How Space Became the Next ‘Great Power’ Contest Between the U.S. and China


Beijing’s rush for antisatellite arms began 15 years ago. Now, it can threaten the orbital fleets that give the United States military its technological edge. Advanced weapons at China’s military bases can fire warheads that smash satellites and can shoot laser beams that have a potential to blind arrays of delicate sensors.

And China’s cyberattacks can, at least in theory, cut off the Pentagon from contact with fleets of satellites that track enemy movements, relay communications among troops and provide information for the precise targeting of smart weapons.

Among the most important national security issues now facing President Biden is how to contend with the threat that China poses to the American military in space and, by extension, terrestrial forces that rely on the overhead platforms.

The Biden administration has yet to indicate what it plans to do with President Donald J. Trump’s legacy in this area: the Space Force, a new branch of the military that has been criticized as an expensive and ill-advised escalation that could lead to a dangerous new arms race.

Mr. Trump presented the initiative as his own, and it now suffers from an association with him and remains the brunt of jokes on television. But its creation was also the culmination of strategic choices by his predecessors, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, to counter an emboldened China that raised bipartisan alarm.

“There’s been a dawning realization that our space systems are quite vulnerable,” said Greg Grant, a Pentagon official in the Obama administration who helped devise its response to China. “The Biden administration will see more funding — not less — going into space defense and dealing with these threats.”

The protective goal is to create an American presence in orbit so resilient that, no matter how deadly the attacks, it will function well enough for the military to project power halfway around the globe in terrestrial reprisals and counterattacks. That could deter Beijing’s strikes in the first place. The hard question is how to achieve that kind of strong deterrence.

Lloyd J. Austin III, a retired four-star Army general who was confirmed last week as Mr. Biden’s secretary of defense, told the Senate that he would keep a “laserlike focus” on sharpening the country’s “competitive edge” against China’s increasingly powerful military. Among other things, he called for new American strides in building “space-based platforms” and repeatedly referred to space as a war-fighting domain.

“Space is already an arena of great power competition,” Mr. Austin said, with China “the most significant threat going forward.”

While the Pentagon’s edge in orbital assets was clearly a threat to China, planners argued that it might also represent a liability.

“They saw how the U.S. projected power,” said Todd Harrison, a space analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “And they saw that it was largely undefended.”

China began its antisatellite tests in 2005. It fired two missiles in two years and then made headlines in 2007 by shattering a derelict weather satellite. There was no explosion. The inert warhead simply smashed into the satellite at blinding speed. The successful test reverberated globally because it was the first such act of destruction since the Cold War.

The whirling shards, more than 150,000 in all, threatened satellites as well as the International Space Station. Ground controllers raced to move dozens of spacecraft and astronauts out of harm’s way.

The Bush administration initially did little. Then, in a show of force meant to send Beijing a message, in 2008, it fired a sophisticated missile to shoot down one of its own satellites.

Beijing conducted about a dozen more tests, including ones in which warheads shot much higher, in theory putting most classes of American spacecraft at risk.

China also sought to diversify its antisatellite force. A warhead could take hours to reach a high orbit, potentially giving American forces time for evasive or retaliatory action. Moreover, the speeding debris from a successful attack might endanger Beijing’s own spacecraft.

In tests, China began firing weak laser beams at satellites and studying other ways to strike at the speed of light. However, all the techniques were judged as requiring years and perhaps decades of development.

Then came the new idea. Every aspect of American space power was controlled from the ground by powerful computers. If penetrated, the brains of Washington’s space fleets might be degraded or destroyed. Such attacks, compared with every other antisatellite move, were also remarkably inexpensive.

In 2005, China began to incorporate cyberattacks into its military exercises, primarily in first strikes against enemy networks. Increasingly, its military doctrine called for paralyzing early attacks.

In 2008, hackers seized control of a civilian imaging satellite named Terra that orbited low, like the military’s reconnaissance craft. They did so twice — first in June and again in October — roaming control circuits with seeming impunity. Remarkably, in both cases, the hackers achieved all the necessary steps to command the spacecraft but refrained from doing so, apparently to reduce their fingerprints.

Space officials were troubled by more than China’s moves and weapons. The modern history of the American military centered on building global alliances. Beijing was rushing ahead as an aggressive loner, and many officers feared that Washington was too hidebound and burdened with the responsibilities of coalition-building and arms-control treaties to react quickly.

“The Chinese are starting from scratch,” Paul S. Szymanski, a veteran analyst of space warfare, argued in an Air Force journal. They’re not, he added, “hindered by long space traditions.”

In its second term, the Obama administration made public what it called an “offset strategy” to respond to China and other threats by capitalizing on America’s technological edge.

The military joined in. The beneficiaries included Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Their space companies — Mr. Musk’s SpaceX and Mr. Bezos’s Blue Origin — sought to turn rocket launchers from throwaways into recyclables, slashing their cost.

Military officials believed that the new system would make it possible to quickly replace satellites in times of war.

The third offset also sought to shrink the size of satellites. Over decades, the big ones had grown into behemoths. Some cost $1 billion or more to design, construct, outfit, launch and keep in service. One type unfurled an antenna nearly as large as a football field. But civilians, inspired by the iPhone revolution, were building spacecraft as small as loaves of bread.

Military planners saw smaller, cheaper, more numerous craft as making antisatellite targeting vastly more difficult — in some cases impossible — for an adversary.

The initiative aided companies such as Planet Labs, which sought to build hundreds of tiny Earth-observing satellites, and Capella Space, which designed small radar-imaging satellites meant to see through clouds. It also bolstered SpaceX, where Mr. Musk envisioned a fleet of thousands of communication satellites.

The administration, increasingly worried about Beijing’s strides, also raised its spending on offensive space control — without saying exactly what that meant.

Federal investment in the tech entrepreneurs totaled $7.2 billion, most of it during the Obama years, according to a NASA report. It said the funds went to 67 companies. The approach differed from the usual Pentagon method, which dictated terms to contractors. Instead, the private sector led the way. As predicted, the small investments made a big difference.

By the end of the Obama administration, SpaceX was firing payloads into space and successfully returning booster rockets to Earth in soft landings.

Mr. Obama tweeted his congratulations in April 2016 when, for the first time, a SpaceX booster landed successfully on a platform at sea.

Two years later, Mr. Trump unveiled the Space Force, prompting jokes on Twitter and late-night television and even a Netflix sitcom. But in March, the unit said it had taken possession of its first offensive weapon, calling the event historic. Based on land, the system fires energy beams to disrupt spacecraft. Lt. Col. Steve Brogan, a space combat specialist, said the acquisition “puts the ‘force’ in Space Force and is critical for space as a war-fighting domain.”

The Trump administration last year asked Congress for a start on what it called counter-space weapons, putting their expected cost at many hundreds of millions of dollars. The military’s classified budget for the offensive abilities is said to run much higher. In word and deed, the administration also backed new reliance on the swarms of commercial strides.

Trump officials described their steps as a response not only to Beijing’s progress but its plans. In 2019, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency warned that China appeared to be deploying a new generation of extremely powerful lasers that could flash to life by the middle of this decade, putting new classes of American satellites at risk.

Analysts say the Biden administration might keep the Space Force, which has bipartisan support in Congress. Military experts see its high profile as sending Beijing a clear message.

In June, Chinese scientists reported new progress in using quantum physics to build what appeared to be the world’s first unbreakable information link between an orbiting craft and its controllers. Laser beams carried the messages. The test raised the prospect that Beijing might one day possess a super-secure network for global communications.

That same month, China finished deploying the last of 35 navigation satellites, the completion of a third-generation network intended to give its military new precision in conducting terrestrial strikes.

A rugged area of mountains and deserts in northwestern China hosts a tidy complex of buildings with large roofs that can open to the sky. Recently, analysts identified the site in the Xinjiang region as one of five military bases whose lasers can fire beams of concentrated light at American reconnaissance satellites, blinding or disabling their fragile optic sensors.

Mr. Biden is inheriting a range of responses to Beijing’s antisatellite moves, including arms both offensive and defensive, initiatives both federal and commercial, and orbital acts both conspicuous and subtle. Analysts call the situation increasingly delicate.

Mr. Work, the third-offset official from the Obama era, and Mr. Grant, his former Pentagon colleague, warned in a report that Beijing might eventually beat Washington at its own game.

“The Soviets were never able to match, much less overcome, America’s technological superiority,” they wrote. “The same may not be true for China.”

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