Beijing’s rush for anti-satellite 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 Joe Biden is how to contend with the threat that China poses to the US 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 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.
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 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.
The new administration has shown interest in tapping the innovations of space entrepreneurs as a means of strengthening the military’s hand — what 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.
For years, the Chinese studied — with growing anxiety — the U.S. 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 anti-satellite tests in 2005. It fired two missiles in two years and then made headlines in 2007 by shattering a derelict weather satellite. The successful test reverberated globally because it was the first such act of destruction since the Cold War.
China also sought to diversify its anti-satellite force.
In tests, China began firing weak laser beams at satellites and studying other ways to strike at the speed of light.
Then came the new idea. Every aspect of U.S. 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 anti-satellite 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.
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.
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 Obama, innovative leaps were to do for U.S. space forces what Steve Jobs did for terrestrial gadgets, running circles around the calcified ministries of authoritarian states.
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 — Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’ 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 anti-satellite targeting vastly more difficult — in some cases impossible — for an adversary.
By the end of the Obama administration, SpaceX was firing payloads into space and successfully returning booster rockets to Earth in soft landings.
Two years later, 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.”
William J. Broad. c.2021 The New York Times Company