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US, wary of China, mulls satellite substitutes

WASHINGTON, Feb 4 (Reuters) - The Pentagon is mulling ways to curb its reliance on its eyes and ears in space, concerned about a perceived threat to its satellites from China, a top Air Force official said Thursday.

Gary Payton, deputy under secretary for space programs, voiced concern at Beijing’s display last month of technology aimed at destroying missiles in mid-air, an area in which Washington has invested hundreds of billions of dollars to build a layered antimissile bulwark.

“They’re still openly testing them in a very dynamic environment above the atmosphere,” he said of a reportedly successful Chinese missile-defense test. He equated this with Beijing’s demonstration of antisatellite technology that pulverized one of its own weather satellites in January 2007.

“It wasn’t that much different,” Payton told a forum on the space budget organized by the Space Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the use of space. “It’s a threat that we have to learn how to overcome.”

Asked whether China had been trying to jam U.S. satellites or to use lasers to disrupt them, as U.S. officials have alleged in the past, Payton said: “I can’t talk about that.”

The United States demonstrated an anti-satellite capability of its own, using a specially modified Raytheon Co RTN.N Standard Missile-3 to destroy a wayward U.S. spy satellite in February 2008.

“Obviously, I can’t go into gory details about what the intelligence community tells me the bad guys are doing,” he told reporters.

But Payton believes that viable solutions and options are needed other than satellites to counteract any threat.

Google Inc, which owns the world’s most popular Internet search engine, sparked a furor last month over what it described as wide-ranging attacks in cyberspace, allegedly from inside China, on its intellectual property and more than 20 other companies in finance, technology, media and chemicals.

U.S.-China ties were jolted further last week by Beijing’s anger at proposed arms sales to Taiwan totaling $6.4 billion, which Beijing deems interference in its internal affairs.

The Obama administration is seeking $718 million in fiscal 2011 in unclassified funding for “space protection,” up 13 percent from $635 million this year, the Air Force said in an email. The Air Force plans to award a contract in the summer of 2011 for a “Space Fence” to boost its ability to monitor satellites and broaden its grasp of orbital activities.

As the Air Force's top official for space, Payton oversees the formulation, review and execution of billions of dollars in U.S. military space programs. Major U.S. satellite makers include Lockheed Martin Corp LMT.N, Boeing Co BA.N and Northrop Grumman Corp NOC.N.

Overall, the Air Force is seeking $11.4 billion for unclassified military space programs in the coming budget year, which starts Oct. 1, down as much as seven percent from this year. Of the total, $8 billion would buy hardware plus research and development, down from $8.7 billion in fiscal 2010.

The Defense Department is working on a major review of its space “posture” to be completed later this year, after a similar inter-agency effort for the White House.

Payton said an interim version of the department’s space review prepared for Congress concluded that space had become “contested and congested.”

It predicts the situation “is only going to get worse,” he said, “And so, we have to come up with ways to continue our missions without launching the U.S. Missouri each time” -- an apparent reference to systems that would bypass the need to operate in space.

“It’s got to do with distributing our assets, developing work-arounds,” Payton said. “Maybe everything we do in space today doesn’t have to be done in space today.”

For instance, he said, communications relays could be done from remotely piloted aircraft such as the Global Hawk, built by Northrop Grumman Corp NOC.N, or Predator, made by privately held General Atomics.

Aircraft can also be used more for intelligence collecting, surveillance and reconnaissance, Payton said. More is also to be spent on protecting satellite communications through encryption and frequency hopping.

The U.S. Defense Department is linking its Global Positioning System with Europe’s Galileo, another space-based global navigation satellite system. GPS will feature a new military signal called M-code to boost anti-jamming, facilitate secure access and increase the local signal strength.

“So, all of our missions are responding to the problems that threaten our missions,” Payton said.