China, Russia to US: This Space Ain't Big Enough for the Three of Us

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The U.S. Space Force is undergoing a major revamp in response to growing threats from China and Russia, aiming to face adversaries in the space domain.

  • The Space Force is focusing on resilience in space programs to ensure U.S. access to space and strengthen capabilities to compete with other space powers.
  • The Space Force is considering a range of measures to protect U.S. satellites from non-kinetic attacks.

The U.S. military budget for the 2024 fiscal year (FY) has placed a significant emphasis on resilience in space programs with the objective of guaranteeing U.S. access to the space domain and strengthening capabilities to compete with other space powers, China and Russia.

China has rapidly modernized its space infrastructure and made significant investments in on-orbit capabilities. The U.S. military has become increasingly wary of China’s activities. The new chief of space operations General Chance Saltzman portrayed China as the most immediate threat to U.S. space operations in a testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year. “China, our pacing challenge, is the most immediate threat in, to, and from space for which the Space Force must maintain technological advantage.”  

He then went on to acknowledge that Russia also remains an acute threat as it is “developing asymmetric counter-space systems meant to neutralize American satellites.”

To address these challenges, the Space Force has introduced a strategy called “competitive endurance,” which aims to deter and combat adversaries. This strategy consists of three tenets: avoiding operational surprises, denying first-mover advantage, and conducting responsible counter-space campaigns that minimize debris in orbit.

Avoiding surprises in space requires continuous awareness of adversaries’ activities, which necessitates improved space domain awareness. The U.S. wants to prevent a potential attack in space like the Pearl Harbor surprise attack.

The Space Force is also focusing on denying adversaries the advantage of being the first to act in space. Resilient architectures play a crucial role in achieving this objective, as they can deter adversaries by making it impractical or self-defeating to attack U.S. interests in space.

As for responsible counter-space campaigns, they are essential to minimizing debris in orbit while still effectively responding to threats against American assets. The Space Force aims to conduct operations in a responsible manner and avoid polluting the space domain. The development of technologies for attacking adversaries’ satellites without creating significant debris is a topic of ongoing discussion within the Space Force.

However, the U.S. military is vulnerable to non-kinetic attacks in the “gray zone” of conflict. Cyber and electronic jamming attacks can severely disrupt satellite operations and communication systems.

Todd Harrison, aerospace industry analyst and managing director of Metrea Strategic Insights told SpaceNews that “it’s probably going to be in the ground segment that you’ve got to be the most worried about, but it could be on the space side as well as there are now lasers that can blind sensors.”

As a result, the Space Force is considering a range of measures, including deceptive satellite payloads, nuclear hardening, and anti-jam systems. The goal is to confuse adversaries, complicate their ability to target U.S. satellites, and ensure the resilience of U.S. space architecture.

The Space Force is also working with the private sector to secure access to commercial space services during national security emergencies. Under the Commercial Augmentation Space Reserves initiative, agreements with companies are being explored to prioritize services like satellite communication and remote sensing for U.S. government use.

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