A few weeks ago, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines released the 2021 edition of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s “Annual Threat Assessment” — a document that is considered to be one of the most authoritative assessments of the global security environment. According to the report, Russian and Chinese space capabilities stand as top dangers facing the United States and its allies. Given this reality, it is critical to set U.S. Space Command and the Space Force up for success to defend our space architecture. This will be a team effort.
For decades, Russia has stood as a top space competitor — with the legendary “space race” of the 1950s and 1960s yielding one of the most technologically innovative periods in world history. Tensions still exist today as Russia continues to expand its arsenal of counter-space capabilities by testing and fielding new ground-launched, anti-satellite missiles as well as launching on-orbit satellite kill vehicles.
More concerning are its increasingly provocative actions in space over the last decade, with the highly unusual maneuvering of Russian satellites in close proximity to both U.S. and other nations’ space assets — activity highly escalatory in nature.
Nor is Russia the only threat. China’s enormous push in recent years to match and overtake the U.S. in space should trouble all Americans. Space permeates nearly every facet of our daily lives, and we cannot afford to unilaterally cede this domain to an adversary with opposed interests and values.
Ever since China demonstrated over 14 years ago its ability to destroy a satellite in orbit from the ground, the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army have kicked efforts into overdrive to overtake the U.S. in space. Their intent is far from benign or peaceful. China has aggressively developed a broad roster of counter-space capabilities including ground-based, anti-satellite missiles as well as on-orbit, electronic-warfare and directed-energy weapons.
Make no mistake: There is no alternate peaceful application for these systems. They are entirely military offensive capabilities.
The PLA also centralized China’s strategic space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities into a single theater-level organization, demonstrating the seriousness with which China views space and its integral relationship with war fighting.
Both Russia and China outwardly express their desire for expanding the use of space for peaceful purposes such as exploration and commerce. But at the same time, both nations also published their own military strategy and doctrine emphasizing their intent to employ counter-space weapons that threaten U.S. and allied space assets. Both nations were “first movers” in this regard, and the United States is in a position of responding to ensure continued access to the space domain for peaceful and military purposes.
One of the most meaningful set of responses from the U.S. government was the reestablishment of U.S. Space Command and the creation of the U.S. Space Force, the first new American military service since 1947. While the space domain was historically viewed by America as a benign and peaceful environment, Russian and Chinese actions have proved otherwise. Standing up U.S. Space Command and the U.S. Space Force were not gimmicks or political stunts; they were necessary and crucial steps to ensure America preserves her space power advantage.
However, solutions are not created through press releases and organizational moves alone. These new entities must now receive the necessary resources and authorities to fulfill their intended purposes.
To help meet this objective, I am proud to now lead the newly established Spacepower Advantage Research Center within the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Foundational to the MI-SPARC undertaking is advancing the thought leadership and strong advocacy for the resources and authorities necessary to meet the next generation of space challenges. We need to ensure the men and women at U.S. Space Command and the U.S. Space Force are properly equipped to provide uniquely powerful and dominant space capabilities for our nation. This also means championing fully informed and cogent space policy options for our nation’s leaders.
This also encompasses educating the American public, Congress, the defense industry and the media on the increasing threats to America’s dominance in space, the implications of rapidly evolving technologies in the global space industry, and the clear articulation of emerging military space power requirements.
A few short years ago, the Department of Defense was not even permitted to use the terms “space” and “war fighting” in the same sentence. While the U.S. did not seek to make space a war-fighting domain, over those same years our adversaries greatly accelerated their development of capabilities aimed at diminishing the advantages the U.S. possesses in the space domain. Advancing the body of knowledge on these issues richly deserves rigorous analysis, vigorous debate and strong advocacy to ensure America preserves her space power advantage.
Matthew Donovan is the director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Spacepower Advantage Research Center. He previously served as the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, the acting secretary of the U.S. Air Force, and the undersecretary of the Air Force. He also served on the Senate Armed Services Committee as majority policy director and a professional staff member. He served more than 30 years as an active-duty airmen before retiring in 2008.