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At this year’s Space Symposium in Washington, D.C., Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan opened his remarks by indicating the United States government takes seriously the threat that China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea pose to our country’s space systems. We rely too much on satellites to provide the necessary bandwidth that our highly technological and interconnected society—as well as our advanced military—requires to function.
While these linkages in space are key for America’s survival (and our global dominance), they are surprisingly poorly defended. Our enemies know this and they’ve made preparations to hold these systems hostage, should tensions escalate between us.
Shanahan’s starkest comments revolved around his claim that China already had deployed advanced ground-based lasers intended to blind and dazzle sensitive American satellites in low-earth orbit. He cautioned that in time, Beijing undoubtedly would seek to deploy laser weapons not only on the ground but ultimately in space itself. Shanahan further stressed that Russia was mirroring China’s development of what’s known in the trade as “counterspace” capabilities.
But, suppose China (and Russia) is much further along in these projects than previously thought.
For those of us who have worked on national security space policy, the threat posed to America’s satellites is nothing new. That the Trump Administration is taking the threat seriously after his predecessors all but ignored it is refreshing. Even so, the fact that the elites in Washington are only now responding to the threat in space is terrifying. After all, China tested its first ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon in 2008. Chinese academics and foreign policy leaders have written an avalanche of papers advocating for the placement of laser weapons in space going back to 2005.
Our enemies now have significant capabilities in space and pose a direct threat to our systems there precisely because Washington ignored the threat for so long.
Is China Weaponizing the Moon?
It’s not just ground-based counterspace weapons, such as lasers and anti-satellite missiles, that threaten our satellites. There is some evidence suggesting that China is already placing rudimentary weapons systems in orbit—not just around Earth, but also near the moon. When China launched its historic Chang’e-4 mission to explore the dark side of the moon, they also deployed some micro-satellites around the moon.
Placed in what’s known as Lagrangian Point-2 (L2), which is an orbit between Earth and the moon, China told the world that the micro-satellites were meant to serve as communication relays between the Chang’e-4 and Beijing. But, some defense experts worry that the orbits of the Chinese microsatellites place them precariously close to America’s critical defense satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) around Earth.
The Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation of satellites exists in geosynchronous orbit (GEO), which links together America’s military deployed around the world. There are other critical satellites in geosynchronous orbits, such as key spy satellites as well as early missile warning satellites. Due to their distance from Earth and their complexity, these American military satellites are extremely hard to replace in the event of an emergency. Should those systems be lost or degraded, the U.S. military could be left deaf, dumb, and blind.
As Jeff Gossel, the top intelligence engineer at the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center told Defense One in October:
You could fly some sort of a weapon around the moon and it comes back—it could literally come at [objects] in GEO . . . And we would never know because there is nothing watching in that direction . . . Why do you need a relay satellite flying around L2? So you can communicate with something that’s going to land on the other side of the moon—or so you can fly around the other side of the moon? And what would that mean for our assets at GEO?
How could a defense establishment that is spending $787 billion on itself have let the Chinese gain on America’s once-unquestioned dominance in space in such a short period of time? What’s more, why haven’t we done more to counter the threat posed in the strategic high ground of space?
People should not assume that just because President Trump has spoken (and tweeted) in favor of the creation of a space force that America’s bloated defense bureaucracy will allow it to happen. In fact, the Pentagon already has been resisting the creation of a fully independent, sixth branch of the United States military, by ensuring that any space force would be subordinate to the Department of the Air Force. As the bureaucratic battle intensifies, the Chinese continue developing and deploying systems with which to render our Armed Forces (and, potentially, even America’s civilian population) deaf, dumb, and blind through dazzling anti-satellite attacks.
The United States is still trying to fight and win World War II without realizing that the world has moved beyond those geopolitical realities because the battlefield has expanded. Our adversaries don’t want to engage in a fair fight and technology exists that will help them avoid a fair fight with the U.S. military while still achieving their strategic objectives. Space plays a significant part in these unconventional strategies for defeating the United States. But, don’t tell the Pentagon. They’re too busy purchasing another $13 billion aircraft carrier that will be useless, thanks to Chinese defenses, should we ever really need to fight Beijing.
We Needed a Space Force Yesterday
In 2000, when Donald Rumsfeld headed the Space Commission, he advised the Pentagon to go slow and start small when creating a space force. At the time, the threats posed to America’s space architecture were negligible.
That was then. Almost 20 years on, things have changed dramatically. The threats to American satellite constellations are immense and growing while America’s ability to defend itself in space is getting weaker. Because Washington delayed creating a true space force for the last 20 years, bigger, bolder, and more immediate action to counter the newer and larger threats today is vital.
But the Pentagon essentially disregards the president’s calls for an independent space force, with only half-hearted responses. The U.S. Senate, meanwhile, still “needs more convincing!” It will take a full-on Chinese or Russian Pearl Harbor-style attack on America’s satellite constellations to convince the Senate to fund a space force in the same way it took 9/11 to generate a serious response to what was then the growing scourge of terrorism.
A robust space force that is detached from the other branches is the only way effectively to defend our satellites. In order to achieve the mission goal of preserving America’s long-held dominance in space, such a force will also require unconventional leadership willing to experiment with new methods of warfare. But for that to happen, Washington’s bureaucrats must wake up to the real threats we face and undertake to defend America in spite of their patent dislike for the man who happens to be president.
Washington’s Permanent Bipartisan Fusion Party will be our undoing. Either we act decisively today or we risk a Pearl Harbor in space tomorrow.
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