Erik Seedhouse, Ph.D., is an astronaut instructor and associate professor of space operations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
The recent Chinese spy balloon scare has attracted the attention of a bipartisan coalition in Congress, which is concerned about just how robust China’s satellite and intelligence operations are.
Satellites impact all aspects of American day-to-day life whether it be transport, power, banking systems, communications, simply watching breaking news and, of course, security. These space-based capabilities also enable the U.S. to project power, collect intelligence and ensure security. But, with the emergence of China as a space power, the counterspace and warfighting capabilities of the U.S. will be increasingly challenged. This challenge to U.S. space superiority is already evident as China continues to aggressively seek ways to expand its space systems in what is clearly an assertive and determined effort to not only undermine U.S. global leadership in space but also to lay the groundwork for a future conflict. It is a challenge that seeks to outmaneuver the U.S. defense apparatus not only by continuing to develop, test and proliferate sophisticated space assets but also by pursuing the non-weaponization of existing space agreements.
Evidence of the threat from China achieving control of low Earth orbit (LEO) is evident in two arenas, one of which is the People’s Republic of China’s space-based capabilities.
China exhibits mastery in electronic warfare designed to deny U.S. space-based communications, GPS navigation and precision-guided munitions deployment. Recent Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reports indicate China is developing jammers designed to target U.S. military reconnaissance platforms and interfere with communications. Another capability of concern is China’s offensive cyberspace capabilities. In an interview with The Eurasian Times in April 2022, the U.S. Space Force’s (USSF) Gen. David Thompson declared China was undertaking daily radio frequency jamming and digital attacks against American satellites. Not only that, but China has developed a new cyber defense infrastructure that can detect flaws in satellites thereby making it easier to hack and disrupt them. With this competency, China could easily deploy cyberattacks to degrade U.S. military operations in the early phase of a conflict by limiting mobilization and constraining surveillance and reconnaissance.
In addition to its jamming and hacking activities, China also pursues the development of directed energy weapons (DEW) designed to damage and destroy satellites and satellite sensors, and anti-satellite (ASAT) missile systems intended for deployment against American LEO and geosynchronous orbit (GEO) satellites.
There are concerns that China may also have ties to U.S. space contractors — Elon Musk’s SpaceX in particular — which could only strengthen its satellite capabilities. Per reporting from Business Insider, some lawmakers are concerned “China could gain access to classified information through [SpaceX’s] foreign suppliers, which may have ties to Beijing.” This reality could present the gravest threat of all to the U.S. space program as it could disrupt the success and general flow of critical space missions in one fell swoop.
Given China’s behavior in the space warfare arena is designed to put America’s national security operations at risk, it isn’t surprising there has been a political call to action to reduce this risk as evidenced by Sen. Marco Rubio’s recent proposed legislation, the Transaction and Sourcing Knowledge (TASK) Act (S.4095). Rubio, the vice chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, introduced the bill to the Senate in April 2022. If adopted, the bill will require publicly traded companies not only to report any supply chain links to China but also any transactions that might pose a security risk to the U.S. In December 2021, Sen. Rubio also proposed the Space Protection of American Command and Enterprise (SPACE) Act “to address the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ongoing effort to replace the United States as the global leader of space industry.”
But the TASK Act and SPACE Act are just two countermeasures. Will that be enough to stop China developing its military advantage in space? Probably not. This is why — given China’s track record of preparing for future conflict with the U.S. — America must continue to develop the USSF to defend America’s interests in space. How? By training our warfighters to outmaneuver the Chinese, enhancing interoperability, boosting digital superiority, and investing in game-changing technology.
The Defense Intelligence Agency summed it up best: “Space has already become a new domain of modern military struggle; it is a critical factor for deciding military transformation; and it has an extremely important influence on the evolution of future form-states, modes, and rules of war.” As such, “following with interest the military struggle circumstance of space and strengthening the study of the space military struggle problem is a very important topic we are currently facing.”
DIA is correct, and developing the USSF represents the only meaningful and permanent way that the U.S. can counter the growing China space threat.