Time to get serious about space threats

62 miles above the Earth's surface is the beginning of space. It would be nice to believe that space is a place of peace and science, but it is all too clear that at least two of our potential adversaries are weaponizing space. The United States must take these threats seriously and respond accordingly in order to defend ourselves and our allies while deterring potential adversaries from acting irresponsibly in space.  

Both China and Russia have openly admitted that they have or are developing counter-space capabilities. These capabilities could range from jamming of GPS signals and satellite communications, to blinding or damaging our satellites with ground-based lasers, to destroying a satellite with a missile. China has in fact tested anti-satellite missiles at least twice in the past two years. Russia, meanwhile, has launched an undeclared object into space which our military now believes to be some sort of microsatellite. We do not know Russia’s intentions, but an object like this could be used to jam or directly attack our satellites.  

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These public facts, combined with multiple statements from the administration, paint a clear picture of the serious military threats we face in space. As Lt. Gen. John Raymond, commander of U.S. space forces, recently put it, “We are quickly approaching the point where every satellite in every orbit can be threatened.” 

In some ways, the United States is a victim of our own success in space. We can put a bomb through a specific window in a specific building thanks to GPS. We can remotely pilot aircraft on the other side of the world and can detect ballistic missile launches anywhere on the globe thanks to our robust network of satellites. Our adversaries have seen what a significant advantage space provides the U.S. and have responded by looking for ways to neutralize or destroy our space capabilities. The U.S. is in the unique position of having the most to gain and most to lose in space. 

While the United States clearly faces a national security threat in space, the economic consequences of irresponsible actions in space are also very significant. According to the non-profit Space Foundation, the global space economy was over $330 billion in 2014, only a quarter of which is due to spending by any government worldwide. Reckless actions in space, like China’s 2007 anti-satellite missile test, put commercial and government space assets at risk by generating deadly debris fields. While Sandra Bullock and George Clooney took a bit of creative license in Gravity, the threat of space debris is all too real. China’s 2007 test alone created roughly 3,000 pieces of space debris, which satellites and even the International Space Station now have to maneuver around. Just one small piece of debris, traveling at thousands of miles per hour, can damage or destroy anything in space. 

How do we prevent reckless actions in space, or even worse, a war in space? Our best option is to deter bad actions. Deterrence in space is complicated and multifaceted, but at a minimum we must do two things. First, we need to make sure that our ability to fight and win is not contingent on a few specific weak points. This means developing space capabilities that are harder to jam or destroy and, to some extent, can be replaced quickly and cheaply. This also means making sure that our forces can operate in environments where space assets might not be available. Today our military enjoys uncontested access to space assets, but that will not be the case in the future.  

Secondly, we must be prepared to defend our space assets from attack. We must make it clear to potential adversaries that an attack on our space assets will be treated as seriously as an attack against our terrestrial assets. Different threats will require different types of defenses, and we must create credible options to face the full range of threats, including active defenses. The simple truth is that our potential adversaries have already weaponized space. If we don’t allow ourselves to take defensive measures, conflict in space is actually more likely. Ronald Reagan’s maxim is true in space as it is on earth: peace through strength. 

The good news is that the Department of Defense is taking steps to respond to the increasing threats in space. General John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command, is one of those leading the efforts to secure our place in space. Bob Work, the deputy secretary of Defense, recently highlighted this need, and Admiral Cecil Haney, the head of Strategic Command, recently announced that the Department of Defense will be spending an additional $5 billion over the next five years to strengthen our security in space.  

In Congress, as we consider the annual National Defense Authorization Act, we are supporting the additional funding, but also taking important steps to prioritize national security space. We have language to establish a major force program for space, similar to budget authority and requirements that Special Operations Command currently has. This will prioritize space funding as well as enable better coordination and oversight of the space budget, helping us ensure that every dollar dedicated to space security is well spent. There are also many other facets of space security where Congress and the Pentagon are working together.  

The bottom line is that our potential adversaries are weaponizing space. The United States and our allies face serious and credible threats against our space capabilities. If we do not respond to these threats, the likelihood of an attack in space will only go up. We must instead deter any dangerous actions in space by strengthening our space systems and making it very clear we will defend our space assets. If we want to keep space safe and secure for all responsible parties, we must be prepared to defend our space systems and defeat any efforts to attack them. Anything less represents failure in the final frontier.

Lamborn has represented Colorado’s 5th Congressional District since 2007. He sits on the Armed Services; the Natural Resources; and the Veterans’ Affairs committees. He is also co-chairman of the Space Power Caucus.