WASHINGTON — In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Stephen Whiting, commander of U.S. Space Command, warned that the U.S. faces a “window of vulnerability” over the next few years to defend critical space assets from potential aggression. 

At a Feb. 29 hearing alongside Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Whiting singled out China and Russia as the leading threats the U.S. space architecture faces in the near future due to their ongoing development of anti-satellite weapons. 

U.S. Space Command, established in 2019 in Colorado Springs, is the Defense Department’s combatant command responsible for space operations. It is tasked with monitoring space activity and threats, supporting U.S. and allied military units with space capabilities like communications and surveillance, and responding to crises involving the space domain. 

“The PRC’s and Russia’s actions have transformed space into a contested warfighting domain,” Whiting told lawmakers. 

China’s eyes in the sky

A key concern is Beijing’s growing number of surveillance satellites. As of January 2024, the PRC has deployed a fleet of 359 intelligence satellites, Whiting said, “more than tripling its on-orbit collection presence since 2018.”

China has “dramatically increased their ability to monitor, track and target U.S. and allied forces both terrestrially and on orbit,” Whiting added. “Russia also continues to develop, test and demonstrate their counter-space capabilities, despite not having achieved their war aims from their invasion of Ukraine.”

Whiting noted that the ongoing ground war in Ukraine has revealed military reliance on space and satellite- enabled services like communications and navigation. “Russia’s war in Ukraine has established space as an indelible enabler of terrestrial warfare,” he said. 

But the biggest long-term priority for the Pentagon is to stay ahead of China, Whiting insisted. “The PRC is moving breathtakingly fast in space. America must rapidly increase the timeliness, quality and quantity of our critical national space and missile defense systems to match China’s speed and maintain our advantage.”

Space Command’s wish list

While noting that Space Command last year reached “full operational capability,” Whiting cautioned that does not equate to superior space defense capabilities. Reaching FOC means the command has structure and processes in place to operate, but it does not mean it has sufficient capability across the board to match the pace at which potential adversaries are advancing their space weapons programs.

Whiting said U.S. Space Command has identified a list of requirements that need to be funded and delivered in order to build a resilient satellite architecture, more advanced spaced-based sensors, modern electronic warfare systems and cyber defenses of space networks. He said the target date for the delivery of these new capabilities is 2027.

“Absent commitment to long-term investment in these integrated requirements, we risk ceding advantage to our principal strategic competitors in the space domain,” he said. “Our forces today are optimized for a benign space environment.”

Until those investments have been made and programs brought to fruition, Whiting added, there is a “window of vulnerability.”

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...