Opinion: Columnists

What will US do to counter China's space offensive?

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Opinion,Columnists,Jed Babbin,China,Defense Spending,Space

Visiting Chinese air force headquarters on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly told officers "… to speed up air and space integration and sharpen their offensive and defensive capabilities." He urged them to develop an “integrated air and space defense capability” in response to what he called an increasing military use of space by America and other nations.

Xi's statement was historic. Since the Soviet Union launched the first earth satellite in 1957, the major powers have been wrestling with the question of whether space should be used for military purposes.

During the Cold War, there were several treaties and agreements on the peaceful use of space. The so-called “Outer Space Treaty” of 1967 provided that nations would not place weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, in Earth orbit, on the moon or elsewhere in outer space. China signed that treaty but wasn't party to a number of other agreements such as the U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, which provided that neither party would interfere with the other's means of verification of compliance. For the U.S., that method was primarily through satellite reconnaissance.

Congress, listening to those who thought anti-satellite weapons would provoke the Soviets, banned testing of them from 1981-1985 and again from 1991-1995. Now China has decided that space should be a primary focus of its offensive and defensive military capabilities and is moving quickly to effectuate that decision.

To answer China’s stated intention and developing capabilities, America should be developing an integrated land, sea, air and space strategy and a military operational doctrine to effectuate it. The demand for it is entirely clear given the fact that our armed forces are almost entirely dependent on satellites for navigation, reconnaissance, communications and espionage.

There are about 1,100 satellites in orbit around the Earth, which probably doesn’t include some classified satellites that are operated by the U.S. and other nations. About 50 percent of the 1,100 were launched by the United States. Some of our newer satellites are resistant to cyber attack but not completely defended from them because nothing can be. And all have an enormous problem. They are all 100 percent vulnerable to kinetic weapons that can intercept them in orbit and to directed-energy weapons such as high-powered lasers.

The danger, simply stated, is that our military can be crippled by several kinds of attacks on satellite systems such as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites that provide jam-proof communications. The military is so concerned about anti-satellite weapons – especially including inexpensive micro-satellites that can be launched in bunches — that two new (and recently disclosed) satellites are being launched this year to provide situational awareness and prevent a gap in our surveillance capabilities.

China, in 2007 and again in 2013, has successfully tested anti-satellite weapons. What was implied by those tests is now made certain by Xi’s words. China is making preparations to take advantage of what is one of America’s greatest vulnerabilities.

The underlying problem is not just that we must protect our satellites and grow our other space-oriented capabilities. It is that there is a huge asymmetry in the cost of offense and the cost of defense, just as there is in the cyber world and too many other places in the modern defense environment.

It’s not unusual for a reconnaissance satellite to cost us $1 billion and another $250 million to launch. Now the cost of building and launching satellites that can protect themselves or other satellites from such attacks will be even greater. The cost of a kinetic weapon to kill such a satellite is trivial in comparison.

The House Armed Services Committee should ask Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to testify on what the Pentagon is planning to do to counter China's announced plan. It's highly unlikely he'll have a good answer.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration and is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research.
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