WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force chief of space operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman in congressional testimony March 14 singled out China as the “most immediate threat” as it continues to weaponize its space technology.
Among the most concerning of China’s technologies, he said, are ground-based lasers designed to disrupt and degrade satellite sensors, electronic warfare jammers targeting GPS and communications satellites, and anti-satellite missiles.
China is “likely pursuing anti-satellite systems able to destroy satellites in geosynchronous orbit,” Saltzman said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee.
“They are testing on-orbit satellite systems which could be weaponized as they have already shown the capability to physically control and move other satellites.”
Strategic forces subcommittee member Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) during a hearing pressed Saltzman to elaborate on what might unfold in space in a conflict with a rival power.
The Chinese and the Russians over many years have watched how dependent the U.S. military has become on satellites for every aspect of operations, Saltzman said. “So if they can blind us, if they can interfere with those capabilities, or God forbid, destroy them completely. they know that will diminish our advantages.”
“I can see interfering, I can see blinding, I can see some of those gray area kinds of attacks on our capabilities to try and put us behind the eight ball,” he added.
Can the Space Force defend?
Several members of the subcommittee, which oversees military space funding, sought insight from Saltzman on whether the Biden administration’s 2024 budget request funds needed systems to counter China.
Can the Space Force defend against these anti-satellite threats? asked Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
Saltzman laid out the Space Force’s plan to transition from its current dependence on geostationary satellites to proliferated networks of smaller satellites in low and medium Earth orbits.
China has “grappling satellites” that could pull U.S. spacecraft out of orbit, he said. That’s a problem for the U.S. that relies on “less than maneuverable older legacy satellites.” A proliferated constellation makes it a “much tougher proposition for them to execute against.”
A topic of debate with regard to space and national security is the blurring line between defensive and offensive weapons, an issue complicated by the fact that many space technologies have dual commercial and military applications.
“We want to make sure that you’re getting the right policies that don’t restrict your offensive abilities. Do you feel like you have the right policies in place to both protect and attack if necessary?” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) asked Saltzman.
Saltzman said he had no complaints. “I can assure you there are no policies that prevent us from exploring a full spectrum of operations,” he added. “It’s just about doing the work, establishing what I would call an understanding of what the capabilities can and can’t do. And then we test and we learn from our experiences.”
The chairman of the subcommittee Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) wondered if the U.S. is moving fast enough to counter Russia’s and China’s anti-satellite technology.
“As fast as we can go,” said Saltzman.
He compared it to the challenge of converting the merchant marine fleet into the U.S. Navy, he added. “We’ve got a little bit of ways to go before we can take our legacy platforms that we’ve got so much utility out of and so much capability from, and convert them to providing the same or better capabilities in a contested domain,” he said. “And we’ll have to make that transition as rapidly as possible.”
More training needed
Saltzman said the Space Force’s 2024 budget proposal includes about $340 million for an “operational testing and training infrastructure” that is needed to prepare service members for the future battlefield.
“I think that’s sufficient for this year because we’ve got a lot of study to do to make sure we’re building the right kind of ranges, the right kind of simulators, and we’re learning as we go,” said Saltzman.
Another priority is improving U.S. intelligence on space threats in order to avoid surprises, he said. “That’s the space domain awareness tenet, and we are investing heavily in new sensors. We’re investing in capabilities with our allies and partners.”
The key is not just to collect data but to “rapidly turn it into operational decisions,” he said. “I think we have good software investments.”
In response to senators’ questions on the Chinese spy balloon, Saltzman made it clear that is not a primary focus of the Space Force.
The area where high-altitude balloons fly is often referred to as “near space,” said Saltzman. “But I like to call it ‘far air.’”
International norms for space
King asked Satzman if there’s any realistic chance that the Chinese and the Russians will come to the table with regard to norms for space.
“Unfortunately the norms that they talk about are not ones that we would support,” said Saltzman. “This is a battle of narratives over international norms.
Tuberville raised the space industry’s concerns about the growing space debris problem. He said companies come by his office regularly to pitch debris-removal solutions they think the U.S. government should buy.
Saltzman said the Space Force is not ready to commit to any one specific debris-cleanup approach and is primarily focused on preventing the creation of more debris.
“I haven’t seen demonstrated capabilities,” he said. “It’s one thing to have a pitch that says we can do something that’s another to have a demonstrated capability,”
Debris removal today “isn’t my number one challenge, but if somebody feels like they can demonstrate a capability, cleaning up debris is an important concept.”
Saltzman in a prepared statement said the Space Force currently tracks approximately 47,900 objects in space, a 16% growth in objects from 2021 to 2022.
Of those objects, 7,100 are active payloads, a 37% increase from 2021 to 2022, he said. “Expended rocket bodies, inactive satellites and debris further congest the environment.”