China is threatening to overtake the U.S. military as the most dominant force in space, says the second in command of the now 2-year-old U.S. Space Force, who warns that Washington must dramatically accelerate its rollout of critical new technologies if it wants to retain superiority over the futuristic war-fighting domain.
The good news, said Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson, is that the Pentagon’s newest branch is showing promise in speeding up the deployment of key assets to counter China’s rapidly advancing capacities, including its growing capability to attack U.S. satellites.
Gen. Thompson offered the assessment in a wide-ranging exclusive interview this week with The Washington Times. He downplayed political division in Congress over the Space Force, which President Trump created in 2019.
The newly minted service is generally backed by Republicans but continues to face sharp criticism from Democrats. With some on the left accusing the former administration of using the force to promote the “militarization” of space, Gen. Thompson brushed aside the heated politics surrounding the first branch added to the U.S. armed services since the Air Force more than 70 years ago.
“In the current environment we’re in, the current politically charged environment we’re in,” the general told The Times, “I don’t think there’s any topic that you’re not going to find differing opinions, strongly held beliefs and polarization.”
Some Democrats are calling for the abolishment of the Space Force.
Gen. Thompson said he and others heading the service are laser-focused not on politics, but the mission at hand. He emphasized that the coming decade will be critical as China and other adversaries field increasingly effective space capabilities.
“Since about 2007, potential adversaries, specifically the Chinese and Russians, have noticed how effectively we use space in military operations, and they have begun to develop and build weapons systems that take those capabilities away from us,” Gen. Thompson said.
The coming years, he said, will determine whether the U.S. holds on to the dominance it built before China’s surge in capability.
“History is going to judge what we’re doing right now,” Gen. Thompson said. Although “that’s always the case,” it is particularly true in this “moment in time, given the magnitude of what we have been tasked to do by our nation and its leaders.”
“We’re talking about the decade of the ’20s here. That is the period of concern” to make major strides in space, he said.
‘They watch what we do’
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army is building and deploying an array of space warfare tools, including anti-satellite missiles and cyberweapons, designed to achieve domination on Earth by controlling space, according to a recent U.S. Air Force report.
The report by the China Aerospace Studies Institute — a part of Air University, the professional military education university system of the U.S. Air Force — also blamed China for spreading a huge amount of space debris, mainly from a 2007 anti-satellite missile test. The test destroyed a weather satellite and left more than 3,400 pieces of floating space junk that will threaten satellites and manned spacecraft for years, the report said.
“China’s military has designated outer space as a warfighting domain — described as a ‘new commanding height of war’ — that China must fight for and seize if it is to win future wars,” it stated. “People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers and analysts assert that space is the ultimate high ground, and that whoever controls space controls the Earth.”
Others in the national security community have circulated similar warnings, asserting that China has made rapid advancements in space that are quickly coming to rival U.S. capabilities. Beijing’s program has grown in scope and sophistication in recent years.
The most recent Defense Intelligence Agency report on Chinese military power warned that “the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (SSF), established in December 2015, has an important role in the management of China’s aero-space warfare capabilities.”
“Consolidating the PLA’s space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities into the SSF enables cross-domain synergy in ‘strategic frontiers,’” the 2019 report said. “The SSF may also be responsible for research, development, testing, and fielding of certain ‘new concept’ weapons, such as directed energy and kinetic energy weapons.”
Gen. Thompson told The Times that China’s space operations increasingly mimic those of the United States. “They watch what we do in space, and they’re replicating it,” he said.
The number of satellites controlled by the PLA is growing from a tight concentration generally hovering over the Western Pacific.
“So much of what’s going on out there in the Western Pacific, that constellation is expanding, so that they can do [operations], eventually, globally,” said Gen. Thompson.
He said China has already developed a “tremendous and exquisite capability to look from space to see, hear, track and defend.”
Most important, the general said, is that China’s acquisition timeline for developing and fielding new space capabilities is shortening. In essence, Beijing is approaching the ability to field new space systems in about half the time it takes the U.S. to acquire and deploy its own systems.
“Not only do they have the ability to adopt new technology and updated capabilities much more quickly, if they’re almost as good as we are today — and they are almost as good as we are — they can cycle these things in very quickly [and] they become better than we are,” he said.
The key challenge facing the Space Force, Gen. Thompson said, is the need to dramatically decrease the amount of time it takes for the U.S. to move new capabilities into operation.
From the outset, the Space Force has emphasized the rapid fielding of new technologies. In 2019, the Pentagon created the Space Rapid Capabilities Office to build never-fielded capabilities on highly condensed timelines.
The goal, said Gen. Thompson, has been to generate two- to three-year turnarounds for advanced space technologies rather than what had become a standard six- to seven-year timeline.
In February, the Space Force commissioned a Space Development Agency to upgrade space-oriented U.S. military systems with a similar emphasis on quicker turnaround times.
“It’s very critical that we accelerate, not just to keep pace, but to stay ahead of the threat of the capabilities the Chinese are provided,” Gen. Thompson said. “We’ve put some processes and organizations in place to do that, and they’re demonstrating early on the ability to do so.”
The Space Force is having success, he said, despite operating with a lean force of roughly 6,400 uniformed members, known as guardians, and about 6,000 civilians. The Space Force is by far the smallest service, following the Marines with close to 185,000 uniformed members.
Despite early successes, Gen. Thompson said, the Space Force still has to show it can deliver.
The service came under fresh scrutiny on Capitol Hill this week after the release of The Heritage Foundation’s 2022 Index of U.S. Military Strength, which asserted that the Space Force does not have the capacity to meet current or future “on-demand, operational, and tactical-live warfighter requirements” put forward by the other services.
The Heritage report gave the Space Force a score of “weak” — the second to lowest ranking on the index — in terms of capacity, capability and readiness.
Democrats, meanwhile, have remained critical for ideological reasons.
Last month, Rep. Jared Huffman of California and three other Democrats introduced the “No Militarization of Space Act,” which would have abolished the Space Force altogether, as an amendment to the House version of the annual defense policy bill.
“The long-standing neutrality of space has fostered a competitive, nonmilitarized age of exploration every nation and generation has valued since the first days of space travel,” Mr. Huffman said upon circulating the amendment.
“Since its creation under the former Trump administration, the Space Force has threatened long-standing peace and flagrantly wasted billions of taxpayer dollars,” the congressman said.
The measure failed, but it signaled ongoing skepticism among lawmakers toward the Space Force.
Gen. Thompson’s comments to The Times suggest that the need to bolster American space capabilities is growing more urgent with rising competition with China.
The general’s remarks coincide with tension between Washington and Beijing over China’s deployment of a record number of provocative sorties into Taiwanese airspace this month, raising fears that direct conflict with China could be closer than imagined.
Given its separate and increasingly rapid development of space capabilities, including offensive capabilities to attack U.S. satellites, China may be preparing for such a conflict to start in space rather than a more conventional realm, Gen. Thompson said.
“We absolutely believe that the Chinese thinking would be if it’s coming to crisis and conflict, they’re going to start this conflict in space,” the general said.
• Guy Taylor and Bill Gertz contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the age of the Space Force. It is 2 years old.