WASHINGTON — If the Chinese government made a move to buy the assets of the bankrupt space internet company OneWeb, could the U.S. Space Force do anything to stop it?
That question was posed to Lt. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of the U.S. Space Force, during an online interview May 12 with retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Thompson did not comment on any specific actions that DoD might take regarding OneWeb. The company’s assets are up for grabs after it filed for bankruptcy on March 27, becoming a poster child for the space industry’s COVID-19 financial setbacks.
He said DoD is working with the White House and plans to work with Congress “not just focused on OneWeb but on all of the commercial space companies that face bankruptcy and face those concerns. We want to see what we can do in terms of securing the capabilities we need for national security, number one, and ensuring that our adversaries don’t have the opportunity to acquire those capabilities.”
Deptula pointed out that the U.S. military was counting on OneWeb to provide satellite-based broadband communications in the Arctic, an area of the world where China plans to grow its influence. Before going out of business, OneWeb launched 74 high-speed broadband satellites into orbit.
As venture capital has retreated from the space sector during the pandemic, the Pentagon has raised concerns that China could move in to acquire distressed companies that have technologies relevant to national security. The Pentagon has not explained how it could stop Chinese acquisitions but officials have indicated that they are paying close attention to the space sector partly for that reason.
Thompson mentioned the work of the Space Acquisition Council — a new organization created by Congress that includes the senior leadership of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Air Force and Space Force, and the intelligence community. The council in recent weeks has held emergency meetings to discuss options to help the commercial space industry and protect national security capabilities.
The council “recognized that what they really needed to do quickly was consider the threat that this virus posed to commercial space, to smaller space companies in the commercial and national security sectors and what they might do about it,” said Thompson.
He said one of the topics that will be discussed with Congress is what investments could be made quickly to “provide capabilities we know we need, in areas we need to be more aggressive that are also going to help the commercial and national security space sector.”
According to the British newspaper The Telegraph, two firms with links to the Chinese government have submitted proposals to buy some of OneWeb’s assets. The paper also reported that OneWeb has approached DoD about a possible support package to help ward off the Chinese.