The United States and China are rapidly building space warfare capabilities as part of a race to dominate the zone outside Earth’s atmosphere.
Air Force Gen. John W. Raymond, commander of the Pentagon’s new Space Command, said last week that the threat of attacks against vital American satellites is real.
“I can tell you from my perspective, the scope, scale and complexity of that threat is alive and well and very concerning,” Gen. Raymond told an audience Nov. 18 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
China’s strategy for dominating space was detailed this month in the annual report of the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The commission report warned that China wants to dominate the zone between the Earth and the moon, known as cislunar space, as part of what the ruling Communist Party of China calls the “Space Dream.”
China is planning a permanent base on the moon as part of the dual military and commercial program.
“Beijing is clearly of the view that the country that leads in space may also be economically and militarily dominant on Earth,” the report said.
Similarly, the Chinese military’s Joint Staff in 2018 said the goal is to achieve “space superiority” — controlling space without interference from ground-based or space-based threats.
Gen. Raymond disclosed during his Senate nomination hearing in June for the first time that the Pentagon is working on “counterspace weapons” to conduct offensive and defense military operations in space.
The four-star general said China and Russia are the main space warfare threats and that the U.S. needs to quickly develop offensive and defensive capabilities to deter their weapons and be able to fight in space if needed.
“We are developing new counterspace systems while new and legacy space systems are incorporating defensive measures and tactics,” he said in written answers to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee.
No details of U.S. space warfare arms were disclosed. A spokesman for the Space Command had no immediate comment.
The U.S. space warfare buildup is being conducted in secret and includes several units, including the Space Development Agency and the Air Force Space Rapid Capabilities Office at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.
Current counterspace weapons include dedicated and dual-use systems, including missiles, electronic jammers and lasers. The secretive Air Force space plane, the X-37B, also is expected to be an element of future U.S. space warfare assets.
Successive presidential administrations and Congress since the 1950s have blocked or limited development of space weapons over concerns about “weaponizing” space, but China and Russia in recent years have built and deployed anti-satellite missiles, ground-based anti-satellite lasers and orbiting robot satellite killers for space warfare.
A Rand Corp. report found that U.S. counterspace weapons in the past included ground- and air-launched Air Force satellite-killing missiles. The most recent was ASM-135, a missile launched from an F-15 jet that destroyed a U.S. satellite in a 1985 test. The program was canceled later that year.
The Air Force in 2002 began work on two ground-based electronic warfare systems capable of temporarily disrupting satellites. The Counter Surveillance Reconnaissance System was a mobile unit capable of denying enemy satellites the ability to spy on U.S. forces, but Congress defunded the system in 2004.
The second system, the Counter Communications System, is a mobile electronic jammer that can disrupt enemy command and control satellites. At least seven of these systems have been deployed.
The military also has a number of dual-use missiles and lasers that could be modified for anti-satellite warfare.
A Navy Standard Missile-3 was modified in 2008 to shoot down an orbiting National Reconnaissance Office satellite and prevent it from reentering the atmosphere and possibly hitting a populated area.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system also is believed to have capabilities for shooting down enemy satellites.
American laser ranging stations could be used for targeting enemy satellites, and the Navy’s high-powered Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser, already used in directed energy tests to shoot down drones and missiles, also could be used in the future against satellites.
A U.S. ‘vulnerability’
The commission report asserts that Chinese military strategists view space as the “commanding height” to be dominated in conflict. The People’s Liberation Army has adopted warfare concepts on the use of space weapons that would “destabilize the space domain,” the report said.
“China views space as a critical U.S. military and economic vulnerability, and has fielded an array of direct-ascent, cyber, electromagnetic, and co-orbital counterspace weapons capable of targeting nearly every class of U.S. space asset,” the report said.
The United States also could be unable to deter the Chinese from attacking the hundreds of U.S. satellites used for military and commercial purposes.
“China’s goal to establish a leading position in the economic and military use of outer space, or what Beijing calls its ‘space dream,’ is a core component of its aim to realize the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,’” the report states.
Larry Wortzel, a former military intelligence official and a member of the congressional commission, said China is emerging as a peer competitor from military and commercial standpoints.
“In terms of counterspace and the ability of [China] to attack U.S. space assets, the PLA may be ahead of the U.S. military,” Mr. Wortzel said. “More seriously, if it came to acting, [China] has the advantage. The People’s Liberation Army only has to get permission from one body at the top of the Communist Party to act. The U.S. military would have to run a gauntlet of lawyers, National Security Council and White House staffers, and congressional leaders before it could act.”
Mr. Wortzel said China is using its alternative to GPS known as the BeiDou navigation system commercially to promote its global economic program known as the Belt and Road Initiative.
“It is a challenge for the U.S. to do the same,” he said.
Gen. Raymond warned lawmakers that China is working to become dominant in space with an array of weapons.
“China is making considerable gains and our operational advantage is shrinking,” he said in his written answers to the Senate panel. “China is pursuing a full spectrum of threats to our space capabilities, including reversible jamming, directed energy weapons, cyber threats, orbital threats, and kinetic energy threats from ground-based missiles.
“China proved its kinetic capability in 2007, and the risk to U.S. space capabilities will increase if they pursue additional weapons capable of destroying satellites up to geo-synchronous orbit.”
The U.S. military, Gen. Raymond added, will “need systems to counter the full spectrum of space threats, from reversible jamming, to directed energy, on-orbit activities, and kinetic destruction from the ground.” Other needs are better defenses such as hardening satellites against laser attacks and advanced computing, “big data” analytics, and artificial intelligence to monitor space threats.
The goal, he said, is to “out-maneuver our adversaries through superior battlespace awareness and command and control.”
“With strong budget support, improvements are underway in the development of new space capabilities.”
Rick Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the commission’s report provides new details on China’s strategic ambition in space and the impact on U.S. security on Earth.
“China may be only catching up to the United States in space in most technical respects, but it is the Chinese Communist Party leadership’s ability to weave an integrated military-political-economic strategy for space control that may allow it to prevail in space over the democracies,” Mr. Fisher said.
One key to thwarting Chinese dominance in space will be denying Beijing control over the moon and the region of space between it and the Earth.
“If America fails to beat China back to the moon to secure commanding positions that can help deter conflict, we are then condemning our country and military forces to many future wars with China,” Mr. Fisher said.