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Space war threats from China, Russia getting new U.S. assessment

Gen. John Raymond, U.S. Space Command and Air Force Space Command commander, speaks during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference on Sept. 16, 2019.

ARMANDO SCHWIER-MORALES/U.S. AIR FORCE

By TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg | Published: November 11, 2019

The U.S. intelligence community is updating its assessment of space warfare capabilities of Russia and China as military commanders express concerns about advances in the adversaries' ability to jam, ram or destroy satellites in orbit.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten requested the National Intelligence Estimate before he left his prior command at the U.S. Strategic Command, and it "is being worked by the IC at this time," said Lt. Col. Christina Hoggatt, an Air Force spokeswoman. Hyten is now the U.S.'s No. 2 military officer.

The new U.S. Space Command will use the updated intelligence estimate "alongside current operations and critical information from our international, civil, and commercial partnerships, to identify and drive" future "training and acquisition requirements," Hoggatt said.

The actual and potential threats of space wars were used in part to justify establishing the Space Command, a new Space Development Agency and possibly a sixth service branch that would be called the Space Force.

Those concerns will be reinforced this week by the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in its annual report to be released Nov. 14.

The report concludes that China "views space as a critical U.S. military and economic vulnerability and has fielded an array of direct-ascent, cyber, electromagnetic and co-orbital counterspace weapons capable of targeting nearly every class of U.S. space asset."

"It may be difficult for the United States to deter Beijing from using these weapons due to China's belief the U.S. has a greater vulnerability in space," according to an advance copy. Although China hasn't shot down a satellite since a widely cited test in 2007, "it has continued to test kinetic counterspace systems nearly every year, sometimes disguised as" ballistic missile intercept tests, according to the commission, which is specifically charged with reporting economic and military threats posed by China.

Reflecting such concerns, the Pentagon requested $14.1 billion for an expanded national security space budget for the current 2020 fiscal year, about 14% more than in fiscal 2019, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The U.S. operates 870 of the world's 1,880 intelligence, communications, navigation and scientific satellites, according to the Pentagon's inspector general.

The intelligence agencies' National Intelligence Estimates are generally updated every two to three years. The results of the new NIE will be folded into the intelligence community's next public "Worldwide Threat Assessment."

Monica Tullos, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said in an email that "our standard release practices do not allow for open discussion of pending or prior NIEs. This restriction would include their topics."

Steve Kitay, the Defense Department's space policy chief, said at a conference last month that "the threats really are at an all-time high and expanding."

The new Space Command has "daily interactions with" the intelligence agencies, and they have representatives within the organization, Hoggatt, the Air Force spokeswoman, said. "We regularly collaborate and coordinate on all space threats, to include China/Russia."

"We have a good understanding" of China's space strategy, General John Raymond, the head of Space Command, said at an Air Force Association event in September. "We understand their capabilities," and "we're pretty comfortable they are developing directed energy weapons and probably fielding lasers to blind our satellites," Raymond said. "They're also developing pretty robust 'on-orbit' capabilities that are pretty complex" and may have dual uses, he said.

Arms control analysts who follow counter-space issues don't dismiss U.S. military concerns but fault the failure to seek international restraints on space weaponry.

"Anti-satellite technologies like direct-ascent, hit-to-kill missiles are certainly within the technical capabilities of Russia and China, among others" and "so is the ability to closely approach another satellite, either to repair it or to harm it," Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists said in an email. "The U.S. is ahead" in these capabilities "but Russia and China will catch up if they want to."

"The problem is that there is no effort to curb this competition, no political or legal agreements to limit the deployment of anti-satellite weapons or to effectively set norms for behavior when it comes to military uses of space," she said.

Victoria Samson, an analyst with the Secure World Foundation, also acknowledged Russia and China's capabilities as "real and potential threats" but said "the urgency and intended hostility specifically against the United States are exaggerated, and despite what some have been arguing, the United States has not been sitting idly by."

Russian and Chinese counter-space research "isn't happening in a vacuum: There is very little that they're doing that the United States isn't also doing" or "has developed," she said.

Bloomberg's Travis Tritten contributed.
 

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