NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall in a keynote speech Sept. 20 warned that China’s rapid advances in nuclear and conventional weapons will challenge the United States both in the air and space domains.

“While America is still the dominant military power on the planet today, we are being more effectively challenged militarily than at any other time in our history,” he said at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference. 

“We are in a national, strategic, long-term competition with a strategic adversary,” Kendall said.

China’s advances in military and space technologies and the implications for U.S. national security was the dominant theme in Kendall’s address to a large audience of active-duty service members, government civilians and defense contractors. 

He said China’s military modernization is focused on long-range precision-guided munitions, hypersonic missiles, space and cyber weapons.

“I have had the opportunity to catch up on the intelligence about China’s modernization programs. If anything, China has accelerated its pace of modernization,” Kendall said.

There is “strong evidence” that China is pursuing silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellite-guided munitions to strike targets on Earth and in space, he said. Some of that intelligence was revealed through open sources but Kendall also has received classified briefings. 

During a briefing with reporters on Monday, Kendall described these revelations as “the most disturbing developments in nuclear proliferation I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

With regard to space weapons, he suggested China could pursue a global strike capability using space to deliver weapons, a concept modeled after the Soviet-era “fractional orbital bombardment system” conceived for the Cold War. The Soviets envisioned launching nuclear warheads into low Earth orbit and then directing them back down to targets on the ground. 

Kendall said he had no specific knowledge that the Chinese are pursuing this but said “it could be possible” and suggested this idea would be attractive to the Chinese because the fractional orbital system is hard to detect by early-warning satellites. 

He noted that he came of age in the Cold War and that history can repeat itself.

To stay ahead of China, the United States is going to have to “respond with a sense of urgency, but we also have to take the time necessary to make smart choices about our future and our investments,” he said. 

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...