Beijing and Moscow have let the world know they are prepared to make space a new battleground. The US Department of Defense is taking the threats above the earth’s atmosphere seriously. On Sept. 6-7, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl hosted a Defense Policy Board (DPB) meeting to discuss the dangers faced by the United States. “(T)he DPB will receive classified briefings and hold classified discussions on how China and Russia’s potential development of fractional orbital bombardment systems (FOBS) and space-to-ground weapons could impact US deterrence and strategic stability,” the official agenda read. Events in the past several years demonstrate the aggressive development of China and Russia’s aspirations for weaponizing space that cause mounting concern.
Russia and China Weaponizing Space
Pentagon reports indicate Moscow and Beijing likely are developing advanced space weapons. The September DPB meeting was important because “analysts say the likelihood of Russian and Chinese FOBS and space-to-ground remains murky, in part because – while several senior defense officials have affirmed the test took place – the Pentagon hasn’t made public any evidence,” Defense News reported. Such weapons are technologically complicated, with highly complex targeting challenges. But if the Kremlin and the Chinese Communist Party are successful, ground targets anywhere on the globe would be at risk.
Russia, for its part, is fielding various hypersonic weapons. Kremlin forces’ “use of dual-capable and hypersonic weapons in the invasion of Ukraine highlights their novel, their new stuff that they’re developing and its signal to us, our allies and our partners,” Admiral Charles Richard, commander of US Strategic Command, told the audience at the 2022 Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, AL.
In November 2021, Moscow executed anti-satellite testing with an S-500 Prometey missile destroying a long-dead Soviet-era intelligence satellite. The collision left 2,700 large and small pieces of space debris orbiting at speeds of up to 18,000 miles per hour. The Russians have been continuously developing and trying out space weapons. “Russia tested a co-orbital ASAT weapon in July 2020, and it tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon in December 2020,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported in its 2021 Space Threat Assessment.
Recognition that Russia and China represent a significant threat to the United States, its allies, and friends is not new. On various levels, Moscow and Beijing are working diligently to exploit space for military purposes. For example, numerous reports warn that our adversaries are developing ground-based signal jammers and rockets that can silence or destroy US satellites. Furthermore, “Moscow and Beijing are working on small, maneuverable satellites that can tamper with American spacecraft,” David Axe reported in the December 2019 issue of The National Interest.
China’s Hypersonic Missile in Space Orbit
A little more than a year ago, China surprised the world with the first sophisticated hypersonic orbiting missile thought to be nuclear-capable. “China, wielding a hypersonic missile traveling at over five times the speed of sound and capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, is a significant threat to the US,” Liberty Nation reported. However, nations with ongoing space programs did not realize Beijing could launch a missile into near-earth space, go into a suborbital trajectory, and return maneuvering at hypersonic speeds to hit a ground target. “The PRC successful test of a fractional orbit bombardment hypersonic capability [was] never before seen in the world, [and] I am not convinced at all we fully thought through the implications of what that weapon system means,” Admiral Richard told his audience.
The United States has its work cut out. “Russia and China are building capabilities to challenge us in space because if they can challenge us in space, they understand as dependent as we are in space capabilities that they can challenge us as a nation,” former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Air Force General John Hyten told attendees at a 2021 National Security Space Association event.
The Department of Defense has made significant headway in preparing to meet the threats posed by Russia and China. For example, the US Space Force provides a strategic focus for America’s ability to counter enemy threats from space. In addition, enlisting the policy expertise of the DPB means the Defense Department is giving the Russian and Chinese space threat the consideration it deserves. The challenge is formidable.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.