China Analyst: U.S. Can’t Win in Space, So Why Bother Racing?
With access to more than 400 satellites plus at least two tiny, maneuverable robotic shuttles, the U.S. military is the clear leader in military spacecraft. But with 70 orbiters of its own, China is catching up fast. Last year, Beijing matched Washington in space launches for the first time, boosting no fewer than 15 satellites into orbit. It was the first time any nation kept a celestial pace with the U.S. since the height of the Cold War.
The new space race is on. But in the view of one influential analyst, the race isn’t worth the prize. Space “is expensive to enter, hard to sustain assets in, contains no defensive ground, and — barring energy-intensive maneuvering – forces assets into predictable orbits,” Andrew Erickson, a Naval War College professor and editor of the new book Chinese Aerospace Power, told me as part of a longer interview over at AOL Defense.
No one disputes that China is gaining “ground” in space. “The [People's Liberation Army] is acquiring a range of technologies to improve China’s space and counter-space capabilities,” warned the 2011 edition of Congress’ annual report on the Chinese military (.pdf). But the Pentagon’s official response is to dig in deeper in orbit, with newer and better spacecraft costing at least $10 billion a year, in total. Erickson is virtually alone in fundamentally questioning the Pentagon’s space presence — and recommending an orbital retreat.
“Some of the most debilitating asymmetric tactics could be employed against space and cyberspace targets,” Erickson explained. In other words, spacecraft are highly vulnerable to physical and electronic attack, and so are their control stations. To avoid these “asymmetric” assaults at which China has proved particularly skilled, the Pentagon should take its current space-based equipment and move it downward to the atmosphere. The air is more secure than space, Erickson insisted.
The Pentagon is already following Erickson’s advice with a handful of new systems. The Air Force’s Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, a collection of radio relays, is the kind of thing that might normally be installed on a satellite. But for expediency, the Air Force fitted it to small jets and Global Hawk drones. Several types of high-altitude unmanned planes and blimps function essentially as low-altitude satellites, but with added flexibility and, usually, lower cost.
For a successor to the current, satellite-based GPS navigation system, the Air Force is looking at non-space systems including “cold atoms, pseudolites [satellite surrogates such as drones and blimps], and image-aided inertial navigation systems that use laser radar,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has said.
This trend should continue, Erickson recommended, with terrestrial robots in particular standing in for orbital hardware. “Less-manned and unmanned systems, which — while they face limitations given current technologies — can already be smaller, cheaper and more disposable; enabling better persistence, maneuverability and tolerance of losses.”
In Erickson’s perfect world, U.S. forces probably wouldn’t rely on space at all. With no one to beat, China wouldn’t lose the new space race. But it wouldn’t win, either.
Photo: Chinese space agency