Admittedly, neither one of us appreciated how fundamental space is to how we live and work until we served on the House Intelligence Committee.
We quickly learned that America no longer owns space. We operate there along with every other space-capable nation, including adversaries like China and Russia. We learned that they are doing everything in their power to interfere with our operations. We learned that future wars will take place in space.
And we quickly realized the grim truth that we aren’t ready.
China and Russia, in particular, are aggressively pursuing space-based capabilities. China successfully destroyed an old weather satellite in a test in 2007, creating a debris field of more than 3,000 pieces, which could have damaged countless other satellites in orbit. They’ve stayed at it, continuing to work on anti-satellite weapons including lasers, signal jammers, and other ways of blinding our assets in space. In some areas, they are beating us.
Moscow too, continues to develop counterspace capabilities. Last November, Norway reported that Russia was blocking GPS signals during a local exercise. If Russia can do that on a tactical level, you better believe they can do it on a strategic level.
A Defense Intelligence Agency report called “2019 Challenges to Security in Space” captures the threat both Beijing and Moscow represent. Russia and China are developing advanced technology like lasers, hacking tools and missiles to counter American strength in space, it says. These capabilities can “achieve a range of reversible to nonreversible” effects, according to the report.
For us in the United States, getting space right is not just a national security question, but an economic question as well. We are on the cusp of a new revolution in terms of space-based and space-enabled capabilities. From remote sensing and imagery, to communications and potentially high-speed internet beamed from orbit, space will become even more central to our lives. We simply cannot afford to, and must not, sit idly by.
The United States government needs a focused, all-hands-on-deck strategy for space. If nothing else, the ongoing debate over the proposed Space Force has brought to light the importance of space to our national and economic security, but we can’t let the momentum wane when, and if, legislation implementing its creation is finally passed.
This means members of both parties need to first realize how important space truly is. They must take advantage of the expertise afforded to them from the military and the Intelligence Community. Space is complicated and physics is difficult, but understanding what we do in orbit, and why, is critical to shaping the right national security policies.
Congress also needs to help the Department of Defense move faster in space. The way we buy services and capabilities for space is not keeping up with the threats posed by China and Russia. This means taking advantage, where appropriate, of emerging technologies from the commercial sector and thus be willing to accept greater risk within the department. Things aren’t always going to work, but even failures we can learn from are smart investments.
The 116th Congress faces a unique opportunity to help shape and drive the future of our national security space architecture. If we get it right, we can ensure that our troops have the tools they need, and ensure that our economy is secure and can grow. If Congress doesn’t get it right, Beijing and Moscow will happily take the reins in space.
The next war won’t take place on the ground or the skies alone, but will take place in space, too. Indeed, the reality is that there’s a conflict already underway (and has been for some time) in space as the United States and our adversaries race to develop technology.
You may not think that it relates to you, or you may think that it is the stuff of science fiction, but the reality is that space affects every part of your life.
That little blue dot on your iPhone as you sit in traffic? That’s GPS powered by a satellite in space. Did you check the weather before you left home? That’s from a remote sensing satellite. If you’ve ever made an international phone call or withdrawn from an ATM, thank a satellite.
Satellites are used to track traffic in and out of our ports and the effects of natural disasters. Satellites can follow the movements of extremist groups and have the capacity to monitor North Korean nuclear activity.
They are our eyes and ears in the sky and, yet, have been taken for granted. For decades the United States held uncontested dominance in space. We took the high ground as a given. In our military planning, space was simply a tool to aid operations on the ground. Sure, during the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union jockeyed for space leadership, but our dominance in space was never truly in question. Until it was.
Mike Rogers is a former congressman from Michigan. He served as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from 2011 to 2015. He is the David Abshire Chair at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) is a defense appropriator and past ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.