In the Trump administration, deep mistrust of Chinese, Russian motives in space

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Scott Pace: Space is a “warfighting domain is because the environment has changed as a result of China’s and Russia’s actions."

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration does not believe war in outer space is inevitable. But a lack of trust in what Russia and China are doing in space means the United States has to “work hard every day” to deter future aggression, said Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council.

The National Space Council, led by Vice President Mike Pence, is working to direct American activities in space and promote innovation. The council also has taken a hard line on space being a “contested” environment, a view that is reflected in the administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy.

Speaking on Thursday at a Politico Space event, Pace said China and Russia are to blame for space no longer being a sanctuary. Ten to 15 years ago, the international policy community was debating whether space was becoming a battleground. “People went back and forth about it,” he said. “They were concerned about what the United States might do.” As it turned out, Pace continued, the U.S. “didn’t do any of the things that people feared. Instead the Russians and Chinese built, and they built.”

The reason people talk about space as a “warfighting domain is because the environment has changed as a result of China’s and Russia’s actions,” Pace insisted. “That being said, it doesn’t mean space war is inevitable. Just like nuclear war is not inevitable.”

The United States will focus on deterrence, he said. “The task to avoid a very bad outcome is to deter. And to deter a conflict in space you have to make sure you are resilient, that you don’t present attractive targets.”

The resiliency of space constellations is now a major focus of the military and the intelligence agencies. That means they have to have backup systems, harden satellites and build new ones that can maneuver if attacked, said Pace. “We are making sure we have other ways of accomplishing our objectives” if U.S. satellites were compromised.

The administration has concluded that a new arms control treaty for space is not a realistic option at this time because China and Russia have an asymmetric advantage, Pace said. The United States is a space superpower with assets that far outnumber those of Russia or China, but these nations’ counter-space technologies — such as electronic weapons that jam satellites — could give them an asymmetric edge.

“I don’t see a prospect for arms control,” said Pace. “The asymmetry between what the Russians and Chinese are doing and what we are doing is so profound.” One diplomatic option would be to pursue “transparency and confidence building measures” to prevent misperceptions and keep everyone informed on what they are doing, he said. “One can see a way forward for dialogue. But at the same time we have to recognize the reality that dialogue alone is not going to be enough. We have to makes sure we can defend, that things are more resilient,” said Pace. “We have to work hard every day to deter war in space and never give anyone any sense that this is an attractive option to take.”

Observers find it odd that the United States treats Russia as a military adversary but both nations work closely in civil space efforts such as the International Space Station. After the U.S. space shuttle was mothballed seven years ago, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft has been the only means of transportation to the ISS.

“Working with the Russians over the years has been stressful, has been challenging but it’s really been terrific,” said Pace. “We have a great degree of respect for our Russian colleagues. We literally put our lives in their hands and vice versa.”

A breakdown in Russia’s relations with the West is “one of the worst things that’s happened to the Russia space program,” said Pace. “They haven’t been able to develop their commercial industry” and have to rely on state-owned enterprises, he said. “We are sympathetic to our space colleagues over there. We try to keep our space cooperation relatively isolated from other parts of the relationship.”