Saving the nation is serious business

On Jan. 11, China conducted a successful test of an anti-satellite weapon from the from the Xichang Space Center in Sichuan province. The missile successfully engaged an aging low-earth orbit Chinese weather satellite on a polar orbit, 537 miles in space. (U.S. Air Force graphic)

On Jan. 11, China conducted a successful test of an anti-satellite weapon from the from the Xichang Space Center in Sichuan province. The missile successfully engaged an aging low-earth orbit Chinese weather satellite on a polar orbit, 537 miles in space. (U.S. Air Force graphic)

PETERSON AFB, Colo. -- On Jan. 11, China conducted a successful test of an anti-satellite weapon., creating an instant need for an expanded space catalog and greater space situational awareness.

Launched from the Xichang Space Center in Sichuan province, the missile successfully engaged an aging low-Earth orbit Chinese Fengyun-1C weather satellite on a polar orbit, 537 miles in space.

The resultant collision produced more than 1,600 new pieces of space junk. This event constitutes "the most severe satellite breakup ever in terms of identified debris," said Nicholas Johnson, chief scientist for orbital debris at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston.

As part of the 21st Space Wing's space superiority mission, units are tasked to detect, track, identify and report on more than 16,000 man-made objects (of which approximately 3,200 are active payloads) currently orbiting the Earth. This number includes the more than 1,600 pieces added by the Chinese test launch. The men and women of the 21st Space Wing performed their duty admirably, and today close to 1,500 of these pieces have been detected, tracked and catalogued.

Combined with 21st SW units' collection of Space Object Identification data, an accurate space catalogue is essential for maintaining the global space order of battle.

In his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee last March, Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said, "Preserving our advantage in space is a prerequisite for everything we do. To achieve this, we first require the ability to effectively surveil the space domain with the goal of answering, in as near-real time as possible, the questions of 'who, what, when, where and why?' that are so vitally important to the commander responsible for operations in any domain."

Most of the debris will remain in orbit and continue to decay for decades. Traveling at 17,500 mph, will pose an increasing threat to objects even outside a polar orbit. As such, the likelihood of these pieces creating a space accident by colliding with an orbiting satellite (which will inevitably result in additional breakups and the associated debris) or worse -- the International Space Station or the space shuttle, has increased dramatically.

It is in this realm where the 21st Space Wing's space superiority mission carries special significance. Controlling the high ground is paramount to preserving our way of life and the 21st Space Wing is at the forefront of that effort.

Albeit success in tracking most of this debris, and as is expected with an event of this magnitude, the Chinese ASAT test afforded the opportunity to develop new tactics, techniques and procedures, capture future system requirements, and develop more robust command and control processes. Most of these were captured during the Space Surveillance Conference hosted by the 21st Space Wing March 12. In the words of the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, "Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war and not those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur."

Most Americans go about their daily lives without giving much thought to how dependent they are on space. Space professionals do not have that luxury. The events of Jan. 11 demonstrated China's capability to engage our satellites in LEO. However, this is only the initial step toward more robust capabilities, potentially against assets in higher orbits.

The impact? Imagine a day without satellite television, "instant news" from Iraq, limited weather monitoring and five-day forecast, and restricted cell phone range. Imagine the impact on the military if it did not have long-haul communications, beyond-line-of-sight blue force tracking, global positioning system aided munitions, and overhead imagery capability.

To this day, only the United States, Russia and China have demonstrated ASAT capabilities. However, countries like Iran, North Korea, India and Pakistan have already entered the space race eager to become part of this "elite group."

No doubt, space is a centers of gravity. The nation's military, commercial and civil sectors depend on space superiority and the 21st Space Wing is charged with providing it.

Of course, saving the nation entails more than just space superiority. But America's reliability and dependency on space capabilities make space superiority a key strategic and operational objective for the President, the secretary of defense, and every combatant commander world wide.

Like cell phones, satellite television and GPS, most Americans will continue to take space for granted. This is a great mistake. However, it would be an even greater mistake to fail to realize the importance of what space does and the impact of the wing's mission in preserving its way of life and America's superiority in space.

Saving the nation is serious business, and the men and women of the 21st Space Wing are definitely up to the task.