Over Our Heads: How the Great Power Competition Is Extending Into Space

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The president’s proposal for a Space Force earlier this summer included a statement that China and Russia cannot be allowed to make further gains in space at America’s expense. Prioritizing dominance in space in the face of our adversaries’ rapid advances is a topic that has received much advocacy from senior government officials for years. It is vital that the U.S. assure its superiority in space and is prepared to defend its interests against potential aggression.

The importance of superiority in space is a theme that senior Air Force officials have been emphasizing recently. Secretary of the Air Force Dr. Heather Wilson, along with Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein and three other senior officials, testified to the Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee in May 2017 that space should be considered a warfighting domain and can no longer be viewed as a “benign environment” in which operational freedom is assured. The officials went on to stress the need to invest in modernizing space systems to secure superiority in this new domain.

Expanding on this point at the Air Warfare Symposium 2018, General Goldfein stated that U.S. dominance in space must be pursued “with the same passion and sense of ownership” as air superiority. In an op-ed for Fox News published April 2018, Secretary Wilson wrote,

Russia and China are developing anti-satellite capabilities that could become operational in the next few years. Our new National Defense Strategy correctly recognizes the reemergence of great power competition with China and Russia as the principal priority for the Defense Department.

We must continue to work with our allies to strengthen our collective self-defense in space, just as we have on Earth. And we must continue to study how our enemies might exploit vulnerabilities and how we will defeat them, just as military planners did before World War II.

These threat perceptions are well-grounded; government agencies have been warning of China’s and Russia’s progress in space technology and policy for years. A 2015 Department of Defense report suggested that China is developing co-orbital anti-satellite systems to target U.S. space assets. In June 2018, the U.S. intelligence community warned that Russia and China are working on “destructive counterspace weapons” that will most likely be operational in the near future.

In his 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment report to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lieutenant General Robert Ashley commented on Russia’s efforts in pursuit of space dominance: 

Moscow has concluded that gaining and maintaining supremacy in space will have a decisive impact on the outcome of future conflicts and is developing counterspace systems to hold U.S. space assets at risk. Russia will continue to pursue the development of a full range of ground-, air-, or space-based antisatellite weapons as a means to reduce U.S. military effectiveness and control the escalation of conflict if deterrence fails.

Russia has been making moves to consolidate its space exploration and defense goals for years. In 2015, Moscow merged its space and air forces into the “Russian Aerospace Forces.” This move apparently sought to copy the U.S. Air Force’s structure, and consolidated authority to form a more integrated model for a unified aerospace theater.

China and Russia are already well ahead of the U.S. in valuing space and developing technologies to achieve dominance. The U.S. must prioritize the development of technologies that will protect its assets in space and assure its superiority in this new domain. These new systems must address a variety of threats posed by factors on Earth and in space.

One such capability is more freedom to react in real time. Such a capability would enable systems to react more effectively to potential threats because they are not dependent on communication or direction from Earth. Products like BAE Systems’ SpaceNav GPS and onboard processing microprocessors give satellites and spacecraft more situational awareness to navigate space without relying on on-the-ground processing, providing the freedom to maneuver and respond instantaneously.

Space technologies must also have improved resiliency against jamming and cyber attacks. Raytheon is constructing a system called the Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution Mission Data Processing Application Framework (FORGE) to manage and secure the flow of data from satellites. FORGE is more cyber-resilient, flexible, and efficient than the current system being used to process data.

In space, a greater number of smaller and lighter satellites are likely to be more secure than a smaller number of larger, more complex systems. A more complex system would entail more drastic repercussions if attacked and destroyed, while a network of smaller systems offers redundancy against threats. Raytheon is applying its background in missile manufacturing to produce around 3,600 small satellites to operate in lower orbits, which can be produced quickly and inexpensively.

The great power competition is extending into space, making it necessary for the U.S. to consider new technologies that will protect its assets and its current lead in space. As Russia and China continue to invest in systems with the capabilities to destroy American space infrastructure, the U.S. must focus on developing structures that are secure against such attacks and resilient enough to operate in a hostile domain such as space.

Rathna K. Muralidharan is a program director at the Lexington Institute with a focus on global security and regional politics. You can follow her at @RathnaKM and the Lexington Institute @LextNextDC. Read her full biography here.

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