Disharmony in the spheres

Updated: Jan 28 2008, 06:22am hrs
A hushed, dimmed hall in the nerve centre that controls Americas air operations from Somalia to Afghanistan is dominated by giant video screens tracking coalition aircraft. Blue dots show the location of ground forces, with troops in contact highlighted for priority air support. Smaller screens show live black-and-white footage, relayed by satellite from unmanned drones which, in their turn, are remotely controlled by pilots in America.

The Combined Air Operations Centres exact location in southwest Asia cannot be disclosed. But from here commanders supervise tens of thousands of sorties a year. Through aircraft surveillance pods they get a gods eye view of operations that range from old-fashioned strafing to the targeted killing of insurgent leaders with bombs guided by global positioning system (GPS) satellites, and emergency air drops to isolated soldiers using parachutes that steer themselves automatically to the chosen spot. These days America fights not in a fog of war but, as one senior air force officer puts it, in a huge cloud of electrons.

If Napoleons armies marched on their stomachs, American ones march on bandwidth. Smaller Western allies struggle to keep up. Much of this electronic data is transmitted by satellites, most of them unprotected commercial systems.

During the cold war space was largely thought of as part of the rarefied but terrifying domain of nuclear warfare. Satellites were used principally to monitor nuclear-missile facilities, provide early warning should they be fired and maintain secure communications between commanders and nuclear-strike forces. Now, by contrast, the use of space assets is ubiquitous; even the lowliest platoon makes use of satellites, if only to know its position.

Space wizardry has made possible unprecedented accuracy. As recently as the Vietnam war, destroying a bridge or building could take dozens if not hundreds of bombing runs. These days a plane with smart bombs can blast several targets in a single sortie, day or night, in good weather or bad.

But might this growing reliance on space and cyberspace become a dangerous dependence, a fatal weakness Air force officers talk of space being Americas Achilles heel. Satellites move in predictable orbits and anybody who can reach space can in theory destroy a satellite, even if only by releasing a cloud of dumb pellets in its path.

Creating all this rubbish seems a bit irresponsible for a country seeking to be a great space-faring nation. It is true that both America and Russia carried out scores of similar anti-satellite (ASAT) tests during the cold war. Then they stopped, not least because the celestial shrapnel was endangering their hugely expensive satellites. They also accepted that spy satellites provided a degree of mutual reassurance in nuclear arms control. The last piece of American ASAT debris fell back to Earth in 2006, say Pentagon officials. Chinas shrapnel, created in a higher orbit, could be around for a century to come.

The missile shot put America on notice that it can be challenged in space. The Chinese routinely turn powerful lasers skywards, demonstrating their potential to dazzle or permanently blind spy satellites. They let us see their lasers. It is as if they are trying to intimidate us, says Gary Payton, a senior Pentagon official dealing with space programmes. The only conclusion, he argues, is that space is no longer a sanctuary; it is a contested domain.

Satellites are not just military tools; they have also become a vital part of globalised civilian life. It is hard to disentangle military from civilian uses of space. Military GPS satellites support a myriad of civilian uses, including road directions for taxi drivers, navigation for commercial airliners, tracking goods in transit and time signals for cash dispensers. But the armed services hunger for electronic data means that four-fifths of Americas military data is transmitted through commercial satellites. A single Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft flying over Afghanistan can eat up several times more satellite bandwidth than was used for the whole of the 1991 war against Iraq.

During the cold war, under Ronald Reagans presidency, America worked on plans for space-based weapons designed to shoot down ballistic missiles. But this star wars programme faded with the collapse of Soviet communism. Before being appointed defence secretary in 2001, Donald Rumsfeld chaired a special commission to review Americas space policy.

It issued a stark warning that America could suffer a crippling surprise attack on its space systemsa space Pearl Harbourand argued that America must develop the means both to deter and to defend against hostile acts in and from space.

America then broke out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, freeing itself to pursue a slimmed-down version of missile defence. The latest official statement on Americas space policy, issued in 2006, affirms the countrys freedom of action in space, the right of self-defence and the right to deny, if necessary, its adversaries the use of space. At the UN General Assembly, America has stood alone in voting against a resolution supporting negotiations on a treaty to prevent a space arms race, an idea pushed by China and Russia.

Yet the Bush administration has stopped short of taking the fateful step of weaponisation in space. Perhaps it is too preoccupied with Iraq, and certainly the downfall of Rumsfeld removed a powerful champion of space weapons.

One of the big disincentives to placing weapons in space has been the technical difficulty and cost of such an enterprise. A recent study by the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a defence think-tank, concluded that ground-based systems were almost always more cost effective and reliable than space-based weapons, whether used to attack missiles, enemy satellites or targets on land.

America is still hedging its bets. With some tweaking, say experts, the ground-based interceptors for shooting down ballistic missiles could be used against satellites.

The core fear is that any conflict in space would cause the most injury to America since America has the most to lose. Damaged planes crash to the ground and destroyed ships sink to the bottom of the sea. But the weightlessness of space means that debris keeps spinning around the Earth for years, if not centuries. Each destruction of a satellite creates, in effect, thousands of missiles zipping round randomly; each subsequent impact provides yet more high-speed debris. At some point, given enough litter, there would be a chain reaction of impacts that would render parts of low-Earth orbitthe location of about half the active satellitesunusable.

As matters stand, ground controllers periodically have to shift the position of satellites to avoid other objects. This month, NASA was tracking about 3,100 active and inactive satellites, and some 9,300 bits of junk larger than 5cm, about 2,600 of them from the Chinese ASAT test. Given their speed, even particles as small as 1cm are enough to cripple a satellite.

For America, then, avoiding a space war may be a matter of self-preservation. The air force has adopted a doctrine of counterspace operations that envisages either destroying enemy satellites in a future war or temporarily disabling them.

More esoteric space research has ideas such as sending small satellites to act as guardian angels, detecting possible attacks against the big birds. It also includes plans for breaking up satellites into smaller components that communicate wirelessly, or deploying space tugs that would repair and refuel existing satellites.

Many strategists argue that the most vulnerable parts of the American space system are closer to home. In cyber-warfare, critical parts of the space system could be attacked from distant computers. Even without external meddling, notes Tom Ehrhard, a senior fellow at the CSBA, American forces struggle to find enough bandwidth and to prevent the myriad of electronic systems from jamming each other.

Some remedial action is being taken. Backup ground stations are being set up in case the main GPS control centre outside Colorado Springs is disabled. New satellites will have a more powerful GPS signal that is harder to block. America is experimenting with satellite-to-satellite communication by laser, which can carry more data and is less prone to interference than radio waves.

And the armed forces are starting to train for warfare with few or no data links. Simulated attacks by both space and cyberspace aggressors are being incorporated into events such as the regular Red Flag air-combat exercises over the Nevada desert. But, said an officer at one recent wargame, there are other ways of doing things. If you really want to take us down, why go to space You could just try to take out the control tower or bring down the electricity supply to the base.

The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008