In outer space, the US is vulnerable to China and Russia
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In 2007, the Chinese military shot down one of their own weather satellites using an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon. 

The shoot-down was a message to the world that Beijing possesses the capability to potentially destroy satellites flying in low earth orbit (approximately 99 to 1200 miles above the earth), where many important U.S. space assets reside. 

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In the last thirty years, the United States military and civil society have become completely reliant on space-based systems. They represent the best in American innovation, but they also are a strategic vulnerability.

 

Both China and Russia are increasingly concerned about the potential for U.S. intervention in regions that they view as their geopolitical spheres of influence — for Beijing, the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait and for Russia, the Near Abroad. The ability to deny the United States its use of critical space-based resources could effectively level the playing field in a regional conflict with either Beijing or Moscow, both of which are investing billions of dollars into counter-space weapons. 

In a war with either China or Russia, space would serve as the ultimate high ground. To better address a contested space environment, the Department of Defense needs to more rapidly shift away from the view that space is a distant domain, and emphasize the fact that it is intimately connected with combat forces on the ground, in the air and on the sea. 

To understand the importance of space, it is instructive to consider what a day without space-based infrastructure (both military and civilian) would look like. People would not be able to take cash from ATMs (ATMs use a GPS timing signal), all commercial airliners would be grounded and many smart technologies would go dark. 

For the military, U.S. forces would lose precision targeting capability, the use of critical reconnaissance satellites that provide some of the nation’s most valuable intelligence, the ability to instantaneously communicate with units spread all over the globe, and GPS-based navigation in the land, sea and air domains. Space assets are the primary enablers of tactical and theater-level intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms (e.g. remotely piloted aircraft) that provide much needed battle-space awareness. Thus, without space, the U.S. military loses its ability to quickly and effectively integrate operations across all domains of warfare, which could be devastating in a conflict with either Russia or China. 

There are a myriad of ways that an adversary could potentially undermine or destroy US space capabilities. The most prevalent counter-space technologies include jammers, terrestrial anti-satellite weapons (ASATs), aircraft launched ASATs and co-orbital ASATs — anti-satellite weapons that are housed in a satellite and often referred to as kinetic kill vehicles (KKVs).

Additionally, cyber capabilities pose a significant and cost-effective threat to space assets. It is essential to establish that an adversary does not need to take the extreme option of using an ASAT to degrade or, perhaps, totally deny the U.S, its access to critical space capabilities. Rather, using a cyber attack against some aspect of the vast space architecture, which resides both in space and on the ground, could render the U.S. military effectively blind and deaf.

It can be very difficult to ascertain the source of a cyber attack, making a response even more difficult. Satellite jamming equipment is relatively inexpensive and not complicated to operate. Jamming could successfully deny American military forces access to critical ISR, communications, and navigation capabilities in a wartime scenario. 

Both Beijing and Moscow view space capabilities as a key source of U.S. military prowess. Chinese and Russian military planners closely watched the American victory in the First Gulf War and came to the conclusion that harnessing space is critical for achieving network-centric warfare, i.e., the ability to seamlessly integrate forces across all domains of operations (land, air, sea, subsea and space).

Additionally, both Chinese and Russian military writings agree that targeting America’s critical space assets is a means of potentially dissuading intervention in a regional crisis, and leveling the playing field should a conflict arise. A conflict with China would likely take place in the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea and a confrontation with Russia would likely occur within the territory of the former Soviet Union. Thus, the geographic reality is that the greatest logistical strain will be placed on the U.S. military. Space capabilities are the bedrock of America’s ability to execute complex operations over great distances, and degrading them would severely hamper U.S. actions. The space domain is one of the crucial — if not the most critical — aspects of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategies that U.S. adversaries are working hard to develop and operationalize.

One of Beijing’s primary geopolitical objectives is to be able to deny an adversary access to the areas that it views as its traditional sphere of influence (e.g. Yellow Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, etc). Chinese military modernizations are working towards operationalizing A2/AD within the First Island Chain in the immediate term. To successfully achieve a functioning A2/AD strategy, Chinese military planners are developing the technologies to integrate all of their operating domains through constructing capable C4ISR systems — this is the key to the Chinese idea of informationized warfare.

Without advanced space-based capabilities, China’s envisioned A2/AD strategy will not be fully realized. Specifically, Beijing will need effective satellite-based ISR platforms to track U.S. carrier battle groups in the Pacific to cross-cue its stand-off weapons like the DF-21D “carrier killer.”

Space systems are necessary for achieving network-centric warfare. In other words, space is essential for controlling information, which the Chinese believe is the key to winning. Finally, the Chinese, like their Russian counterparts, view the development of advanced ASATs as a means of deterring U.S. involvement in regional conflict.

In response to the growing threats to American space capabilities, the Department of Defense needs to first and foremost change the war fighting culture by making the current force more space savvy. Military officers and war planners need to better understand how their operations are reliant upon space technologies, and develop redundancies should they be denied those capabilities.

Space needs to play a greater role in professional military education at all levels because it is integral in every level of war from the tactical to the strategic. Space assets may be tens of thousands of miles overhead and invisible to the naked eye, but the safety of U.S. and allied soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines is totally reliant upon the Department of Defense’s ability to ensure access to critical space resources in times of peace and war. 

Aaron Bateman is a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer assigned to the Pentagon. He has multiple publications on a broad array of national security topics.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.