By Amy Butler
The U.S. Air Force intends to field the first system explicitly designed to help counter anti-satellite missiles and other threats, a goal which has become more urgent since China's satellite shootdown in 2007.
A "nightmare" scenario is for multiple satellites used by the Pentagon to "blink off," indicating a hostile - possibly kinetic anti-satellite (Asat) - campaign against U.S. space assets, says USAF Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, the director of Space and Missiles Systems Center in Los Angeles, which oversees procurement of Air Force space assets. Even worse is for the Pentagon to not know the source of the interruption or be able to avoid it. The 2001 Space Commission dubbed this scenario a Pearl Harbor in space.
All of the Pentagon's war plans are heavily reliant on satellite services, and the economies of the U.S. and its allies also depend on spaceborne services such as GPS and communications for smooth operation.
The Pentagon hopes by 2011 that a new system will provide timely threat warning data, allowing commanders to move a satellite out of an incoming missile's path.
Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) is leading efforts to improve space situational awareness - including upgrades to the Space Fence - ground-based space-monitoring sensors - as well as the planned fielding in 2009 of the Space-Based Space Surveillance electro-optical satellite designed to monitor other spacecraft. These systems will provide a better understanding of what objects are in space, which is increasingly important since hard-to-detect micro satellites that could jeopardize Pentagon systems are beginning to proliferate.
What is needed, though, is the ability to predict when a missile threat is coming and maneuver around it.
The Rapid Attack Identification Detection Reporting System (Raidrs) Block 20 is only conceptual, but the Air Force intends for it to collect data from open and classified sources to provide predictability in the event of an Asat attack. The Pentagon had been monitoring activities in China leading up to its 2007 anti-satellite test, but defense officials worry that future threats may be a surprise and, thus, hard to outmaneuver.
Originally envisioned as a block upgrade to the Raidrs system now operating in the Middle East, Hamel says plans for the new version have blossomed further than originally thought.
Since China's Asat demonstration, Pentagon officials have become more vocal about the need for defensive and offensive "counterspace" options. Defensive operations require technologies to protect space systems from a range of threats while offensive operations look to deny an adversary access to its data from space. These are thorny political issues, as lawmakers are hesitant to overtly fund activities that could be perceived as using space as a battlefield. But, the Chinese test added weight to the Pentagon's position that - at the very least - it must have these systems ready. Even so, political debate on the issue is not likely to fade with a Congress controlled by Democrats.
While work is being done in classified programs on both fronts, Raidrs Block 20 has the peculiar distinction of being the Pentagon's only acknowledged program designed to counter direct-ascent Asat attacks.
Raidrs Block 10, its predecessor, includes ground-based hardware and software that lets the military monitor the integrity of its commercial satellite communications links. The system can also detect the origin of jamming, allowing commanders to determine if it is unintentional or an attack (AW&ST Nov. 19, 2007, p. 52). Operations began supporting the massive commercial satellite communications requirements in the Middle East with a prototype system; full operational capability isn't expected until 2011. Integral Systems of Lanham, Md., was the designer and manufacturer.
The new system would, by contrast, provide a monitoring capability for all Pentagon assets and possibly those classified systems operated by other agencies. It will be software-intensive, collating data including space weather; missile-warning alerts that would be triggered by an Asat launch; satellite position and telemetry from space, and intelligence from various sources. This effort is akin to recent upgrades funded by the Air Force to shift its air operations centers to a more net-centric system, giving operators insight and an integrated look at systems that once operated on disparate software architectures.
A key part of identifying whether an attack is imminent is correlating anomalous activity on a spacecraft with seemingly unrelated data, says Col. Shawn Barnes, chief of AFSPC's space superiority division. "Today, we could ascertain that we were under attack - especially from a direct-ascent Asat, but we do not have the tools to rapidly assemble all the evidence, and disseminate it in a way that enables collaborative decision making [to maneuver around a threat]. Raidrs Block 20 will enable us to get past collaborating about ýýýwhat happened' and on to ýýýwhat should we do' in an operationally relevant time frame."
Because it will be software-intensive, Barnes says Raidrs Block 20 will be delivered in increments - roughly one per year - for use by the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. Early capability is scheduled for delivery in 2011, he notes.
This delivery will be designed to detect a direct-ascent satellite threat with enough swiftness to allow operators to divert the target. Raidrs Block 20 will shift satellite operations into a net-centric operating environment, Barnes says. The existing system is work-intensive and too cumbersome to expect operators to maneuver in the event of an Asat launch.
The most immediate threat is to satellites in low Earth orbit, including some U.S. intelligence satellite fleets and Pentagon weather systems.
A future capability and delivery for Block 20 will be to provide data to counter threats in orbit - not just from the ground. "The plan will be to keep adding threat types, such as from lasers, to the data fusion logic structure, as well as the automated data sources to discriminate those threat types," Barnes points out, noting that each increment will expand the threat scenarios. "Just how robust this capability eventually becomes and how fast it's built will depend on funding and emerging threats."