How Space Became the Next ‘Great Power’ Contest Between the U.S. and China

Beijing’s rush for antisatellite arms began 15 years ago. Now, it can threaten the orbital fleets that give the United States military its technological edge. Advanced weapons at China’s military bases can fire warheads that smash satellites and can shoot laser beams that have a potential to blind arrays of delicate sensors.

And China’s cyberattacks can, at least in theory, cut off the Pentagon from contact with fleets of satellites that track enemy movements, relay communications among troops and provide information for the precise targeting of smart weapons.

Among the most important national security issues now facing President Biden is how to contend with the threat that China poses to the American military in space and, by extension, terrestrial forces that rely on the overhead platforms.

The Biden administration has yet to indicate what it plans to do with President Donald J. Trump’s legacy in this area: the Space Force, a new branch of the military that has been criticized as an expensive and ill-advised escalation that could lead to a dangerous new arms race.

Mr. Trump presented the initiative as his own, and it now suffers from an association with him and remains the brunt of jokes on television. But its creation was also the culmination of strategic choices by his predecessors, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, to counter an emboldened China that raised bipartisan alarm.

“There’s been a dawning realization that our space systems are quite vulnerable,” said Greg Grant, a Pentagon official in the Obama administration who helped devise its response to China. “The Biden administration will see more funding — not less — going into space defense and dealing with these threats.”

The protective goal is to create an American presence in orbit so resilient that, no matter how deadly the attacks, it will function well enough for the military to project power halfway around the globe in terrestrial reprisals and counterattacks. That could deter Beijing’s strikes in the first place. The hard question is how to achieve that kind of strong deterrence.

Lloyd J. Austin III, a retired four-star Army general who was confirmed last week as Mr. Biden’s secretary of defense, told the Senate that he would keep a “laserlike focus” on sharpening the country’s “competitive edge” against China’s increasingly powerful military. Among other things, he called for new American strides in building “space-based platforms” and repeatedly referred to space as a war-fighting domain.

“Space is already an arena of great power competition,” Mr. Austin said, with China “the most significant threat going forward.”

The new administration has shown interest in tapping the innovations of space entrepreneurs as a means of strengthening the military’s hand — what Mr. Austin in his Senate testimony called “partnerships with commercial space entities.” The Obama and Trump administrations both adopted that strategy as a uniquely American way of sharpening the military’s edge.

Experts clash on whether the United States is doing too little or too much. Defense hawks had lobbied for decades for the creation of a military Space Corps and called for more spending on weapons.

But arms controllers see the Space Force as raising global tensions and giving Beijing an excuse to accelerate its own threatening measures. Some go further and call it a precipitous move that will increase the likelihood of war.

In decades past, especially during the “Star Wars” program of the Reagan administration, conflict in space was often portrayed as shootouts in orbit. That has changed. With few exceptions, the weapons are no longer seen as circling the planet but as being deployed from secure bases. So, too, the targets are no longer swarms of nuclear warheads but fleets of satellites, whose recurring, predictable paths while orbiting the Earth make them far easier to destroy.

A main question is whether the antisatellite moves and countermoves will lower or raise the risks of miscalculation and war. That debate is just beginning.

For years, the Chinese studied — with growing anxiety — the American military, especially its invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. The battlefield successes were seen as rooted in space dominance. Planners noted that thousands of satellite-guided bombs and cruise missiles had rained down with devastating precision on Taliban forces and Iraqi defenses.

While the Pentagon’s edge in orbital assets was clearly a threat to China, planners argued that it might also represent a liability.

“They saw how the U.S. projected power,” said Todd Harrison, a space analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “And they saw that it was largely undefended.”

China began its antisatellite tests in 2005. It fired two missiles in two years and then made headlines in 2007 by shattering a derelict weather satellite. There was no explosion. The inert warhead simply smashed into the satellite at blinding speed. The successful test reverberated globally because it was the first such act of destruction since the Cold War.

The whirling shards, more than 150,000 in all, threatened satellites as well as the International Space Station. Ground controllers raced to move dozens of spacecraft and astronauts out of harm’s way.

The Bush administration initially did little. Then, in a show of force meant to send Beijing a message, in 2008, it fired a sophisticated missile to shoot down one of its own satellites.

Beijing conducted about a dozen more tests, including ones in which warheads shot much higher, in theory putting most classes of American spacecraft at risk.

China also sought to diversify its antisatellite force. A warhead could take hours to reach a high orbit, potentially giving American forces time for evasive or retaliatory action. Moreover, the speeding debris from a successful attack might endanger Beijing’s own spacecraft.

In tests, China began firing weak laser beams at satellites and studying other ways to strike at the speed of light. However, all the techniques were judged as requiring years and perhaps decades of development.

Then came the new idea. Every aspect of American space power was controlled from the ground by powerful computers. If penetrated, the brains of Washington’s space fleets might be degraded or destroyed. Such attacks, compared with every other antisatellite move, were also remarkably inexpensive.

In 2005, China began to incorporate cyberattacks into its military exercises, primarily in first strikes against enemy networks. Increasingly, its military doctrine called for paralyzing early attacks.

In 2008, hackers seized control of a civilian imaging satellite named Terra that orbited low, like the military’s reconnaissance craft. They did so twice — first in June and again in October — roaming control circuits with seeming impunity. Remarkably, in both cases, the hackers achieved all the necessary steps to command the spacecraft but refrained from doing so, apparently to reduce their fingerprints.

Space officials were troubled by more than China’s moves and weapons. The modern history of the American military centered on building global alliances. Beijing was rushing ahead as an aggressive loner, and many officers feared that Washington was too hidebound and burdened with the responsibilities of coalition-building and arms-control treaties to react quickly.

“The Chinese are starting from scratch,” Paul S. Szymanski, a veteran analyst of space warfare, argued in an Air Force journal. They’re not, he added, “hindered by long space traditions.”

In its second term, the Obama administration made public what it called an “offset strategy” to respond to China and other threats by capitalizing on America’s technological edge.

Just as the United States had developed, first, a vast nuclear arsenal and, second, smart weapons, this so-called third offset would seek an advantage by speeding the rise of robotics, high-speed arms and other breakthroughs that could empower the armed forces for decades.

Unlike earlier offsets, officials said, the objective was to rely less on federal teams than the tech entrepreneurs who were fast transforming the civilian world.

“We must really capture the commercial sector,” Robert O. Work, a deputy secretary of defense, said in a 2015 speech explaining the new initiative.

The advances in space were to be defensive: swarms of small, relatively cheap satellites and fleets of recycled launchers that would overwhelm Beijing with countless targets. For Mr. Obama, innovative leaps were to do for American space forces what Steve Jobs did for terrestrial gadgets, running circles around the calcified ministries of authoritarian states.

After decades in which adversaries — from stateless terrorists to those with traditional militaries — sought to exploit narrow advantages over the more powerful United States, the Pentagon was now finding an unconventional edge all its own.

The Obama administration was already applying the commercial philosophy to NASA, turning the space agency into a major funder of entrepreneurial strides. It was pumping billions of dollars into the development of private rockets and capsules meant to carry astronauts into orbit.

The military joined in. The beneficiaries included Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Their space companies — Mr. Musk’s SpaceX and Mr. Bezos’s Blue Origin — sought to turn rocket launchers from throwaways into recyclables, slashing their cost.

Military officials believed that the new system would make it possible to quickly replace satellites in times of war.

The third offset also sought to shrink the size of satellites. Over decades, the big ones had grown into behemoths. Some cost $1 billion or more to design, construct, outfit, launch and keep in service. One type unfurled an antenna nearly as large as a football field. But civilians, inspired by the iPhone revolution, were building spacecraft as small as loaves of bread.

Military planners saw smaller, cheaper, more numerous craft as making antisatellite targeting vastly more difficult — in some cases impossible — for an adversary.

The initiative aided companies such as Planet Labs, which sought to build hundreds of tiny Earth-observing satellites, and Capella Space, which designed small radar-imaging satellites meant to see through clouds. It also bolstered SpaceX, where Mr. Musk envisioned a fleet of thousands of communication satellites.

The administration, increasingly worried about Beijing’s strides, also raised its spending on offensive space control — without saying exactly what that meant.

Federal investment in the tech entrepreneurs totaled $7.2 billion, most of it during the Obama years, according to a NASA report. It said the funds went to 67 companies. The approach differed from the usual Pentagon method, which dictated terms to contractors. Instead, the private sector led the way. As predicted, the small investments made a big difference.

By the end of the Obama administration, SpaceX was firing payloads into space and successfully returning booster rockets to Earth in soft landings.

Mr. Obama tweeted his congratulations in April 2016 when, for the first time, a SpaceX booster landed successfully on a platform at sea.

Two years later, Mr. Trump unveiled the Space Force, prompting jokes on Twitter and late-night television and even a Netflix sitcom. But in March, the unit said it had taken possession of its first offensive weapon, calling the event historic. Based on land, the system fires energy beams to disrupt spacecraft. Lt. Col. Steve Brogan, a space combat specialist, said the acquisition “puts the ‘force’ in Space Force and is critical for space as a war-fighting domain.”

The Trump administration last year asked Congress for a start on what it called counter-space weapons, putting their expected cost at many hundreds of millions of dollars. The military’s classified budget for the offensive abilities is said to run much higher. In word and deed, the administration also backed new reliance on the swarms of commercial strides.

Trump officials described their steps as a response not only to Beijing’s progress but its plans. In 2019, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency warned that China appeared to be deploying a new generation of extremely powerful lasers that could flash to life by the middle of this decade, putting new classes of American satellites at risk.

Analysts say the Biden administration might keep the Space Force, which has bipartisan support in Congress. Military experts see its high profile as sending Beijing a clear message.

“You have to have an organizational constituency,” said James E. Cartwright, a retired Marine Corps general and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011. “That’s starting to happen. You’ve got a new emphasis on space — on people who get up every day thinking about how to manage these threats.”

The stars of the current space age include not only famous entrepreneurs but a new generation of unknown dreamers and doers.

Developing states, small companies and even high schools are now lofting spacecraft into orbit. New Zealand hosts a spaceport. Turkey and Peru have their own spy satellites. Tiny Luxembourg runs more satellites than Spain, Italy or Germany. India in 2019 fired an antisatellite weapon into orbit. Last year, Iran launched its first military satellite.

The United States leads in satellite tallies, mainly because of its space-age legacies and its many entrepreneurs, including those now aiding the military. The Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Cambridge, Mass., currently lists 1,425 for the United States, 382 for China and 172 for Russia.

But China is pushing hard. For three years in a row, it has fired more rockets into space than any other country. It is now a dominating force, analysts say. The rush includes not only antisatellite weapons but many other military and scientific projects, as suggested by its recent retrieval of moon rocks.

In June, Chinese scientists reported new progress in using quantum physics to build what appeared to be the world’s first unbreakable information link between an orbiting craft and its controllers. Laser beams carried the messages. The test raised the prospect that Beijing might one day possess a super-secure network for global communications.

That same month, China finished deploying the last of 35 navigation satellites, the completion of a third-generation network intended to give its military new precision in conducting terrestrial strikes.

A rugged area of mountains and deserts in northwestern China hosts a tidy complex of buildings with large roofs that can open to the sky. Recently, analysts identified the site in the Xinjiang region as one of five military bases whose lasers can fire beams of concentrated light at American reconnaissance satellites, blinding or disabling their fragile optic sensors.

Mr. Biden is inheriting a range of responses to Beijing’s antisatellite moves, including arms both offensive and defensive, initiatives both federal and commercial, and orbital acts both conspicuous and subtle. Analysts call the situation increasingly delicate.

Mr. Work, the third-offset official from the Obama era, and Mr. Grant, his former Pentagon colleague, warned in a report that Beijing might eventually beat Washington at its own game.

“The Soviets were never able to match, much less overcome, America’s technological superiority,” they wrote. “The same may not be true for China.”

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