In the days after China blasted an orbiting satellite to bits, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said, in effect, it was no big deal. “I don’t think we should be overly worried about this,” opined the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “We have ways to deal with that ability.”
Biden’s content-free statement, though soothing to some, was contrary to mainstream thinking. From serious analysts, the anti-satellite shot elicited only grim words. A sampling:
“Troubling” (Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates). “Very worrisome” (Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). “A wake-up call” (Robert Joseph, then undersecretary of state for international security). A “threat,” and a “provocation” (Sen. Jon L. Kyl, R-Ariz.)
For shock value, though, even Gates, Pace, Joseph, and Kyl did not come close to Gen. T. Michael Moseley, USAF Chief of Staff. The top airman called the Jan. 12 (China time) test against a defunct Chinese weather satellite “a strategically dislocating event.” In fact, he added, “This is no different than when the Russians put Sputnik up.”
Strong words. The Sputnik crisis, sparked by Russia’s surprise Oct. 4, 1957 launch of the world’s first man-made satellite, was a Cold War hinge point. It caused a near panic, riveting attention on not only the Soviet space effort but also the broader Soviet military challenge.
Why would Moseley roll out the “S” word? China’s ASAT program would naturally alarm the Air Force, provider of 90 percent of US space power. Yet the concern goes further, encompassing Chinese airpower, too.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Chief’s remarks on April 24 to the Defense Writers Group in Washington, D.C.
Moseley hinted at a dangerous new era in space. He said China’s ASAT could hit spacecraft at an “altitude band ... [that is] a significant risk to both civilian commercial systems and military systems.” That band is low Earth orbit, about 500 miles up.
Worse, China likely has the ability to threaten satellites much farther out, in geosynchronous orbit. It is, said Moseley, “just a physics problem” to extend existing ASAT range to “hit something out beyond 20,000 miles.”
Moseley noted the attack featured “a direct-ascent shot from a mobile system”—a special problem. Against direct-ascent weapons, reaction time is short. Moreover, mobile weapons are “harder to find” and pre-empt.
Moseley has tasked Air Force Space Command to recommend options for space situation awareness, defensive counter-space measures, and the security of ground stations and uplinks. In addition, he seeks to back up space systems with aircraft systems.
Notably, the Chief took an equally dim view of China’s airpower advances. “This is not ... a country that has just discovered the Wright brothers’ airplane,” he said. “This is a country that is very serious” about making the big league in airpower.
After decades of defense spending increases, China’s overall program now is on a par with Japan, Britain, and Russia, he said, and its long-range aviation is “increasingly capable and lethal,” as witness four advances:
New fighters. China is fielding a pair of “Generation 4.5” fighters—the Su-30MKK, co-produced with Russia’s Sukhoi, and the indigenous J-10, which resembles the Eurofighter and is deployed in squadron strength.
Airborne early warning. “They have an AWACS system that’s as good as any other,” said Moseley. China has built its own system using an Il-76 airframe. It is currently in operation.
Aerial refuelers. Moseley said “they have tankers” and that China is using them to “extend the range of their fighters.”
Stand off munitions. Chinese Su-30s are getting a new cruise missile similar to the USAF Joint Standoff Weapon. According to the Chief, China’s Air Force is building a bigger air-to-surface missile, perhaps anti-ship in nature, for its bombers.
China is continually improving its sensors and weapons, he went on, and has modified old airplanes with new radars and jammers.
Moseley’s bottom line: “They’re becoming a very, very capable, long-range Air Force.”
For decades, China’s airpower has focused heavily on preparation for close-in fighting to reclaim Taiwan. Is that now changing? “That’s right,” Moseley said. “They are getting the ability to go beyond just a Taiwan scenario.”
In time, this type of force could present a coercive threat in areas around China, posing major problems for US air and maritime forces in the Pacific.
Assessing Chinese power in 2003, former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown noted the relative importance of various forms of US military might. “On the mainland,” Brown said, “the Chinese will continue to be a very, very strong force, but offshore, where aerospace and maritime ... capability matters a lot, they will continue to be significantly inferior.”
Now, analysts aren’t quite so confident. China’s success in destroying one of its satellites with a ballistic missile signals it fully intends to contest US supremacy in space and probably in conventional airpower, too.
Some in the Pentagon and Congress suggest moving ahead on programs that would permit the US to pre-empt threats to satellites, shield US space assets from attack, and swiftly replace damaged systems. Others argue for a more robust buildup of conventional fighters, long-range bombers, and warships.
In his own way, Moseley is acting to alert Americans to the gathering Chinese challenge in air and space. He has been careful not to overplay his hand; today, the situation is neither desperate nor beyond repair. However, the time for action is now.
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