Analysts: U.S. Must Ramp Up Space Program

By Allyson Versprille
The United States needs to put more emphasis on advancing space-based capabilities if it hopes to maintain its strategic advantage over China, analysts said.

“In parallel with its space program, China continues to develop a variety of capabilities designed to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during a crisis or conflict,” said the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015.”

The report listed several incidents where China demonstrated these types of capabilities including: a 2007 anti-satellite missile test that resulted in the deliberate destruction of a defunct weather satellite and generated hundreds of pieces of debris; a 2013 launch that propelled an object moving on a trajectory toward geosynchronous orbit where many nations maintain communications and remote-sensing satellites; and an assumed 2014 follow-up test to the 2007 launch, though no satellites were destroyed. 

“Many officials … believe that they are developing a capability to reach even higher orbits, which would allow them to target nearly all of our space assets,” said Henry Obering III, executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton and former director of the Missile Defense Agency. “Even though we rely heavily on space-based capabilities, we historically have chosen not to view space in the same way that we do air, land and sea when it comes to protecting our critical lines of communication.”

Failure to understand that future battles are going to be fought in space could hurt the United States in the long run, he said, and tomorrow’s threats will be more severe than today’s as China specifically targets U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and power projection capabilities.

“The People’s Republic of China … constitutes a fundamentally different approach and will in fact, in the event of a crisis or a conflict, pose a very, very strong challenge” to the U.S. position in space, said Dean Cheng, senior research fellow for the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Throughout the last 40 years, especially in the 25-year period following the Cold War, no adversaries had the capacity to challenge the United States’ “ability to employ space for information collection, information transmission [and] information exploitation,” Cheng said. This reality is starting to deteriorate as China advances its space program, he noted.

Cheng said language regarding the importance of demonstrating the ability to kill satellites in Chinese military textbooks published in 2004 and 2005 seems to suggest that the 2007 test was a deliberate act of space deterrence. It demonstrated to the world that China has such a capability and is not afraid to use it, he said.

There are other signs that the country’s military believes preparing for a future conflict in space is imperative, Cheng said.

“The Chinese have talked about deploying up to 120 new satellites by 2020,” he said. “This includes a significant array of remote sensing systems, many of which are going to be small satellites, as well as a fully fleshed out position, navigation and timing constellation — the BeiDou system.” The new BeiDou system is an advanced version of navigation technology China employed in 2000, he said. BeiDou-2, sometimes referred to as COMPASS, passively picks up signals from about 30 mid-Earth orbiting satellites to pinpoint a location, he explained.

Cheng said there is also speculation that China is interested in deploying missile early warning satellites as well as a spacecraft known as Shenlong, which is similar to the U.S. X-37B, a reusable unmanned space plane capable of reentering Earth’s atmosphere after a launch.

Topics: Space

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