on the
US’s low Earth orbit military satellites, the other three Long March
rockets would have to be fired since it takes roughly that long to get
their payloads up to their target’s orbits.  Delays or failures to
launch any of these rockets would strand their interceptors on the
launch pad and subject them to possible retaliatory bombing by the US.

If all goes as planned, China would have launched between 12 and 16
ASATs, each capable of destroying a strategically important deep-space
satellite. However, the United States military has many, many more
deep space satellites.   There are, as of December 2007, 32
functioning GPS navigation satellites even though the original design
calls for only 24. [See above, left]  In addition, the US has 23
military communications satellites, six early warning satellites that
observe missile launches, and six surveillance satellites–most of
which detect and monitor electronic transmissions of potential
adversaries but one, apparently capable of photo-reconnaissance–in
geostationary orbit. These satellites are reinforced by a private
network of  90 commercial communications satellites, owned and
operated by US corporations, that presumably could be used to replace
destroyed military communications satellites.  (Eighty-four percent of
the space communications to military forces in the Iraqi theater of
operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom used commercial
satellites.)  On top of that, there are 75 civilian and the 64
military/civilian communications satellites in low Earth orbit–
although they do not have the same transmission capacity as the
geostationary satellites.  The United States may be the country most
dependent on space for its military activities.  But it is also the
least vulnerable, because of the tremendous redundancy of its space

Of course, China does not have to destroy all these satellites to
seriously hamper US military efforts in the Taiwan Straits.  It would
only have to destroy those satellites that have a direct line of sight
to the conflict: this includes eight military and 22 US civilian
communications satellites in geostationary orbits.  Nevertheless,
China would have to choose between attempts to destroy the satellites
that guide US precision guided bombs and those satellites which relay
the orders to drop those bombs.  It simply cannot launch enough ASATs
to destroy both systems.

But does China have enough to wipe out even a single set of American
satellites?  Let’s examine the possibilities:

Attacking Navigation Satellites

You need a launch pad to attack a target in deep space, like an
American GPS satellite.  China has just three of these pads. This
really restricts China’s offensive capabilities in space.  Assuming
that China devotes all its deep-space ASATs on GPS satellites, it
could destroy at most 16 satellites.  At the current time, with 32
functioning navigation satellites, that would still leave 16
satellites still working. Over a period of years, the debris from
those collisions would represent a significant threat to more than
those satellites immediately attacked.  They would pass, time and time
again, through the belts of debris that resulted from the
interceptions.  However, it would probably take longer than the
military conflict China initiated with these attacks before additional
satellites were destroyed by subsequent collisions.

Usually, there are about nine GPS satellites over China at any given
time.  If China somehow managed to destroy all of these, it could
eliminate America’s use of precision-guided munitions–for a few hours,
until the orbits of other GPS satellites take them over the Taiwan
Straits.  Quite quickly, the constellation’s other 23 satellites would
fill in the gap due to their normal orbital movement.  Even if it
destroyed 16 satellites, China could still only interrupt GPS over the
Straits for about eight hours. During the other 16 hours there would
be the four or more satellites present over the target area for
bombing runs, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flights, and ship
tracking.  This pattern of eight hours off followed by 16 hours when
GPS could be used would be repeated every day until new satellites are
launched.  This outage would certainly cause difficulties; GPS not
only guides American precision bombs – it helps pilot UAV spy planes,
and monitor ships. US casualties might increase , with air crews
forced to fly missions during daylight hours – and conduct some of the
“dull, dirty, and dangerous” missions now flown by robotic planes.
It’s a situation no American commander would want to face.  But it
would not be a catastrophic one.  And it would not eliminate precision
weaponry, UAVs, or any other American activity that depends on GPS.

Keep in mind, this is the worst of the worst-case scenarios.  It is
highly unlikely that China could remove all the satellites over the
conflict area at the same time.  After all, attacking 16 satellites,
all in different orbits with ASATs launched on just four different
rockets involves some fairly complex orbital maneuvers.  A much more
likely scenario is that, at best, China could destroy four GPS
satellites in the initial wave followed roughly seven hours later by
four more, a third wave at roughly 45 minutes after that, and the
final wave two hours later.  Thus, the GPS attack is spread over ten
hours and never eliminates all the satellites visible over the area of
conflict at the same time.  This Chinese attack on US navigation
satellites would not eliminate or even significantly degrade the US’s
ability use precision-guided munitions..

Attacking Communications Satellites

While it is possible for China to eliminate the eight US military
communications satellites in geostationary orbits that can broadcast
to the Taiwan Straits, Beijing does not have enough the lauch capacity
for as many ASATs  as it would take to eliminate all 22 civilian
communications satellites that could also be used.  However, not all
of these satellites have equal capacities for transmitting
information; it might be possible for China to destroy enough of that
capacity to limit the US military.

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, US armed forces sent and received
a tremendous amount of information via satellite.  This included video
conferencing between the Pentagon and the commanders in the field,
satellite photographs downloaded to operations planners, orders
directing jets where to drop their bombs, and soldiers emailing their
families back home.  At its peak, all of this added up to about three
billion “bits” per second, a tremendous amount of information.
Bandwidth was – and continues to be – a premium on the battlfield,
particularly at the tactical level.  And the appetite for information
is only increasing. But the total amount of information transmitted
over satellites is certain to increase by the next time we go to war;
perhaps it could triple or even quadruple to twelve billion bits per
second in the next ten years.

Assuming that the eight military communications satellites are
destroyed first, that leaves at most eight ASATs to destroy the eight
most capable civilian communications satellites.  If these eight are
removed, then there is still a total capacity of over 14 billion bits
per second in US owned and operated civilian communications
satellites.  Thus, there should be enough transmission capacity for
our military — even if the demand for satellite communications
increases by a factor of four.  And the US military is used to using
civilian satellites, as the 2003 invasion of Iraq showed.   The vast
majority (84%) of all military communications into and out of the
theater of operations went through civilian satellites.

Attacking Early Warning Satellites

The United States has five satellites in geostationary orbit that
detect missile launches using the heat released from their exhaust
plumes.  These satellites are primarily used to alert US nuclear
forces to massive nuclear attacks on the homeland.  However, in recent
years, they have played an increasing role in conventional conflicts,
such as both Gulf Wars, by cueing tactical missile defenses like the
Patriot missile defense systems that gained fame in their engagements
with Saddam’s SCUD missiles.  Because of this new use, China might
find it useful to attack them with ASATs.  Since there are only five
of them, China could destroy the entire constellation but at the cost
of diverting some of the few available deep-space ASATs from other
targets.  Of course, China would not have to attack all five but could
limit its attack to the three that simultaneously view the Taiwan
Straits area.

If China did decide to destroy these early warning satellites, it
would greatly reduce the area covered by US missile defenses in Taiwan
against SCUD and longer range missiles.  This is because the area
covered by a theater missile defense system is highly dependent on the
warning time it has; the greater the warning time, the more effective
the missile defense system’s radar is.  Thus a Patriot battery, which
might ordinarily cover the capital of Taiwan, could be reduced to just
defending the military base it was stationed at.  Some analysts
believe that China would gain a tremendous propaganda coup by having a
single missile make it through US defenses and thus might consider
this use of its deep-space ASATs highly worthwhile even if it could
not increase the probability of destroying military targets.  On the
other hand, China would run a tremendous risk of the US believing it
was under a more general nuclear attack if China did destroy these
early warning satellites.

Throughout the history of the Cold War, the US has had a policy of
only launching a “retaliatory” nuclear strike if an incoming attack is
detected by both early warning satellites and radars.  Without the
space leg of the early warning system, the odds of the US
misinterpreting some missile launch that it detected with radar as a
nuclear attack would be greatly increased even if the US did not view
the satellite destruction as a sufficiently threatening attack all by
themselves.  Such a misinterpretation is not without precedent.  In
1995, Russia’s early warning radars viewed a NASA sounding rocket
launch off the coast of Norway and flagged it as a possible Trident
missile launch.  Many analysts believe that Russia was able to not
respond only because it had a constellation of functioning early
warning satellites.  Any Chinese attacks on US early warning
satellites would risk both intentional and mistaken escalation of the
conflict into a nuclear war without a clear military goal.

Attacking Low Altitude Satellites

China would launch its first attack against a US electronic
intelligence satellite in low Earth orbit minutes before the first
wave of deep space ASATs hit their targets.  The same type of ASAT
used to target the deep-space satellites could also be launched on
short range missiles from Transporter-Erector-Launchers (TELs).  These
are 22-wheeled vehicles that look very similar to tanker trucks.
They’re more sophisticated than the mobile launchers that Saddam used
during the first Gulf War to launch SCUDs toward Israel and Saudi
Arabia but would be no easier to find and destroy.

The exact order of attacks will depend upon the specific day and hour
chosen but a typical attack might involve a first launch against a
Lacrosse signals intelligence satellite followed within seconds by
another, this time against a Keyhole 11 high-resolution spy satellite.
Moments later, three ASATs would be launched against small groups of
three NOSS satellites that the Navy uses to locate an adversary’s
ships at sea.  These travel around the Earth in closely spaced groups
of either two or three satellites and triangulate on the radio signals
emitted by warships.  During a span of about twenty minutes, China
could attack and destroy a total of nine US military satellites in the
scenario considered here.  Inevitably, however, there would eventually
be a lull in satellite crossings because of the random clumpings of
satellites along their orbits.

If the United States does nothing to protect itself, such as change
the orbits of its lower altitude satellites, China could continue to
shoot down military satellites as they come over the horizon using pre-
positioned ASATs.  It is highly unlikely, however, that the United
Sates would simply roll over while these attacks took place.  Even
today, with no formal satellite defenses, we could be fairly effective
at stopping the destruction of our satellites.

Nevertheless, the loss of those satellites that were destroyed would
be significant.  It would increase the “revisit” times between spy
satellites, which might not matter so much for reconnaissance
satellites in a tactical setting.  The loss of a significant fraction
of the Navy’s enemy ship surveillance system, however, might be more
important in battles around the Taiwan Straits.  Without timely
determination of enemy locations, the US would have to increase the
number of aircraft devoted to scouting — and subsequently
decrease the number of combat missions — as these planes are

If China was to attack the strategically important deep-space
satellites it would give the United States at least an indication of
the impending attack two or more weeks prior to launch as it assembled
its Long March rockets on their launch pads.  There could be few other
reasons for China to assemble so many rockets at its satellite launch
centers for near-simultaneous launches.  The US could, if it wished to
initiate hostilities, destroy the rockets before they were launched
using either stealth bombers or cruise missiles.  Alternatively, it
could wait and use its National Missile Defense interceptors–which
have an inherent ASAT capability–to shoot down the first group of deep
space ASATs as they wait for D-day in their parking orbit.

Once on their final trajectory, however, there is little or nothing
the US could do to prevent them from striking their targets.  It would
be impossible, for instance, to move the targeted satellites out of
the way in the final moments before the collision.  The Chinese ASATs
are known to be capable of very high speed maneuvers and trying to
move a GPS or communications satellite to avoid a collision would
require such dramatic changes in velocity as to shear off their solar
cell panels and antennas.  Having “protector satellites” in orbit near
strategically important targets would also be counter productive.  If
such protectors raced out and destroyed an approaching ASAT they would
simply create a shotgun blast of debris that would continue to circle
the Earth and would every twelve (if attacking a GPS satellite) or 24
hours (for a communications satellite as the target) have another
chance of colliding with its target.  Time, in this case, is very much
on the side of the attacker.

An example of the “shotgun” blast of debris that is created if the
ASAT is destroyed before it hits its target.  On the first pass, a
“defender” satellite intercepts the ASAT (shown in red) as it
approaches the NAVSTAR/GPS satellite (in this case NAVSTAR 59).  The
debris created by this collision continues in the original orbit but
spreads out each pass.]

Since China doesn’t have enough deep-space ASATs to stop
communications — or even prevent GPS being used during most hours of
the day — Beijing might not even attempt to attack those targets.
Which means  the United States wouldn’t have much of warning, to
prepare for the onslaught.  In that case, it is almost certain that
China could destroy a number of surveillance and signals intelligence
satellites in low Earth orbit before the US could take action.

If we assume that the US chain of command takes an hour, due to
bureaucratic inertia, to react, China could destroy a total of nine
such satellites before the US responds in the specific case examined
here.  This includes two out of the three functioning Keyhole high
resolution photo-reconnaissance satellites, one of the three Lacrosse
signals intelligence satellites in orbit, and six of the 15 NOSS
satellites that the Navy uses to locate enemy ships at sea.  This
represents billions of dollars lost and, more important, a large
fraction of the US space assets in low Earth orbit that could have
been used in the subsequent conflict.

At that point, however, the United States could effectively stop
China’s attack simply by changing the remaining satellites’ orbital
speeds by as little as 200 mph (they are typically moving at over
16,500 mph).  This very small change will have a large effect in the
position of the satellite the next time it crosses over China;
effectively putting the satellite out of range of the pre-positioned
ASAT launcher.  This is not an excessive change in speed and, unless
the satellite is very close to the end of its operational life, is
well within the capability of its onboard fuel supply.  Furthermore,
it does not have to change its speed very rapidly the way a deep-space
satellite would have to in order to avoid collision in its final
moments.  Instead, this relatively small velocity change has tens of
minutes or even hours to change the position of the satellite before
the next time it crosses over China.  During this time, it is steadily
moving away from its original position so that it could be hundreds of
miles from where China thought it was going to be.

While it is possible that the pre-positioned ASAT missiles could still
reach their target even after it had changed, they would not know
where, exactly, to aim the missile.  Instead, they would have to
perform a radar search for the satellite in an ever expanding volume
of space.  This volume quickly becomes too large for even the most
powerful of mobile radars.  In fact, it would take a fairly large
(perhaps 50 feet in diameter) to detect the satellite during its next
pass and China does not have a lot of those radars.  So most, if not
all, of the satellites remaining after the first hour would be safe
for the next 24.  During that time, the United States could try to
destroy all of China’s fixed radars that are capable of tracking the
satellites in their new orbits.  (In other words, it does not matter
how many additional ASATs China has to shoot at low Earth orbit
satellites; a very different circumstance than the deep-space ASATs.)

This might, however, prove difficult; especially those facilities in
the center of China that are out of reach of Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Currently, only B-2 bombers could reach those sites with any chance of
success and timing might prove difficult if they need to transit other
countries during night time.  A Global Strike capability, such as a
conventionally armed Trident missile, might ease this task.  Of
course, even if all the radars are destroyed, China could still use
optical telescopes to determine the new positions of the satellites
but these methods are too slow to be used for aiming the ASAT
missiles.  And even then, China would have to spend days repositioning
its mobile ASAT launchers, a task that would probably take several
days and would extend the time the US could use for hunting down and
destroying Chinese assets.

The short-term military consequences of an all attack by China on US
space assets are limited, at most.  Even under the worst-case
scenario, China could only reduce the use of precision-guided
munitions or satellite communications into and out of the theater of
operations. They would not be stopped.  China could destroy a large
fraction of strategic intelligence gathering capabilities; but not all
of it.  With a greater than normal expenditure of fuel, the remaining
US spy satellites could continue to survive their crosses over China
and photograph Chinese troop movements, harbors, and strategic forces
but, of course, at a reduced rate.  The war would, however, quickly
move into a tactical phase where the US gathers most of its
operational photographs using airplanes, instead of satellites.  US
ships and unmanned vehicles might, theoretically, have difficulty
coordinating, during certain hours of the day.  Most of the time, they
would be free to function normally.  China’s space strike would fail
to achieve its war aims even if the United States failed to respond in
any way other than moving its low Earth orbit satellites.

When it warned of a space Pearl Harbor, the Rumsfeld space commission
was afraid that a lesser power could launch a surprise attack that
would wipe out key US strategic assets and render the US impotent.
This is what Japan tried, but failed, to do at the start of World War
II.  And much like Japan’s failure to destroy the US carrier fleet, a
Chinese attack on US satellites would fail to cripple our military,
China’s strategic goal in launching a space war.

But if the short term military consequences to the United States are
not that bad, the long term consequences to all space-faring nations
would be devastating.  The destruction of the nine satellites hit
during the first hour of the attack considered here could put over
18,900 new pieces of debris over four inches in diameter into the most
populated belt of satellites in low Earth orbit.  Even more debris
would be put into geostationary orbit if China launched an attack
against communications satellites.  In the immediate aftermath of the
attack, the debris from each satellite would continue to “clump”
together, much as the debris from last year’s test.  However, over the
next year or so–well after the terrestrial war with China had been
resolved–the debris fields would fan out and eventually strike another

These debris fields could easily cause a run-away chain of collisions
that renders space unusable — for thousands of years, and for
everyone.  Not only is this a quickly growing and important sector of
the world’s economy (sales of GPS receivers alone reportedly exceeds
$20 billion annually), but space is also used for humanitarian
missions such as forecasting floods in Bangladesh or droughts in
Africa.  We cannot allow space to be forever barred to our use for
what turns out to be a very minor military advantage.  If the military
utility of attacks in space are so minor; if the active defense of
space assets is impractical, counterproductive, and unnecessary; and
if the danger resulting from the consequent debris affects all space-
faring nations for thousands of years to come, it is clear that
diplomacy is in every country’s interest.

The first step the United States should take is a simple declaration
that we guarantee the continued flow of information to any country
whose satellite is destroyed by an ASAT.  We could do this using
either our military or civilian-owned satellites. After all, if the
space assets of the United States are not vulnerable to attacks
because of the inherent redundancy, the same cannot be said of China’s
other potential regional competitors such as Australia, India, or
Japan. Each of these countries has only a handful of satellites that
could be quickly destroyed if China chooses to attack them.  This
declaration would effectively eliminate any military advantage that a
country might get from attacking its neighbors limited fleet of
satellites.  After that, we should adopt the code of conduct that is
being developed by the Stimson Center that establishes “rules of the
road” for responsible space-faring nations.  Finally, we should work
toward a treaty banning the future testing of these most dangerous of
anti-satellite weapons: the so-called “kinetic kill interceptors” that
create such large amounts of debris.  It’d be a first step towards
containing the worst effects on war in space.



Chinese Space Leader Honored
BY Norman Polmar

Qian Xuesen — the head of China’s space program — has been named
Person of the Year by the international aerospace journal Aviation
Week & Space Technology. The AvWeek citation notes, “Not well known in
the West, he is the father of China’s space efforts. And it was in
2007 that China demonstrated it was the third force in space.”

Educated in the United States, Qian served in the U.S. Army and was a
leading aerospace scientist before being expelled from the United
States for being suspected of having Communist sympathies.

Qian — now age 96 — was the force behind the last year’s anti-
satellite test demonstration conducted by China. That test was based
on advanced sensor, tracking, and trajectory control procedures that
had previously been demonstrated only by the United States and Russia.
China has undertaken a long line of space achievements that have
included manned space flight and lunar probes. In China, as in the
United States and Russia, the development of space technology has been
in lock-step with military technology related to strategic missiles
and satellites.

Born in Zhejiang Province in 1911, Qian came to the United States at
age 23 to study aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. But preferring theory to practice, he soon
moved to Caltech, “and began to follow a path that would lead to his
becoming one of the most eminent rocket scientists in the U.S.,”
according to Bradley Perrett’s account in the January 7, 2008 issue of

During World War II he served as an officer in the U.S. Army. After
the war he was appointed to the prestigious Scientific Advisory Board
of the Air Force. Physicist Theodore Van Karman, chief scientific
advisor to the Air Force at the time, wrote. “At the age of 36, he was
an undisputed genius whose work was providing an enormous impetus to
advances in high-speed aerodynamics and jet propulsion.” In 1949, Qian
detailed his concept of a “spaceplane,” a winged rocket that is
credited with being the inspiration for the Dyna-Soar project of the

Qian’s career in the United States came to a sudden and dramatic end
in 1950 as a result of the communist-hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
With China now controlled by the communists, the U.S. government
revoked Qian’s security clearances.

While Qian claimed that there was absolutely no evidence that he had
communist sympathies, he sought to return to China. He did not have
American citizenship. The government tried to keep him in the United
States because of his technical knowledge. Then both parties changed
their minds due to the outbreak of the Korean War. In the event, Qian
was finally able to return to China in 1955.

Although — in a period of rapid technology development — his
knowledge was soon outdated by Western standards, Qian quickly became
director of the Fifth Academy under the Ministry of National Defense
and began work on ICBMs. China’s first long-range missiles and
military satellites were developed under his direction.

In the early 1990s the Chinese government publicly acknowledged Qian’s
contributions to China’s technological growth. AvWeek’s tribute to
Qian concludes:

“But if China is now a strategic rival to the U.S., then his
achievements are now more important than ever — especially as the
Chinese economy moves relentlessly forward toward front and center on
the world stage. Hence the continuing relevance of this very old man.”





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