The Biden-nominated chief of space operations for the USA’s Space Force (USSF) rates China his greatest challenge, as the Middle Kingdom has developed technologies to destroy space assets.
“The most immediate threat, in my opinion, is the pace with which our strategic challengers – first and foremost the Chinese – are aggressively pursuing capabilities that can disrupt, degrade and ultimately even destroy our satellite capabilities and disrupt our ground infrastructure,” Space Force Lieutenant General B. Chance Saltzman said during a nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week.
Saltzman said America’s armed forces assume the presence of space-based assets for most operations; China has observed the US’s reliance on those assets, and sees its ability to take them out as an asymmetric advantage.
China has not been shy about its ability to act in space. In 2007 Beijing shot down one of its own satellites with a ballistic missile launched from Earth that proved the nation possesses destructive capacity – and in the process created a dangerous field of space junk that remains a menace to this day.
In 2021 US Space Command commander General James Dickinson claimed China had launched a satellite sporting a grappling arm that could be used to capture and harm other orbiting equipment.
In a policy Q&A [PDF] submitted before the hearing, Saltzman stated he was aware of the 2007 test, and of similar capabilities deployed by Russia, and outlined his preferred approach to combat sat-killers: “proliferated constellations” of satellites.
That’s defense talk for reducing reliance on big satellites that China or Russia could spot and destroy, and instead deploying lots of smaller birds.
Or, as Saltzman put it, make a “pivotal mission area architecture shift from a geosynchronous and highly elliptical force presentation to a proliferated low and medium Earth orbit design.”
The Lieutenant General also thinks that shift is needed because new threats, such as hypersonic missiles, are hard to spot with a smaller satellite fleet. More birds mean more chances to spot incoming ordnance.
Saltzman also revealed that Space Force’s infosec arrangements aren’t optimal, and he wants to fix that with a controversial weapon: outsourcing.
“Many of our cyber-guardians* are needed to perform traditional base communication and IT support functions, and therefore are not available to perform the more critical mission assurance to secure, monitor and defend USSF mission systems,” he said.
“The USSF is working to contract out most of the traditional communication and IT support functions to free up more cyber-guardians to focus on cyber defense. Once resourced to do this we will have a better understanding of the full set of cyber defense manpower requirements,” he added.
Space Force is also “investing in tools and training that will make our cyber workforce more efficient and effective in performing their cyber defense roles; however, with the growing number of cyber threats and the expansion of critical networks, I believe there will be a future need for more cyber experts in the Space Force.”
Saltzman, who was nominated by President Biden and seeks confirmation from Congress, said he plans to work with Congress to make sure Space Force gets the cash, tools, training, and people to ensure the organization can defend the United States appropriately. ®
* Space Force personnel are called guardians.