WASHINGTON — Pentagon leaders convened a key advisory group this week to discuss China and Russia’s advances in space and the U.S. military’s efforts to protect and retain access to its on-orbit assets.

Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said the classified Sept. 6 and 7 meetings, billed in an official notice as discussions of the adversary nations’ potential development of space weapons, were also focused on China’s increasing dependence on space for intelligence, data relay and communications.

Like the U.S., Kahl said during the Sept. 7 Defense News Conference in Arlington, Virginia, China is “doubling down” on the use of space for war.

“It’s difficult to treat China as the pacing threat and not have a conversation about space,” he said. “It’s one of the domains where competition is fierce and the stakes are the highest.”

The meeting follows China’s demonstration last year of a hypersonic vehicle and a fractional orbital bombardment system, a capability that can stay on orbit as long as a user determines and then de-orbit as part of its flight path. The technology, which the Soviet Union first demonstrated in 1969 followed by China in the 1970s, is difficult for early warning systems to track.

Although many of the details of China’s 2021 demonstration are unclear, Lt. Gen. Chance Saltzman, the Biden administration’s nominee to lead the Space Force, called the system last year “a very forward-edge technology.”

Kahl said the FOBS demonstration raised key strategic questions about whether U.S. early warning systems could be evaded by this type of technology.

“In our case, we don’t believe it does,” he said. “We believe that there is nothing that China has developed that undermines the bedrock of our nuclear deterrent, for example.”

Still, according to Kahl, the U.S. must continue to invest in its space-based missile warning and tracking systems. The Space Force expects to spend $24.5 billion over the next five years to improve those capabilities. Its fiscal 2023 budget included $3.4 billion to continue development of Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared satellites and ground systems and $1.2 billion for satellites to track hypersonic missiles, which can travel at speeds above Mach 5.

Kahl declined to offer details on how the fiscal 2024 budget would prioritize these systems, but he said concern about U.S. adversary advances in hypersonic and ballistic missile technology is driving the department’s investment strategy in this area.

“We need a missile warning, missile tracking and integrated air and missile defense that accounts for all of those [developments], which is why we’re making significant investments — not just in things like updating our interceptors for ballistic missiles or cruise missile defense, but also significant investments in space-based missile warning and tracking,” he said.

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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