The following is a script from "The Battle Above" which aired on April 26, 2015. David Martin is the correspondent. Andy Court, producer.
Without most of us noticing, our everyday activities -- everything from getting cash at an ATM to watching this program -- depend on satellites in space. And for the U.S. military, it's not just everyday activities. The way it fights depends on space. Satellites are used to communicate with troops, gather intelligence, fly drones and target weapons. But top military and intelligence leaders are now worried those satellites are vulnerable to attack. They say China, in particular, has been actively testing anti-satellite weapons that could, in effect, knock out America's eyes and ears.
No one wants a war in space, but it's the job of a branch of the Air Force called Space Command to prepare for one. If you've never heard of Space Command, it's because most of what it does happens hundreds even thousands of miles above the Earth or deep inside highly secure command centers. You may be as surprised as we were to find out how the high-stakes game for control of space is played.
The research being done at the Starfire Optical Range in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was kept secret for many years and for a good reason which only becomes apparent at night.
First, the roof of one building is opened to the stars then the walls retract and an object straight out of Star Wars appears shooting a laser into the sky. The laser's beam helps a high-powered telescope focus in on objects in space, so the Air Force can get a better look at the satellites of potential adversaries like China whizzing by at 17,000 miles per hour. It's part of a complex -- and mostly secret -- battle for what the military considers the ultimate high ground.
Gen. John Hyten: There is no such thing as a day without space.
That's the mantra of General John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command.
Gen. John Hyten: Think of what life used to be like and all the things that we have today in warfare that wouldn't exist without space. Remotely piloted aircraft, all-weather precision guided munitions didn't exist before space. Now we can attack any target on the planet, anytime, anywhere, in any weather.
David Martin: What would the U.S. military do without space?
Gen. John Hyten: What happens is you go back to World War II. You go back to industrial age warfare.
David Martin: And your job is to make sure there is no day without space.
Gen. John Hyten: Absolutely.
[Gen. John Hyten addressing his troops: And you should be thinking right from the beginning that this is a contested environment and...]
"It's a competition that I wish wasn't occurring, but it is. And if we're threatened in space, we have the right of self-defense, and we'll make sure we can execute that right."
Hyten drills into his troops that U.S. satellites are no longer safe from attack. Eleven countries, including Iran and North Korea, now have the ability to launch objects into orbit. And Russia and China have been testing new anti-satellite technologies.
Gen. John Hyten: It's a competition that I wish wasn't occurring, but it is. And if we're threatened in space, we have the right of self-defense, and we'll make sure we can execute that right.
David Martin: And use force if necessary.
Gen. John Hyten: That's why we have a military. You know, I'm not NASA.
Space Command has 38,000 airmen at 134 locations around the world. One of their most visible missions is to make sure U.S. satellites can always get into space from launch pads like this one at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Gen. John Hyten: This is where space begins. If you can't get the satellite into space, it's worthless. I'm a satellite guy. So I get very nervous around rockets. Because the most valuable thing on the rocket is the top -- is the satellite. 'Cause when you have 500,000 pounds of thrust, if anything goes wrong, it's an explosion. It's dangerous. And you lose the capabilities that's on the top
The U.S. has more satellites in space than any other nation - over 500 and counting. More than 30 military and civilian launches will take place this year at Space Command bases in Florida and California.
The Pentagon told us it spends $10 billion a year on space. But we found a White House report that estimates the real cost is much higher -- $25 billion dollars when you count spy satellites and other classified spending. That's more than NASA or any other space agency in the world.
Some of those satellites provide the GPS signals that guide smart bombs now attacking ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. But a lot of people don't realize those same GPS satellites provide the signals your smartphone uses to navigate. It's a service the Air Force provides free - not just here in the United States but to the entire world.
Col. Bill Cooley: This is a global utility. And there's a lot of people depending on this. And we understand that.
At a Boeing plant in Los Angeles, Colonel Bill Cooley showed us a GPS satellite that was being tested in a special chamber to make sure it was ready for launch.
Col. Bill Cooley: When these things get on orbit there's no depot. You can't drive it back into the maintenance shop. It's somewhat like trying to design an automobile that is going to run for, you know, 12 to 15 years and you can't take it in the shop, you can't take it in for refueling but, it's gotta run 24/7.
In orbit, the satellite will spread out its solar panels, point its odd-looking antennas towards the Earth, and broadcast its location along with a time signal accurate to nanoseconds. A GPS receiver needs signals from four of these satellites to figure out its location. Col. Cooley told us it costs a quarter of a billion dollars to design and build each one.
David Martin: And to put it into space, how much does it cost?
Col. Bill Cooley: That's about the same.
David Martin: So you're pushing half a billion dollars to get that--
Col. Bill Cooley: That's right.
David Martin: --thing into space?
Col. Bill Cooley: That's right.
The U.S. has 31 active GPS satellites in space right now, and a lot more than smart bombs and smartphones depend on them. Bank ATMs, cellphone towers, and power grids use their signals. Farmers use GPS to work their fields.
The GPS satellite system the whole world relies on is operated out of this room at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado by Lt. Col. Todd Benson and his team. We were a little surprised by how many people it takes.
Lt. Col. Todd Benson: Eight personnel.
David Martin: Eight people?
Lt. Col. Todd Benson: Yes, sir.
David Martin: For the entire world?
Lt. Col. Todd Benson: Yes, sir.
David Martin: So are these technological experts?
Lt. Col. Todd Benson: Yes, sir. But they're as young as 19 years old.
David Martin: Isn't there a minimum age for driving satellites?
Lt. Col. Todd Benson: Not here.
Another thing that surprised us is that there's no way to effectively armor an important satellite like this or to conceal its location from attack.
David Martin: So it can't hide in space?
Col. Bill Cooley: That's true. And we-- in fact, it's-- it tells you where it is.
David Martin: This is a system the whole world depends on, costs a small fortune to put it up there, and it's a sitting duck.
Col. Bill Cooley: Well this is one of the challenges that in Space Command, that we're-- we are very aware of.
David Martin: Today, can a U.S. military satellite maneuver itself outta the way of an upcoming anti-satellite weapon?
Gen. John Hyten: It depends on a huge number of variables.
David Martin: So the answer is maybe.
Gen. John Hyten: The answer is maybe.
David Martin: You've got these satellites worth hundreds of millions of dollars and they maybe could get out of harm's way?
Gen. John Hyten: It depends on the satellite. It depends on the mission. It depends on when it was built, depends on how old it is. It depends on when we know the threat is coming.
Knowing a threat is coming is no small task when the territory you're responsible for is 73 trillion cubic miles. Space Command maintains a global network of radars, telescopes, and satellite communications antennas like this one.
All the information feeds in to the Joint Space Operations Center, JSPOC for short, at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
David Martin: This is the command center for space?
Lt. Gen. Raymond: Yes sir. 24/7, 365 days a year maintaining...
If a U.S. satellite were attacked, Lt. Gen. "Jay" Raymond would use this phone to alert a chain of command leading to the White House.
David Martin: Is an attack on an American satellite an act of war?
Gen. John Hyten: That's been a line of debate for as long as I've been in this business.
David Martin: If there is an attempt to attack or interfere with a U.S. satellite, who makes the decision about what we do about it?
Gen. John Hyten: That would be the president of the United States.
And it's not just an anti-satellite weapon they're worried about. There are other dangers too.
Lt. Gen. Raymond: Today, we track about 23,000 objects.
David Martin: How many of them are actually functioning satellites?
Lt. Gen. Raymond: Roughly 1,300 of those are active satellites. The rest are debris.
David Martin: Junk.
Lt. Gen. Raymond: Yes, sir. Junk.
[From the movie "Gravity": Explorer, this is Kowalski reporting visual contact with debris. Debris is from a BSE sat....]
The movie "Gravity" dramatized the devastating effect manmade debris travelling at 17,000 mph could have on the international space station. The JSPOC tracks dead satellites, old rocket boosters, even stray space gloves, and alerts satellite operators and astronauts if a collision is likely.
Lt. Gen. Raymond: Last year, in 2014, the International Space Station was maneuvered three times to avoid colliding with a piece of debris.
A lot of the debris that's threatening the space station was created in 2007 when the Chinese tested a ground-based anti-satellite weapon. It crashed into one of their old weather satellites 530 miles above the Earth, shattering it into pieces.
Lt. Gen. Raymond: This is the debris that resulted from the 2007 Chinese ASAT. So this is about 3,000 pieces of debris just from that one event.
David Martin: That came just from that one collision?
Lt. Gen. Raymond: Just from that one collision.
David Martin: Debris apart, how important was that test in terms of revealing Chinese space capabilities?
Gen. John Hyten: It was a significant wakeup call to our entire military until that singular event, I don't think the broader military realized that that is something we're gonna have to worry about.
David Martin: Have they conducted any similar tests since?
Gen. John Hyten: They continue to conduct tests. The testing they're doing is to make sure that the - if they ever got into a conflict with us or any other spacefaring nation, they would have the ability to destroy satellites. And that is a bad thing for the United States, a bad thing for the planet.
A bad thing, no doubt, but is the U.S. doing it too? And did China recently raise the stakes -- test-firing a weapon deeper into space than ever before, and threatening some of this country's most valuable satellites? That part of our story, when we come back.
Tonight, we've been giving you a rare look at how a branch of the U.S. Air Force called Space Command is preparing for a battle most of us have never thought about -- one high above the Earth, defending the satellites upon which our daily life and national security have come to depend. Few of those satellites are more important to the U.S. military than the ones that provide early warning of a long-range nuclear missile attack.
Even at the height of the Cold War those satellites -- stationed deep in space, some 20,000 miles above the Earth -- were considered safe from attack. But deep space is no longer the sanctuary it once was. A former Space Command officer told us that two years ago the Chinese tested an anti-satellite weapon that went higher than any previously reported and came too-close-for-comfort to the area where those missile warning satellites are located.
"I think what keeps a lot of American military planners up at night is if China has anti-satellite capabilities when do they use those in a conflict? Do they use them at the start to try and blind the U.S.?"
Brian Weeden: If those satellites are now at risk, that is something that, from the U.S. military's point of view, is new. Because it's always believed those satellites, there wasn't really a significant threat to those capabilities.
Brian Weeden served as an officer in Air Force Space Command until 2007. He's now technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, which promotes the peaceful use of space.
Weeden says the Chinese have test-fired as many as six, ground-based, anti-satellite weapons. Only one, in 2007, actually hit a satellite and created debris. But one of the others soared to new heights.
Brian Weeden: There was one test in May of 2013 that may have gone as high as 30,000 kilometers. And that's one that I think really is kind of causing quite a bit of concern on the U.S. side.
To understand just how far that is, the International Space Station orbits at about 200 miles above the Earth, and those GPS satellites we showed you orbit at 12,000 miles. The 2013 test-launch Weeden's talking about is believed to have gone up to 18,600 miles, just shy of what's known as geo-synchronous or geo-stationary orbit. And that's where the U.S. military has stationed some of its most valuable missile warning sensors and top-secret communications devices that serve as its eyes and ears in time of war.
Brian Weeden: I think what keeps a lot of American military planners up at night is if China has anti-satellite capabilities when do they use those in a conflict? Do they use them at the start to try and blind the U.S.?
David Martin: Those sound like the crown jewels of American satellites up there in geo-synchronous orbit.
Brian Weeden: Absolutely. Those satellites were developed in an environment where the U.S. assumed there would not be reason to attack them. So you end up with a small number of very expensive satellites that have a lot of capability packed onto each one. And result is: juicy targets.
A spokesman for China's foreign ministry admitted testing an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, but China has denied conducting subsequent tests, and told us it is committed to the peaceful use of outer space. It said the 2013 launch into deep space was simply a science experiment.
But using skills he honed as an officer in Space Command, Brian Weeden analyzed commercial satellite photos and other publicly available data about the launch. He concluded that science experiment was probably fired into space by a military missile launcher like this.
Gen. John Hyten: This building was built...
General John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command, has seen the classified intelligence about that launch.
David Martin: These follow on Chinese tests, how high up do they go?
Gen. John Hyten: Pretty high.
David Martin: Well, how high's that?
Gen. John Hyten: I won't characterize what the Chinese capabilities are. I just will tell you that we know what they are.
David Martin: Well, I've read reports by a congressional commission, which said that in the next five to 10 years, China likely will be able to hold at risk U.S. National Security satellites in every orbital regime.
David Martin: Do you agree with this statement by the commission?
Gen. John Hyten: I think they'll be able to threaten every orbital regime that we operate in. Now we have to figure out how to defend those satellites, and we're going to.Space Command is making its new satellites more maneuverable to evade attack, and also more resistant to jamming. It's building a new radar system that will enable the space operations center to track objects in space as small as a softball. And it's deployed two highly maneuverable surveillance satellites to keep watch on what other countries are doing high up in geo-stationary orbit.
David Martin: Satellites watching other satellites.
Gen. John Hyten: Satellites watching other satellites.
David Martin: And how do they improve your knowledge?
Gen. John Hyten: Because they're up close.
Normally, the capabilities of spy satellites are kept top secret. But Space Command put out this fact sheet about its new assets in geo-synchronous orbit.
Gen. John Hyten: We want people to understand that we're watching. There will be no surprises in geo. And we want everybody in the world to know that there will be no surprises in that orbit. It's way too valuable for us to just be surprised.
David Martin: Deterrence in the nuclear world was built on weapons.
Gen. John Hyten: Right. And deterrence in the space world has got to be built on a little bit different construct. It's the ability to convince an adversary that if they attack us, they will fail.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told us the Pentagon plans to spend an extra $5 billion over the next five years to protect its satellites.
David Martin: What do you consider to be the greatest single threat to U.S. satellites?
Deborah Lee James: An anti-satellite weapon would certainly be a great threat. A laser would be a threat. Jamming capabilities are also a threat.
David Martin: Do China and Russia have lasers that could blind American satellites?
Deborah Lee James: They are testing and investing. And that is worrisome to the United States.
Testing and investing in sometimes mysterious ways.
Last year, airmen at the Joint Space Operations Center monitored the seemingly routine launch of three Russian communications satellites. Lt. Gen. "Jay" Raymond and his team spotted what they assumed was just an ordinary piece of debris from the launch.
Lt. Gen. Raymond: About a week later, a young Air Force captain detected that that debris started to move.
Move, as in maneuver, right up close to the body of the rocket that had launched it into space.
David Martin: So what is that object that keeps maneuvering in space?
Lt. Gen. Raymond: David, I'm not gonna speculate. But I can tell you what it isn't. It's not a piece of debris.
Brian Weeden: That type of maneuver is what's called a Rendezvous and Proximity Operation. And it's actually something that the U.S. had been working on for the last several years, if not longer.
Satellites that can "rendezvous" with other satellites may some day be used to refuel or make repairs. But they're potential weapons as well.
David Martin: If you can get close enough to inspect or service another satellite, is that close enough to disable it?
Brian Weeden: Absolutely. And there's a wide range of ways you can do that.
David Martin: Such as?
Brian Weeden: Breaking off a solar panel or even some have theorized, you know, spray-painting over optics so that the satellite can't see anything.
So if you thought space was a peaceful haven, think again. This is a new kind of space race, a cosmic game of hide-and-seek. And the same technology that enables this telescope to see more clearly into space could potentially be used to help a laser weapon focus more powerfully on a target. The Bush administration wanted to develop such a weapon here in 2006, but ran into resistance from Congress.
David Martin: Is any work being done on lasers that could be used to blind satellites?
Deborah Lee James: There's no such work at this time.
David Martin: Does the U.S. have any weapons in space?
Deborah Lee James: No, we do not.
David Martin: I'm thinking of satellites that maneuver next to another satellite and then take some action to disable it without blowing it up.
Deborah Lee James: We do have satellites that maneuver that look at things in space. But not what you just described.
David Martin: You think the Chinese believe that?
Deborah Lee James: I don't know what they believe.
When the Chinese look at America's space operations, they see a program that, by most estimates, spends 10 times more than they do and has tested anti-satellite weapons of its own. Space Command told us an American F-15 fired a missile into space five times in the 1980s, and one of those times destroyed a U.S. satellite, creating debris that remained in space for decades. One of the officers involved in that test was Gen. Hyten.
Gen. John Hyten: I think it was surprise to most people on that program, how much debris we created.
David Martin: So where do we get off lecturing the Chinese about testing anti-satellite weapons if we were the first and if we created debris?
Gen. John Hyten: Well, it-- because we learned our lesson and told the world and the Congress said, "You will not test that weapon anymore."
But when a U.S. intelligence satellite containing hazardous fuel malfunctioned in 2008 the Navy's Aegis defense system -- designed to knock out incoming missiles -- was used to shoot it down.
David Martin: Chinese must think, "We've got an anti-satellite capability as well."
Brian Weeden: I think they certainly have come to that conclusion. Or not-- if the U.S. doesn't have a capability, they certainly could field one very quickly.
David Martin: What you just described is-- the formula for an arms race. They see a capability. We have that capability. They react to that capability. They react, we react, and there you go.
Brian Weeden: I think it certainly could turn out that way.
David Martin: One of the big dangers is that a problem in space could inflame a conflict here on Earth. For instance, if a nation suddenly its early-warning satellites in the middle of a crisis it might assume it was the beginning of an attack.
Brian Weeden: Now in reality, it might've been a simple manufacturing failure. It might've been a piece of space debris. But in the moment of crisis I think that's the sort of situation that could escalate something that might otherwise have stayed partly contained.
Gen. Hyten told us Space Command is currently only developing weapons that do not create debris -- like this mobile jammer which can be used to incapacitate satellites.
Gen. John Hyten: We have a capability called a counter communications system that is built to deny an adversary the use of space communications. All I can say is it's a capability that exists on the ground and it does not create debris in any way.
David Martin: The only two things you told me about the U.S. ability to fight in space, are the ability to maneuver your satellites and to jam other satellites. Is that it?
Gen. John Hyten: --that's not it, but that's all I can tell you.
One secret project is hiding in plain sight. It's the X-37B space plane, a small, remotely-piloted vehicle that can fly in space for 20 months at a time.
A model of it hangs in Hyten's headquarters in Colorado.
David Martin: So here is your chance to end all the speculation about what the Space Plane is really for.
Gen. John Hyten: It's really for cool things.
David Martin: For instance?
Gen. John Hyten: For instance, it goes up to space-- but unlike other satellites, it actually comes back. Anything that we put in the payload bay that we take up to space we can now bring back. And we can learn from that.
David Martin: Can you tell me whether or not someday the Space Plane is gonna become a weapons system?
Gen. John Hyten: The intent is-- I cannot answer that question.
David Martin: But if you're determined not to create any more debris in space, why can't you say that this might not become a weapon system?
Gen. John Hyten: I'm not gonna say what it's gonna become-- 'cause we're experimenting.
Hyten told us there are bound to be conflicts in space. The important thing is to avoid a shooting war that could create so much debris it might become impossible to put satellites or astronauts into orbit.
David Martin: The Chinese of course look at everything you're doing. And they--
Gen. John Hyten: I'm sure they're lookin' at this.
David Martin: --say-- and they say you're developing the capability to threaten them, and that all those satellites are a direct threat to their national security. So why wouldn't they create a capability to take out those satellites?
Gen. John Hyten: You know, the Chinese are also building a very robust exploration program to go to the moon to explore the stars. They could destroy their entire program by going down the way they are.
David Martin: There's not a shooting war going on out there. But it sure does seem like there is a very high-stakes contest going on in space.
Deborah Lee James: It is high stakes.
High stakes with very few rules. A 1967 U.N. treaty calls for the peaceful use of space. That sounds nice but leaves a lot of room for countries to do what they want.
David Martin: Right now, is there any code of conduct for space operations?
Deborah Lee James: There is not an agreed upon code of conduct.
David Martin: So it's every country for himself?
Deborah Lee James: Pretty much.