An OS-M series rocket illustration from China's OneSpace webpages. Credit: OneSpace

WASHINGTON — Are the United States and China inevitably headed to a war in space? That was the central question posed by members of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission at a hearing on Thursday on Capitol Hill.

In testimony, experts provided ample evidence of China’s space ambitions and cited the already well documented achievements of the Chinese space program. But while the professional consensus is that China is a rising space power with a growing arsenal of anti-satellite weapons, a future war in space is not a foregone conclusion, these experts argued.

The commission was created by Congress in 2000 to investigate the national security implications of trade and the economic relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

Commission Chairman Carolyn Bartholomew, noted that China is “serious about becoming a space power and is willing to commit the political will and funds” to dominate in space. So the question is how the United States should respond, she said.

To prevent tensions from escalating, the United States should do more to protect its space systems and build capabilities as a form of deterrence, said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“As we engage China more openly in civil space, we should simultaneously make a concerted effort to improve our deterrence posture in national security space,” he said. “The United States needs to take immediate steps to improve the protection of our systems against the types of counterspace threats China is developing and deploying.”

The Pentagon needs more advanced encryption and satellite communications waveforms that are more resistant to jamming and spoofing, Harrison said. It also should consider redesigning constellations and use a larger number of satellites in a variety of orbits rather than a small constellation of large satellites that make attractive targets. “Ultimately, to effectively deter conflict from extending into space we must credibly communicate that we are prepared to fight a conflict that extends into space,” Harrison said. “Today, we are not adequately prepared for such a conflict, and our lack of preparation undermines deterrence.”

Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper said the Defense Department and the Air Force are taking China’s space ambitious seriously and are investing in new technologies.

“This Commission is tasked to address whether we are in a strategic competition with China in space,” said Roper. “I hope you conclude ‘yes.’”

The latest Air Force space budget for fiscal year 2020 of nearly $14 billion is 17 percent larger than last year’s, Roper said. “But it isn’t just larger. It incorporates speedy acquisition authorities, faster contracting approaches, and strategic industry partnerships to compete against emerging space threats.”

The Air Force is working with allies to improve deterrence and send a message to China and others that space should remain a peaceful domain for exploration and economic development, said Roper. “In a war in space, everyone loses.”

One major concern for the United States is China’s massive efforts to integrate its commercial space industry with its defense industrial base, which is helping accelerate innovation in counterspace systems.

“U.S. space assets, including space command and control facilities, are or likely will be vulnerable to disruption by China,” said Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute. “Counterspace operations may target the communications, reconnaissance, and global positioning satellites upon which U.S. depends for force projection. Chinese space systems may have the ability to rendezvous or physically interfere with U.S. space assets.”

A more aggressive U.S. posture?

Space policy analyst and author Namrata Goswami argued that the United States should not sit back and wait for China to make its next move, which is to dominate cislunar space, the area between the Earth and the moon.

China’s vision of space industrialization includes mining and space based solar power, whereas the United States has no definitive strategy to establish a presence on the moon or cislunar space, Goswami told the commission. “China intends to be the number-one space power by 2045,” she said. This goal includes developing nuclear-propelled spacecraft by 2040, she said. “The idea is to build a transport hub that orbits Earth; nuclear shuttles will be docked permanently there, and reusable spacecrafts would be utilized to transport humans and cargo to and from the nuclear shuttles,” said Goswami. “To call this a space exploration program is misleading; this is a program for industrial and economic dominance of the cislunar system.”

Following the landing of a lunar exploration rover on the far side of the moon on January 3, China is planning follow-on missions to bring lunar samples back to Earth and test technologies like 3D printing to lay the groundwork for the construction of a research station, she said. The moon has resources like iron-ore and water that can could be used for space-based manufacturing, Goswami said, insisting that this would eventually help China move closer to its goal of strategic dominance in cislunar space.

Some Trump administration officials, including Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin, have suggested that the United States needs to step up its game in space and establish a presence in cislunar orbits.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, former commander of U.S. Strategic Command, is aligned with Griffin on that issue. “When I was at STRATCOM and Griffin was at NASA, him and I preached to the wind” about the strategic importance of cislunar space, Cartwright said at the hearing.

The moon’s orbit is the proverbial high ground from which to observe all orbits, he said. “That high ground provides an advantage …. A unique vantage point from which to conduct remote sensing and other operations associated with Earth’s orbital fields,” Cartwright said. “The national security implications of lunar space will continue to grow in importance as our space exploration and commercial interests grow.”

Some experts, however, caution that setting sights on cislunar space might be worthwhile for scientific exploration but it would be premature to talk about it as a national security concern. It’s worth noting that the moon is 10 times further away from Earth than geostationary orbit, Harrison told SpaceNews. “What of military significance are you going to do there?” he asked. “If you fire a projectile from a station there, it would take three days to reach the Earth.”

China’s moon ambition so far appear to be about exploration, not military bases, Harrison said. As far as cislunar space being a “high ground,” that is questionable at best, he said. “The resolution of imagery you could take from the moon would be far worse than what you could get from sensors in Earth’s orbit. Further, the moon is orbiting the Earth, and the Earth is spinning on its axis. So your vantage point is constantly moving.”

Until there is more certainty about the economic opportunities in cislunar space, it’s premature to think about it as a military battleground, said Harrison. “We need to explore first and figure out what the potential is, and then we figure out what we have to secure.”

The United States also should take the lead in diplomatic efforts to ensure conflicts do not extend into space, Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, told the commission.

“The United States and China are engaged in a long-term strategic competition across diplomatic, information, military, and economic dimensions,” Weeden said. “Far too much of the domestic U.S. debate has focused on the military aspects of the competition with China and correspondingly there has been far too little consideration of the diplomatic aspects. This part of the competition matters greatly,” he said. “The existing space governance framework is not sufficient to deal with the democratization of space capabilities and technologies, the burgeoning commercial space sector, and the proliferation of military space and counterspace capabilities.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...