US locked in a quiet space arms race with Russia and China

Sgt. Mark Shewmake, a field radio operator from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (26th MEU) sets up satellite communication at Camp Korean Village, Iraq, with a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter in the background. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jason D. Mills/Released)

The United States military is facing new challenges and readiness woes when it comes to the battlefield of tomorrow- outer space.

According to The Washington Post, the US has been locked in a quiet space arms race with competitors Russia and China, gaining momentum in the 21st Century after the Chinese military blew up a space satellite in 2007. The anti-satellite (ASAT) mission used a kinetic energy weapon to destroy a weather satellite, littering lower earth orbit with thousands of pieces of debris and creating a hazard for manned and unmanned spacecraft alike.

While the attack was merely a test, the incident was a chilling wake-up call for the US Strategic Command- if the Chinese could destroy a satellite, they could potentially destroy a huge part of the American military infrastructure.

“We have considered space a sanctuary for quite some time. And therefore a lot of our systems are big, expensive, enormously capable, but enormously vulnerable,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work

Considered the most technologically advanced military on the planet, the US Armed Forces have a heavy dependency on spaceborne technology to manage its daily operations at home and abroad- from telecommunications to GPS and even drone operations. With such dependency on orbiting satellites- the kicker hits home harder than expected: American satellites are practically defenseless in lower earth orbit, vulnerable targets floating in what USAF General John Hyten calls the “most valuable real estate in space.”

With the US having spent the last decade and change bogged down with the dubiously expensive War on Terror, the country has allowed elbow room for its two top-tier threats -The People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation- to inch ahead in the race.

Still, the US is not simply sitting on its haunches when it comes to space superiority. The Pentagon has designated Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James as a “principal space advisor,” with authority to coordinate actions in space across the Defense Department with little red tape or oversight. In addition, agencies have begun participating in war-game scenarios involving space combat at the recently activated Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center in Colorado.

In addition to the new space war center, the Pentagon spent $22 billion on space programs and is investing an additional $5 billion in space efforts this year, including $2 billion for what is known as “space control,” which includes its highly classified offensive programs. The US is also working on several wargame scenarios and contingency plans, as well as working to develop a “space fence”, a method of tracking space debris in orbit.

Without space supremacy, Space Command General John Hyten says the United States would be set back to “industrial age warfare”.

“It’s Vietnam, Korea and World War II,” he said. No more precision missiles and smart bombs. “Which means casualties are higher, collateral damage is higher. . . . We don’t want to fight that way because that’s not the American way of war today.”

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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