TOKYO -- The theater of war, which has expanded from ground to sea to air over the years, is now heading into space.
The U.S. Air Force Space Command, an elite military organization, oversees more than 40,000 personnel from its headquarters at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in the state of Colorado. Its mission is to monitor space for suspicious satellites and flying objects, as well as for signs of missile launches back on Earth. Military satellites and radar networks are key to the command's operations.
At a breakfast meeting in Washington on Dec. 5, Gen. John Hyten, who heads the space command, said the U.S. must prepare for battles high above Earth whether it likes it or not. The U.S. military's concern that conflicts in space are no longer science fiction was heightened by a test conducted by China in May 2013. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, China succeeded in taking an anti-satellite missile to near the highest of the geostationary orbits of roughly 36,000km from the Earth's surface that month.
The U.S. military mainly uses three types of satellites. Surveillance satellites travel around the globe several hundred kilometers above the ground, and global positioning system satellites orbit at 20,000km. Communications satellites, as well as missile early warning satellites, sit high at 36,000km.
China in 2007 successfully tested a technology for destroying satellites at altitudes of several hundred kilometers. Nevertheless, the 2013 test shocked the U.S. military as it means China is close to capable of shooting down any U.S. military satellite.
Another Chinese anti-satellite weapon test took place last July. Beijing maintains that the 2013 test was for gathering data, while the one in July was to test its missile defense. But "The U.S. is convinced from all available data that those were tests for attacking satellites," a government official in Washington said.
The U.S. is highly concerned about this development because satellites serve as the central nervous system for its giant military forces, providing vital information needed to draw up operations plans. Satellites are also used for long-range communications; the guidance of fighter planes, drones and missiles; and for ground surveillance. If satellites are destroyed, the U.S. military will be paralyzed, multiple former high-ranking U.S. defense officials acknowledge.
The Chinese military has boosted its efforts to develop anti-satellite weapons as it tries to catch up to the might of the U.S. military. The Asian country is also said to be developing laser weapons.
"Russia, Iran and North Korea are also developing weapons that use jamming signals and other means to destroy satellites," a U.S. national security expert said.
The U.S. has developed even more sophisticated weaponry to deal with those anti-satellite concoctions.
An arms race in space will heighten the possibility of all-out war, a former high-ranking U.S. government official warns. "If key military satellites are destroyed, the U.S. military will likely launch a major offensive to protect itself. This will sharply escalate fighting."
Understanding such a possibility, the U.S. and Soviet Union had an unspoken agreement that they would not target each other's satellites during the Cold War era. The U.S. warned China of the high risk of attacking satellites in annual bilateral strategic and economic talks, according to diplomatic sources.
At the same time, the U.S. has been preparing for contingencies in space, including attacks on its satellites. The country signed a memorandum of understating on military operations in space with the U.K., Australia and Canada last September.
In addition, Washington is said to have proposed Japan and other allies quietly share more satellite information behind the scenes and make it possible to mutually use each other's satellites in emergencies.
U.S. military satellites are crucial for Japan's Self-Defense Forces. Japanese forces rely on information from U.S. early warning and surveillance satellites for their operations.
In a related move, the Japanese government is due to finalize its basic plan for space policy as early as this month. This plan is expected to promote expansion and upgrading of the country's satellite network and space surveillance system.