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The Trump Administration recently held a highly classified meeting for cabinet-level officials to discuss the growing danger Russia and China pose to U.S. space systems. The participants were told that because of heavy U.S. reliance on orbital assets, Moscow and Beijing were acquiring “counterspace” capabilities to deny America’s military victory in future wars, and severely impair the U.S. economy. Most of the danger was traced to China.
It was a shocking litany of challenges about which some of the participants previously had not been aware. But at the end of the meeting the main briefer, General John Hyten of U.S. Strategic Command, cautioned his audience that they could not go back to their agencies and discuss what they had heard. The information was too sensitive.
Similar circumstances surround efforts to brief Congress on the growing threat in space. Select legislators are briefed on the full extent of the danger, but the briefings consist largely of “special access” intelligence that they can’t share even with trusted staffers. As a result, much of Congress and nearly all of the American public is oblivious to just how worrisome orbital challenges are becoming, or what the military is doing about them.
Two intelligence agencies have recently released documents that describe in general terms the nature of the threat. Russia and China are developing kinetic and non-kinetic means designed to disrupt, degrade and destroy U.S. space systems. Mechanisms being tested include directed energy weapons such as lasers, spacecraft that can physically manipulate satellites, terrestrial anti-satellite munitions, jammers that can disrupt uplinks and downlinks, and cyber tools that can impair satellites, ground stations and the equipment of warfighters reliant on space-based systems.
What does not come through in the public documents is the degree to which China is driving concern for the survivability of U.S. space systems. Administration insiders acknowledge that Russia has a panoply of counterspace capabilities, but these are generally well known and Russia is viewed as lacking the resources to expand much on what it already possesses. China, on the other hand, is investing heavily in military space systems and in the process, pursuing capabilities that the U.S. does not fully understand.
For instance, China is believed to possess 120 intelligence and reconnaissance satellites, many of which are operated by the People’s Liberation Army to track the movements of U.S. forces. Russia only possesses about 20 such satellites. And while Russia pioneered development of systems for hacking and attacking U.S. space systems, it is China that is continually increasing it outlays for counterspace technologies. For example, Beijing tested an anti-satellite weapon in 2007 and has continued refining that technology.
With a typical Army combat brigade containing 2,000 pieces of equipment dependent on space systems to function, this is a serious matter. In wartime, counterspace attacks could prevent the joint force from accessing GPS signals vital to the operation of smart bombs, block the transmission of critical intelligence, and even impede the ability of the president to receive timely warning of a nuclear attack. The nation’s entire global military posture could be degraded by disruption of links traveling through orbital assets.
That is why Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford referred to this week’s re-establishment of U.S. Space Command as “another Sputnik moment.” The U.S. has lagged in efforts to keep up with the military moves of potential adversaries in space, and as a result its assumed superiority in overhead capabilities is rapidly ebbing away. The big difference in this Sputnik moment, though, is that the threat is coming mostly from China.
The last time there was a joint command for space, it was mainly an enabler of other commands postured to engage in combat. The new Space Command, though, will be both an enabler and enabled by those other commands as it seeks to build up offensive and defensive capabilities in space. Its operations will be more carefully integrated with those other combatant commands because the U.S. may elect to respond to aggression in space with action in some other warfighting domain, for example by attacking Chinese launch sites on the ground.
Most of what the U.S. plans to do about rising threats in space is secret. The Pentagon has frequently stated that it needs better situational awareness of what is happening in orbit, and a battle management system for conducting engagements there. But relatively little information about what is being developed reaches the public. What the public hears about is the organizational shifts to support a more robust space posture, but new satellite systems and other technology initiatives are seldom discussed in detail.
For instance, the Air Force has disclosed that it is pursuing rapid prototyping of next-generation successors to current missile warning and protected communications satellites, but it hasn’t discussed with any degree of granularity what steps will be taken to make them less vulnerable. There are numerous possibilities—hardening, redundancy, deception, rapid reconstitution, even shooting back at attackers. But there are so many counterspace efforts underway in China that it is hard to know which defensive features should receive priority. Shooting back, for instance, is no simple matter.
In general, four overarching themes are shaping the Pentagon’s strategy for coping with threats in space. First, the focus is mainly on China’s challenges, because China is the rising power with sufficient resources to cause real trouble. Second, operators in a future Space Force along the lines mandated by a February executive order need to have a warfighter’s mindset; space isn’t just an enabler anymore, it’s a warfighting domain. Third, because it is a warfighting domain, its doctrine and capabilities need to be closely integrated with military services operating in the other warfighting domains—land, air, sea and the electromagnetic spectrum. Finally, everything the U.S. military is doing in space needs to move a lot faster, because the threat is growing rapidly.
Senior officials say moving fast and moving effectively necessarily requires taking more risks in developing new capabilities. That is one reason why they favor “disaggregation” of orbital assets, which means spreading the missions of current satellites among multiple constellations of less expensive spacecraft. As officials often point out, it’s hard to take risks when each satellite costs hundreds of millions of dollars.
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