Trump’s Space Force Isn’t the Only Military Space Program: Here’s What China and Russia Are Up To

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The United States may or may not be getting a Space Force, but while President Trump is all-in on the creation of a new branch of the U.S. Military—and blowing up the military bureaucracy—it’s worth keeping in mind other countries have their military space programs. A recent DIA report shines a light on how the U.S. views these programs, particularly those of Russia and China, neither of which seem particularly threatening—for now anyway. 

This week President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive 4, ordering the Pentagon to stand up the Space Force as a new branch of the U.S. military. The Space Force, which still requires the blessing of Congress, is miles from being able to put moon boots on the ground, and its existence—let alone usefulness—is still a puzzle to many. To look at how supporters justify the Space Force, it’s useful to look at America’s potential adversaries, particularly Russia and China, and what the U.S. government claims they’re doing in space.

Russia is potentially America’s foremost space adversary, at least for now anyway. Russia’s space establishment is an inheritance from the Cold War-era USSR, and the country has a lot of operational extraterrestrial hardware today. The USSR never landed astronauts on the moon or flew a reusable spacecraft like the Space Shuttle, but it was the first country to put a man in space (and unlike the United States, Russia can still do that today) and orbited the space station Mir long before the International Space Station was in the sky. 

The USSR was also arguably the first to militarize space, placing a cannon the Salyut-3 space station, and the Pentagon is still wary of Russia’s intentions. The Pentagon is most concerned with Russia’s military counter-space program, which it believes is pointed squarely at the United States. The Defense Intelligence Agency’s Challenges to Security in Space report, published in February 2019, claims that “Russia views America’s perceived dependence on space as the ‘Achilles heel’ of U.S. military power, which can be exploited to achieve Russian conflict objectives.”

It goes on:

Russia is therefore pursuing counterspace systems to neutralize or deny U.S. space-based services, both military and commercial, as a means of offsetting a perceived U.S. military advantage and is developing an array of weapons designed to interfere with or destroy an adversary’s satellites.

How does Russia plan to do this? First, Moscow needs to know what U.S. space assets to target in wartime. Despite the loss of the economic and military power of the wider Soviet Union, Russia still maintains a networkof “telescopes, radars, and other sensors,” capable of detecting and tracking U.S. satellites and other space objects. Russia would likely go after America’s military-controlled NAVSTAR GPS satellites (24 of them), Milstar military communications satellites (eight), the Defense Satellite Communications System satellites (seven), and literally dozens of early missile warning, reconnaissance, and surveillance satellites. The loss of GPS satellites in particular would hit civilian smartphone and other GPS users around the globe.

Interfering with space assets doesn’t necessarily require going into space. Moscow has led efforts to develop GPS jamming technology like something recently detected in the Black Sea and near the Russian-Norwegian border. It could also jam-interfere with satellites and their ability to pass messages between terrestrial forces. Finally, hacking satellites or ground stations could prevent their use by adversaries. Not only do none of these measures actually involve going into space, in some cases they can be done from the comfort of home.

A straightforward solution is to fire a ground-based laser at a satellite in low earth orbit, blinding or otherwise disabling it. The new DIA report warns that the Peresvet laser weapon, deployed in late 2018, is designed to attack enemy satellites. The DIA also reports that Russia is likely testing a “ground-based, mobile missile system” for the destruction of incoming ballistic missiles and satellites. 

China is the other major space power. China launched its first satellite in April 1970, but ramped up space activities in the late 1990s and 2000s as the country experienced rapid economic growth. China launched its first taikonaut, Yang Liwei, into space in 2003, and in January 2019 landed a probe on the far side of the moon.

Like Russia, the U.S. is worried about Chinese counterspace activities potentially aimed at American satellites. Like Russia, China has a network of space surveillance assets, including telescopes, radars, and space tracking ships such as the small fleet of Yuan Wangspace event ships, whose huge two huge high frequency parabolic antennas and optical tracking stations can monitor satellites in space. 

The Defense Intelligence Agency believes that China is following a similar track to Russia, developing counterspace assets that can cripple U.S. forces in wartime. The DIA believes that China will attempt to interfere with satellites from the ground, but also believes it is prepared to physically go after satellites: Chinese research into satellites that can close with objects in space, repair satellites, and clean up “space debris,” the DIA argues, could be used to go after perfectly good enemy satellites and disable them.

China also has an anti-satellite missile, the SC-19, believed to be currently operational. The SC-19 was tested in 2007 against the obsolete Fengyun-1C weather satellite, an incident viewed with alarm not just because it was an anti-satellite weapon but because it produced more than 3,000 pieces of hazardous space debris. The Pentagon believes China is developing ground-based anti-satellite weapons, including a laser that could damage the optics of spy satellites by 2020, and further in the future, a more powerful laser to disable GPS and communications satellites.

Russian and Chinese counterspace efforts are just one part of the military space efforts of both countries, but both seem pretty squarely aimed at the United States’ military space assets. They are not, for example, working to place nuclear or other weapons in space that could be dropped down on the heads of ordinary Americans. Both countries realize a key truth about the modern American way of war: if war comes, America fights its wars in some else’s backyard. In the event of war, U.S. forces would use communications and navigation satellites to coordinate the flow of ships, aircraft, and formations of troops over thousands of miles, across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to the doorsteps of both Russia and China. Advocates of the U.S. Space Force believe that Russia, China, and other entities are seeking ways to disrupt that flow in wartime and give themselves an edge. That’s a pretty natural reaction to a potential adversary.

There are unknowns here that should give us pause. We don’t how true claims of Russian and Chinese ground-based anti-satellite lasers are. The Pentagon first warned of a similar Soviet laser weapon in 1985 but the actual system fell far short of weapon status. Another thing we don’t know: the intent of Russia and China to use anti-satellite weapons. While early use by both countries might be advantageous in a conventional war, the benefits could be short-lived. Moscow and Beijing would both have to weigh whether it was more important to slow the Americans down or avoid a war in space that could wipe out their own fleets of satellites.

Is there enough of a threat here to justify an entirely new arm of the Pentagon? The answer is “probably not yet.” As important as our military satellites are, the threat to them is relatively thin at this point. Supporters of the Space Force have really not answered the question of how a new branch of the military bureaucracy would do a better job than the current military bureaucracy, and the current U.S. leadership lacks credibility. As more of America’s economy becomes space-oriented a Space Force is an inevitability. But now, in 2019? It doesn’t seem to make sense.

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