To hear people tell it, China seems to be gaining the upper-hand in the space warfare department. This Freebeacon post (http://freebeacon.com/experts-china-boosts-space-warfare-capabilities/) tells a tale of the devious Chinese space activities threatening the United States. Articles like this are designed to get people fired up, and that’s disturbing. There are reasons to worry about the future of the United States in space, but China is maybe the least of them. Why, then, are certain individuals worried about Chinese space capabilities against US space assets? What has changed?
Looking at the Chinese threats listed in the post first: ‘cyber’ weapons (who uses the term ‘cyber’ for anything anymore?), jammers, lasers, antisatellite (ASAT) missiles and maneuvering satellites. These capabilities sound impressive. Some of the capabilities in this list should also sound familiar to certain readers. They sound familiar because the Russians have a lot of the same capability. The US does, too—but let’s focus on Russia. Are we as concerned with Russia? If not, then what’s changed that’s causing concern with China?
It’s not that the Russians don’t have space capabilities to wreak havoc on US satellite constellations. Quite to the contrary, the Russians still have formidable space capabilities. So this hasn’t changed. They were working on airborne laser ASAT. The Russians developed ASAT missiles to be launched from MiG-31s. They are apparently working on new ASAT missiles, too. The Russians do have jammers of all sorts (ask the Iraqis). And they are familiar with maneuvering . The only capability listed in the post that I’m not certain the Russians have is the geosynchronous satellite interceptor. But let’s assume the Russians probably have the ability. And who hasn’t heard about Russian hackers these days? The Russians may not be quite as stable as the Chinese government, though. That’s a slight change. Yet, there haven’t been near as many articles written about the Russian space threat against US satellites.
So, we have one nation, Russia, who the US was historically worried about. Russia has these “space combat” systems already. But the US really hasn’t done much to US satellites to mitigate against those Russian systems. Now, as evidenced by this spate of posts, people are worrying about the Chinese, who are developing these same systems. And people in the US are nearly hysteric with the message of the need to protect US satellites from the Chinese systems. What’s the difference? What has changed? Is there a chance for conflict?
The US always expected some kind of conflict to break out with the Soviet Union. We, who live in the US, were fortunate not to have the expectations fulfilled. However, during that time, perhaps the US didn’t rely on space capabilities very much—at least not as much as now. But the Soviets did think the US relied on them enough to develop anti-satellite weapons. Still, the US didn’t seem to be worried enough to do something about it (at least not publicly).
There almost seems to be a “What, Me Worry?” quality when it comes to how the US has dealt with space assets in the past. The US has had the luxury of time, and the propensity to spend money on “more important” things. The United States has tried to have its cake and eat it too! It relied on the fact it would take a suicidal adversary to physically assault US ground stations. People would die in such an assault. American or some other allied country’s soil would be considered under attack with such an assault. It’s likely the United States would move towards strong retaliation. It is very unlikely for someone to attack US ground stations because of that possibly very strong retaliation. Unless the US doesn’t know who attacked the ground assets.
If, however, someone were to take out a satellite, heck, that’s just like the Taliban shooting down a drone, right? A very expensive space drone, but a drone nonetheless. Where would be the uproar? Would an uproar even happen? I think the current, or any future administration would be very reluctant to release military forces against any nation that took out a satellite. It could be tricky to prove a nation did that. After witnessing how some of this ‘politics’ works, the very worst to be expected would probably be a strongly worded condemnation letter (remember the Hainan incident?). Is the fear of the Chinese actions in space based on this non-responsive scenario, then?
The US is also a little reticent about even giving the hint of a bulging bicep, spacewise. It’s likely politics plays a role in this downplaying, but it wasn’t that way all the time. The Air Force, for a while, was big into space operations (they would argue they still are). There was even talk about forming a separate Space Force, which makes sense considering what’s happening now. The Air Force is trying to juggle all the things it wants, developing lists of what it wants to still dominate the air. Can you guess which part of the Air Force got the short straw in these lists? So this may or may not be considered a change. Maybe it’s politics as usual?
Even now, the Air Force is cutting the number of Space Operations professionals. They started doing this sort of thing around 2005 (going by memory here-it might’ve been earlier) with the youngest year groups. I read the tea leaves when they got to my year group in 2007 and chose to leave (since they were paying me to do so). Can you guess what kind of expertise is in short supply now? Of course, the contracting expertise has also gotten smaller with Sequestration and other budget shenanigans. The Air Force doesn’t seem to have the money to pay for that expertise, either, probably as a response to the afore-mentioned shenanigans. A Space Force would’ve allowed that expertise to flourish. The space expertise would likely still be there. There’s still time to do form it.
And yet, the current Space Command general is talking about space technology, not space expertise, to keep competitors at bay. Maybe the US is worried about the Chinese because the USAF gutted its space corps? The pool of expertise has shrunk as has the budget, so that’s a change. Is it a change that is the core of the worrying? Whatever it is that’s driving this worry, why is it people are worried now? What else has changed?
Should the US worry about the Chinese ASAT systems? Maybe. Maybe as much as the US worries about the Russian ones. But maybe the worry is misplaced. Maybe the worry should be about the things the US can control. A lot of things related to military space defense and operations has changed. The United States has itself to blame for that. If the US is really that worried, then it’s time for the US to get serious about space.
Standing up a United States Space (or Interstellar, or whatever you like) Force is definitely a way to get serious. It allows the people in that particular service to live, breathe, and fight in space. Pipe dream? Maybe. But ask yourself: when you want to control parts of space, do you bring space experts and operators, or do you bring pilots, to the game? Continued fostering of the startup and private space companies will help keep the technology robust, responsive, and possibly affordable. Both a Space Force and private space industry are ways of setting up grounds for success in space—not to dominate, but to prosper. And once people are working in that element, well, obviously, the sky isn’t the limit. That’s for the Air Force.