By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 5, 2009 - The chief of U.S. Strategic Command wants better tools for protecting against threats from space debris -- an estimated 20,000 pieces of manmade material orbiting around the planet. Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton laid out what he described as his "wish list" yesterday, emphasizing the importance of being able to predict collisions between debris and valuable satellites.
Given the scarce number of personnel tasked with carrying out this mission, "we are decades behind where we should be, in my view," Chilton said in a speech yesterday at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb.
The collision in February of an American and Russian satellite changed an assumption underlying the use of space. Chilton called the collision between the Iridium and Kosmos satellites the "seminal event" of the year for Stratcom.
"The big space theory, like the big sky theory, kind of came to a close when that happened -- the thought that we wouldn't have to pay attention to the movement of every satellite up there because there's so much space up there and such a low probability that they'll run into each other," he said.
Those working in the field likely never bought into the theory that a collision was unlikely, the general said, and the event drove home the reality to those responsible for budgeting.
"It's amazing what one collision will do to the resource spigot," he said. "Once that happened, we started to see some resources start to flow in the right directions and some creative thinking going on to improve our ability to predict collisions between the 800 satellites that we care about up there that are active and the over 20,000 pieces of total debris."
Chilton cautioned that the 20,000 estimate could likely be off "by an order of magnitude" of actual materials able to damage satellites and systems in orbit.
As in other military scenarios, maintaining situational awareness is no less important in space than it is on land, in the air or at sea.
"Space situational awareness is no different than the situational awareness that we demand in any other domain," he said. "And we do not provide that in an adequate fashion to my component commander in charge of space operations for the United States of America."
To maintain awareness, Chilton stressed the need for sensors, which he described as the start of the process.
"It starts with having sensors in the right place around the globe so you can surveil the domain," he said.
He also underscored the need to replace the space fence and keep on track the space-based surveillance system. Chilton suggested more also could be done in the way the United States relates to its allies in space.
"I think there are also opportunities for us to reach out to friends and allies and leverage capabilities that others have in a teaming fashion to provide the increased surveillance assets, the increased observations, that decreases the uncertainty in the location of elements in space," he said. "I think there's great opportunity for us to reach out and do that better as well."