Satellite shootdowns not a threat to DOD space assets, analyst says

An expert at Rand said the Navy's success in shooting down a U.S. satellite doesn't signal a 'space Pearl Harbor.'

The Navy’s use of an anti-ballistic missile to shoot down a falling U.S. satellite Feb. 20 did not inaugurate a new era of vulnerability for high-bandwidth military communications, said David Mosher, a Rand Corp. senior policy analyst specializing in issues related to the militarization of space and ballistic missile defense.

Any concern “about a space Pearl Harbor is way overstated,” Mosher told Defense Systems in an interview Feb. 21.

As the military edges closer to achieving its network-centric vision of warfare, it is becoming more dependent on high-bandwidth communications routed through satellites. That makes satellites an increasingly attractive target despite a near-universal condemnation of the militarization of space.

Defense Department officials said this week’s satellite operation was not a show of force or a response to China’s destruction of one of its own weather satellites in January 2007.

However, even if the United States should find itself fighting an enemy with the will and capacity to destroy U.S. satellites, high-bandwidth communications would continue to operate, Mosher said.

“The key here is not to protect satellites. The key is to protect the function,” he added. That could be accomplished many ways, including ensuring that satellite systems are robust enough to survive the loss of some of their units.

A prime example is the Global Positioning System, which consists of at least 24 satellites in medium Earth orbit. “It would take a whole lot to significantly degrade GPS,” Mosher said. “You’d have to shoot a lot of satellites.”

Increased use of transoceanic fiber-optic cables could also make the military less dependent on satellites. Such cabling has already proven to be reliable and has done a great deal to reduce satellite use in the private sector, Mosher said.

In any event, if a satellite-shooting war occurs, air vehicles with sensors and routers located lower in the atmosphere than satellites would already be active. “That just makes sense in regional warfare anyway,” he said.

A shot-down satellite would be a loss because alternatives would not perfectly compensate for the missing capacity, “but it’s not the end of the world,” Mosher said.