Gen. John Hyten, the head of US Air Force Space Command, told an audience at a Dec. 5 Air Force Association event that Chinese officials, for the first time, have asked that the US share space situational awareness information directly through a military-to-military connection.
Space Command typically shares that information with industry and other nations through conjunction summary messages (CSM), essentially small reports that tell satellite operators the Air Force predicts their system will be traveling dangerously close to another in-orbit object. The goal is to give those operators enough time to move their systems out of the way, either from another satellite or from space debris.
The Air Force can share this information directly with the vast majority of the world's governments and industry operators, with two notable exceptions: Russia and China. In both cases, those CSMs have to be transferred from Space Command to the US State Department, then sent over to state's equivalent and then down to the Chinese or Russian operators.
"It takes a long time to get through that process, sometimes too long," Hyten noted. "It's a big deal because they asked for that kind of information direct, and I think that's a good thing."
Hyten stressed that from an operational standpoint, the only thing changing is the final address of where the CSMs go, and how long that takes. The data shared with China remains the same.
But he expressed optimism this could be a step forward for China in joining international norms for space, noting, "we want space to be a safe place to operate, and that means every nation needs to be involved in that."
"That's tremendous," Hyten said of China's request. "That's awesome. Because that is the kind of international partnership we need to think about."
A State Department official directed a request for comment back to the Pentagon. The longer CSM process remains with Russia.
Brian Weeden, technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, compared the situation with China to that with Russian space launch, where US intelligence experts understand how Russian systems are put into orbit and operate.
"Like the US, Russia has settled into some pretty defined patterns and operational techniques," he said. "We didn't have that same familiarity with China, and anytime there's unfamiliarity, there is a risk of both misperceptions and mistakes."
Weeden said lines of communication were also open between the Russians and US during the Cold War, which may not be there on space issues between the US and China. Opening those lines is the biggest result of this new policy shift, he said.
"China is on a path to develop full spectrum space capabilities, and there are those in the US that see that as not only competition, but potentially adversarial," he added. "Lines of communication and some degree of familiarity can help incidents from escalating out of control."
Marco Caceres, a space analyst with the Teal Group, called the CSM change a "win-win" for both sides.
"Every time you cooperate, every time you fulfill or submit a request, that is how you build relationships," Caceres said. "Particularly if the US is coming to see China as their next military rival in space, and they are doing an awful lot and spending a lot more money on both military and non-military space, potentially [this new agreement] could be significant because it strengthens the relationship."
The New Space Rival
The view in the US is turning more toward China becoming the newest, and perhaps most serious, threat to US dominance in space.
Talk to experts inside and outside the Pentagon about China's space program, and the reaction tends to be a mixture of concern and grudging respect for how quickly China has built up its program.
Caceres noted that China has launched almost as many satellites this year as Russia and the US, of which around half are military.
Concern is also growing that China may not be playing by the same rules as the rest of the space community, one based in part on a successful January 2007 Chinese anti-satellite weapons test that created significant, long-lasting space debris. Other counterspace technologies, including two weapon tests in 2013, are also causing concern.
As a result, Weeden said, some circles view China as the "bogeyman" in space.
"China's military is certainly developing counterspace capabilities, so I would say the concern on the US side is not entirely unfounded," he said. At the same time, "there are a lot of questions about intent. The US does a lot of things that it considers to be defensive and deterrent in nature that other countries see as aggressive and offensive. It's different perspectives."
Regardless, the US is taking actions that can be directly traced back to China's growing influence, and aggression, in space.
In July, the Air Force launched the first Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellite into space. Although billed as a space situational awareness asset, some have pointed out the maneuverability of the satellites give the US the ability to spy on, or perhaps interfere with, other assets in geosynchronous orbit.
Gen. William Shelton, who preceded Hyten as head of Space Command and oversaw the development and launch of GSSAP, made no bones about the need for a flexible system. "There are myriad counterspace threats that we're seeing on the near horizon…not the mid and far term, we're talking near horizon," he told reporters in July. "We as a nation have to adapt.
"So this new normal means you have to, just like we've adjusted aircraft as air defenses improved, we have to adjust our spacecraft constellation to survive in a very different environment," he added.
Amid the plan-for-the-worst, hope-for-the-best scenario the Air Force is embracing, agreements between the two nations, even on something small, are increasingly important.
"International partnerships are critical for our nation and the world," Hyten said. "The more we can partner internationally, the better we will be in terms of safety, security in the domain, the ability to handle threats in the domain. The more partnerships we have the better." ■
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.