US seeks to stay ahead of China, Russia in space race

US official says it needs to rethink strategies, investment priorities amid threats from other powers

The United States needs to undertake an urgent revamp of its space strategies and rethink its investment priorities as part of a move to counter threats from rising space powers, particularly China, a US official has said.

"The threats are moving fast and we need to stay ahead of it," Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Space Policy Stephen Kitay told the journal SpaceNews in his first media interview since taking office in May.

"We absolutely need to move with urgency," Mr Kitay said on Monday. "Space is not a sea of tranquillity. We do need to make sure we are prepared, that we have the right policies, and that our strategies are integrated into the broader national security strategies.".

One critical space system that US officials fear may be targeted is missile-warning satellites, SpaceNews reported.

With tensions escalating over North Korea's nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile programme, the US air force is under pressure to develop a new system to replace the current missile-warning constellation.

"Discussions are happening," he told the journal. "I believe it's imperative that we innovate."

Much of the innovation will be in developing measures to counter satellite hackers; putting up smaller and less expensive satellites than the current ones which are often costly and, being multi-tasking, are attractive targets; and developing alternatives to critical systems like GPS navigation.

At the Reagan National Defence Forum in California last week, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said "the shifting of space (from) being a benign environment to being a war fighting environment requires different capabilities".

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched at Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre in Florida in June. US strategists fear a surprise attack on American assets in space.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched at Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre in Florida in June. US strategists fear a surprise attack on American assets in space. PHOTO: REUTERS

  • HOW THE RIVAL COUNTRIES' SPACE PROGRAMMES STACK UP

  • THE UNITED STATES

    • It has more satellites in space than any other country - 803 as of August.

    • In August last year, Nasa announced it had commissioned six major aerospace firms to develop "deep space habitats" that may be established on Mars.

    • In 2008, the US used its Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence system to shoot down one of its satellites of which it had lost control.

    CHINA

    • It had 204 satellites in space as of August.

    • Last year, it launched the world's first "quantum satellite" for ultra-secure quantum communications.

    • It has been considering a permanent, manned radar base on the moon.

    • In 2007, China launched a ballistic missile, targeting one of its own non-operational satellites and completely destroying it.

    RUSSIA

    • It had 142 satellites in space as of August.

    • In December 2016, it tested a new anti-satellite missile PL-19 Nudol capable of targeting enemy missiles or satellites.

    • It tested its new anti-satellite weapon system early this month.

    INDIA

    • It had 104 satellites as of August.

    • On Feb 15, the Indian Space Research Organisation successfully launched on board a single rocket a record 104 nano-satellites (three owned by India and the rest by other countries) and a 714kg satellite for earth observation.

    • The country sent a satellite into orbit around Mars in 2014 - only the fourth country to do so after the US, Russia, and the European Space Agency, and on a budget of less than US$73 million (S$98 million).

    SATELLITE NUMBERS FROM THE UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS

These would include command and control, near real-time space situational awareness, and the creation of both offensive and defensive capabilities.

This year, a proposal to create a space corps within the air force, in the House version of the National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2018, did not make it into the final Bill.

But the congressmen who proposed it have not given up. One of them, Alabama's Mr Mike Rogers, said they would try again next year. "It's going to happen. It's inevitable," he said.

While several countries are capable of launching missiles and satellites into orbit, concern centres mostly on China and Russia.

Dr Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific security programme at the Centre for a New American Security, said "the new administration in particular is seized with the shortened timeline by which China, but also Russia, is challenging America's ability to operate in space".

"Space has now become a critical domain alongside air, sea, land and cyber domains," he told The Straits Times. "In any scenario in which the United States would project power towards the Asian mainland, it would be dependent on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites."

"China has put itself in a position to ensure that they can hold ISR assets at risk in any scenario. They have anti-satellite missiles, they have electronic warfare means," he said.

In 2007, China shot down an old satellite in a test of an anti-satellite (Asat) device mounted on a ballistic missile.

In December last year, China created a new Strategic Support Force to unify space, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities. In comparison, the US is still discussing its strategic approach, analysts say.

In September, a US government report said "China has pursued a robust and comprehensive array of counterspace weapons, including ground-launched Asat missiles, ground-based directed energy weapons, ground-based satellite jammers, computer network operations, and co-orbital Asat systems".

Director of national intelligence Daniel Coats wrote in a report to the Senate Intelligence Committee in May this year that new Chinese and Russian Asat weapons were expected to complete development in the "next several years".

"A Russian official also acknowledged development of an aircraft-launched missile capable of destroying satellites in low-earth orbit. Both countries are advancing directed energy weapons technologies for the purpose of fielding Asat systems that could blind or damage sensitive space-based optical sensors,'' the report said.

"Russia is developing an airborne laser weapon for use against US satellites."

US strategists fear a "Pearl Harbour" in space - a surprise attack that neutralises or disrupts its space assets, crippling its ability to operate surveillance, armed drones or a host of other military and civilian functions.

"Space is not a sanctuary. It's important that we don't think about space in isolation. If there's a conflict, we need to think about all the domains - air, sea, land, cyber and space. Our space strategies must be nested in those broader approaches," said Mr Kitay.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2017, with the headline 'US seeks to stay ahead of China, Russia in space race'. Print Edition | Subscribe