WASHINGTON — China has made no secret of its ambitions to surpass the United States as an economic and military power. Although it still has a lot of catching up to do, China is tenaciously developing space technologies that will threaten U.S. satellites, and the United States should take this challenge seriously, said Sen. David Perdue, a Republican from Georgia and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“I have been a China watcher for much of my career,” said Perdue, a longtime business executive who lived and worked in Asia for many years.

“China for 30 years has viewed space as a military effort. We need to recognize that,” he told reporters Tuesday at a breakfast meeting.

When China shot down one of its own satellites in 2007, that action was seen as a “Sputnik moment” and a wake-up call that a new space race had  begun. Perdue believes the United States has since underestimated the challenge. China has not struck any more satellites, but has “spent a lot of time and money developing other capabilities to attack GPS satellites, jam them or take them off orbit.”

In parallel to its massive investments in technology, China has waged a public relations campaign to paint the United States as the “aggressor” in Southeast Asia, Perdue said. Traditional U.S. allies in the region now believe that China’s pursuit of military and space capabilities is justified for national defense reasons. The Trump administration chose to engage China in its quest for a deal to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. But the United States still lacks a broad strategy to address the rise of China “particularly as it relates to how we invest in our military and deal with foreign policy.”

China decades ago foresaw that space was going to be a battleground, Perdue noted. “What China has done is give us another Sputnik moment and we just missed it.”

Perdue pointed out Congress has added $160 billion to the Pentagon’s budget over the next two years to beef up military readiness and modernization. And space programs will benefit from that too, he said. “For 20 years we have been burning out our military fighting terrorists” and this has left the Pentagon under-invested in many important technologies, including space, hypersonic weapons and surveillance capabilities.

China and Russia are developing counter-air radars and missiles to thwart U.S. fighters and bombers. That is a valid reason for the Pentagon to move quickly to find a less vulnerable alternative to the JSTARS radar surveillance plane, said Perdue. Although the aircraft is based in Perdue’s district at Robins Air Force Base, he supports the idea of replacing them with a more advanced battle management command-and-control system.

Both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 put restrictions on the Air Force’s ability to retire JSTARS and direct the service to continue funding the procurement of a more modern aircraft that Air Force leaders believe will be just as vulnerable to enemy air defenses.

“I do agree that wasting money trying to recap this plane that is not going to have access to denied airspace makes no sense,” said Perdue. But he has yet to be convinced the Pentagon has a viable alternative. “We’ll see,” he said. “I’m very concerned about a capability gap.”

Whatever language ends up in the NDAA is not the final word, he said. “What matters is what the appropriators do.”

Perdue also suggested the Pentagon should continue to invest in ballistic and cruise missile defenses regardless of the outcome of the Tuesday agreement with North Korea.

“I don’t see it having a short-term impact” on the Missile Defense Agency’s budget, he said. “The world is extremely dangerous right now. There are still a lot of nukes pointed at a lot of places on Earth.”

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...