China’s ambitions to surpass the United States as the world’s space superpower have been known for decades and highlighted by the Pentagon in annual reports mandated by Congress.
Alarm bells are ringing louder in the Pentagon’s latest report released Nov. 29, which more explicitly warns that China’s advances in civil and military space are rapidly transitioning into warfighting systems capable of competing with those of the United States.
Perhaps not coincidentally, on Nov. 22 the U.S. Space Force established its first foothold in the U.S. Indo-Pacific, the Defense Department’s largest unified combatant command almost entirely focused on countering the rise of China.
“I applaud and congratulate the Space Force for standing up their first service component in Indo-Pacom. I believe that’s the right place at the right time for that,” the head of U.S. Space Command, Gen. James Dickinson, said Nov. 29.
The chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force, Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, spoke at a ceremony at Indo-Pacific Command headquarters near Honolulu, Hawaii, to formally establish the space component.
“We find ourselves competing against a thinking adversary who continues to field counterspace systems as well as their own exquisite space support systems for their increasingly capable terrestrial forces,” he said.
The new unit, U.S. Space Forces Pacific, will support Indo-Pacom’s growing needs for space-based technologies and expertise in space operations.
Saltzman said that space would be a battleground in a fight against China, and to succeed, the U.S. military will need to make sure space networks are tightly integrated with land, sea and air systems.
Brig. Gen. Anthony Mastalir, commander of U.S. Space Forces Pacific, said the threat posed by China “underpins every aspect of warfighting” as the U.S. military is hugely reliant on satellites. In a geographically vast area like Asia Pacific, “we must overcome the tyranny of distance on a daily basis, and space enables access to otherwise denied areas,” he said. “Space is key to our ability to project power at the time and place of our choosing.”
The Pentagon, in its report, says China’s armed forces are being trained to leverage the nation’s rapidly growing network of satellites and to disrupt U.S. satellite networks using jammers, lasers and even kinetic direct-ascent weapons.
“They are building and fielding space capabilities at an incredible pace,” Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations, said at a recent industry conference. He added that China had deployed hundreds of imaging and navigation satellites in just five years.
“Their space capabilities are still not quite as good as ours, but they are really, really good,” Thompson said. “And so we have to assume that they are a peer competitor in that regard. Their capabilities are close to ours.”
With that in mind, the Space Force has to continue to resource and field new technologies, “train our forces and be prepared,” he said.
According to the Pentagon’s report, China’s first public mention of space and counterspace capabilities came as early as 1971, and the country’s military leaders have since focused on ways to neutralize superior U.S. systems.
The People’s Liberation Army has “demonstrated sophisticated, potentially damaging on-orbit behavior with space technologies,” said the report, warning that China is expected to deploy weapons capable of destroying satellites up to geosynchronous Earth orbit.
Standing up a Space Force component at Indo-Pacific Command is a clear message that the U.S. is taking the China challenge very seriously, said Brendan Mulvaney, director of the China Aerospace Studies Institute, a Department of the Air Force think tank.
A key priority for Space Forces Pacific will be to provide accurate intelligence about what actors are doing in space, a capability known as space domain awareness, said Mulvaney. Although DoD has a multitude of sensors, “it’s hard to see what goes on, it’s hard to attribute things, which is why space domain awareness is now such a big thing,” he said.
The Space Force needs to work with allies and commercial partners to “understand what is going on in space and, if a crisis or conflict arises, be able to advise the commander on what assets are at risk,” Mulvaney said. The Space Force is ready for this challenge, Thompson insists.
Since the space service was established in December 2019, “you’ve seen year after year increases in our budget … And you should probably anticipate that trend will continue,” he said. “This reflects an understanding, not just from Indo-Pacom but from the nation’s leadership, that we need more capability in space.”
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the December 2022 issue.