In a report to the Congressional Defense Committees released Thursday, the Pentagon warned that while U.S. space technologies have historically been more advanced than those of its rivals, the gap is narrowing as “those potential adversaries are now actively developing ways to deny our use of space in a crisis.”
“China and Russia, our strategic competitors, are explicitly pursuing space warfighting capabilities to neutralize U.S. space capabilities during a time of conflict,” states the report, released the same day that U.S. vice-president Mike Pence announced that the U.S. would have a Space Force by 2020, pending Congressional approval.
Pence cited China and Russia as threats to U.S. space interests, stating that outer space may have been a peaceful and uncontested area in generations past, but is now “crowded and adversarial.”
The Pentagon report claims that both China and Russia are making gains in developing anti-satellite weapons designed to take down U.S. satellites in a potential war situation.
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Coats warned that Russia was developing aircraft-launched missiles and airborne laser weapons designed to destroy satellites in low-Earth orbit, while China was close to acquiring fully-functional, ground-launched anti-satellite missiles.
In 2007, China successfully used an anti-satellite ballistic missile to destroy one of its own orbiting satellites, in what was the first successful anti-satellite test by any country in over 20 years.
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China has been working on weaponized laser technologies since the early 1960s, according to a February 2017 report by Richard Fisher, senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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Some Chinese military experts believe the country could have a space-based laser battle platform in the coming decade, according to Fisher. The laser battle platform would weigh 5 tons, carry 2.5 tons of “chemical laser fuel” and be capable of firing a 1-megawatt laser for up to 100 seconds within a range of 5,000 km, Fisher said.
To tackle these threats, the Pentagon in its Thursday report said the Space Force will develop systems to combat those of its enemies, with a view to protecting “U.S. interests, assets and way of life.”
The U.S. military’s role in space has been under scrutiny because the country is increasingly reliant on orbiting satellites that are difficult to protect. Satellites provide communications, navigation, intelligence and other services vital to the military and the national economy.
Much of the military’s current space power is wielded by the Air Force Space Command, which has its headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The command has about 38,000 personnel and operates 185 military satellite systems, including the Global Positioning System and communications and weather satellites. It also oversees Air Force cyberwarfare.
Under the new plan, space elements that are now scattered across the department would be gathered under one command, which Pence said would better ensure integration across the military.
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The Russian Foreign Ministry dubbed the United States’ pursuit of space warfare technologies and “reckless,” warning in a statement that a space weapons race “can have no less detrimental impact than the nuclear arms race unleashed by Washington back in the middle of the last century, with the whole world still failing to cope with its consequences.”
Russia denied any interest in developing space weapons of its own, stating, “We give priority to the use and exploration of outer space for exclusively peaceful purposes.”
It pointed out the existence of a Russian-Chinese draft treaty on the prevention of use of weapons in outer space, a treaty that it said is “supported by sensible forces in all countries.”
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However, Coats’ 2017 report warned that even space technologies with purportedly peaceful applications, such as those developed for satellite inspection, repair and refueling, could be used to sabotage enemy spacecraft.
The U.S., Russia and China are all members of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which was set up in 1959.
— With files from the Associated Press