The Reality of War in Space

Earlier this year, Daniel Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, warned that  “China and Russia will continue to expand their space-based … systems in terms of the numbers of satellites, the breadth of their capability, and the applications for use. Both Russia and China continue to pursue anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons as a means to reduce US and allied military effectiveness. Russia and China aim to have nondestructive and destructive counter-space weapons available for use during a potential future conflict. We assess that, if a future conflict were to occur involving Russia or China, either country would justify attacks against US and allied satellites as necessary to offset any perceived US military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems. “Military reforms in both countries in the past few years indicate an increased focus on establishing operational forces designed to integrate attacks against space systems and services with military operations in other domains.

In 2016, Digital Trends  noted that “There’s a cold war happening in space and virtually no one knows about it. Right now, miles above your head, there are fleets of robotic, weaponized satellites poised to do battle…The U.S. is now on the defense, preparing to protect its assets in orbit against a new fleet of high-tech satellites unlike anything the world has ever seen before…Up until the 2007, only Russia and the U.S. had demonstrated the capacity to destroy enemy satellites via missile intercept…Then suddenly in 2007, everything changed when China successfully blew up one of its own weather satellites … on purpose…The U.S. responded to this Chinese ASAT  test with Operation Burnt Frost, successfully destroying its own orbiting satellite.

While Russia has more experience, China is increasingly the focus of concern. The Congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Subcommittee on Space hearing  has reported that “Unlike the United States, China does not have distinct military and civilian space programs. The Chinese military is functionally in charge of all space activities[and]… has demonstrated a strong disregard for interests of other countries in outer space through its anti-satellite tests…Mark A. Stokes, Executive Director of the Project 2049 Institute which analyses Asian-Pacific issues, testified The evolving capacity of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to leverage space assets presents a number of challenges for the United States, allies, and friends in the AsiaPacific region…The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is gradually developing a capacity to project military power vertically into space and horizontally beyond its immediate periphery…… The PLA appears to be investing resources into ground-based radar systems capable of providing queuing quality data for engaging targets in space. The PLA also has invested in electronic countermeasure technologies that could degrade an adversary’s satellite communications, navigation satellite signals, or SAR satellites operating within line of sight of an emitter. Overview of Military Space Organization and Requirements Guided by the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Political Bureau, the Central Military Commission (CMC) and State Council establish national space and counter-space requirements.

Testifying before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in 2015, Kevin Pollpeter of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation stated: “Based on their analysis of U.S. military operations, Chinese military researchers view space as a critical component in making the PLA into a force capable of winning “informatized” wars and recognize the role space plays in the collection and transmittal of information and the need to deny those capabilities to an adversary. Indeed, nearly every Chinese source describes space as the “ultimate high ground,” leading many Chinese analysts to assess that space warfare is inevitable. Because of the preeminence of the space battlefield, analysts writing on space argue that it will become the center of gravity in future wars and one that must be seized and controlled. In fact, these analysts argue that the first condition for seizing the initiative is to achieve space supremacy.”

Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy and Government.

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