China’s new satellites extend its military reach, US says
Rapid buildup “allows them to see much further with greater precision at day and at night and through all weather,” Space Force intel chief says.
New and better satellites are enabling China’s military to project power further into the Pacific and to more effectively threaten Taiwan, the Space Force’s top intelligence leader said Tuesday.
China’s rapid deployment of new space capabilities has allowed it to project power further into the Pacific and more effectively threaten Taiwan, Maj. Gen. Greg Gagnon, deputy chief of space operations for intelligence, said Tuesday.
“The significant growth of on-orbit capabilities of the PLA now allows them to see much further with greater precision at day and at night and through all weather,” Gagnon said at the Air & Space Forces Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber conference outside Washington, D.C.
China now has capabilities that only the United States had 10 to 15 years ago, and has connected them to command-and-control centers, and to weapons, he said.
“They have extended their weapons engagement zone. This is a profound shift in the operational problem that we face in the western Pacific,” he said.
Last year alone, China launched 200 satellites, more than half devoted to keeping tabs on Chinese and adversary forces, he said.
These new space capabilities “have helped China to transition from a regional player with inward-focused defense to a nation capable of power projection across the globe,” he said. “We see the manifestation of that power projection today when they try to coerce our allies and partners in the western Pacific. You see it when they conduct air and UAV operations around Taiwan, or even east of Taiwan. You see that power projection when they move surface combatants to the east side of Taiwan in effect, rehearsing full envelopment.”
Gagnon said that China’s commercial space sector still trails its U.S. counterpart, whose world-leading sensor and communications products and services make it “the key enabler of our strength.”
But aspects of the commercial U.S. space sector have come under scrutiny recently, particularly concerning Elon Musk. The SpaceX founder is newly reported to have denied a 2022 request from Ukraine to extend Starlink service in Crimea, which would have enabled Ukrainian forces to strike Russian naval targets on the peninsula.
On Tuesday, Gen. Chance Saltzman, head of U.S. Space Operations, provided a curt answer to questions about the U.S. reliance on SpaceX.
“All the companies that we do contract and do business with, the nature of the contract is the nature of the contract, and I have every reason to believe that all these companies will fulfill their contracts,” Saltzman told reporters at the conference.
The space operations chief also announced that his service would launch an effort to streamline operations and sustainment under single team leaders.
Saltzman described these as “Integrated Mission Deltas, or IMDs, where both operations and sustainment for a mission area are under a single commander. One IMD prototype is supporting the electromagnetic warfare mission area. The other IMD prototype is a new organization to support the positioning, navigation, and timing mission area. Both of these new Deltas integrate operations, and sustainment.”
The United States is also taking additional steps to monitor Chinese and Russian activity in space. NRO Director Chris Scolese said that the United States is also launching a new space mission dubbed Silent Barker to watch Chinese and Russian weapons in space. He described it as a “system of satellites in the GEO belt, where we can go off and observe what's going on there to see if there are activities that we should be concerned about and then being prepared to be able to take action.”
But that doesn’t mean that the United States is eager to flood space with missile or laser-armed satellites. Said Saltzman: when any country destroys objects in space it leads to debris and other problems that the United States (mostly) then has to monitor and deal with. Instead, he said, that there are other means like advanced cyber effects, to target Chinese space weapons.
“There's a lot we can invest in. There's a lot of things that we can do that don't have these irreversible kinetic effects. Because, in my estimation, if we have to rely on those kinds of effects we end up causing ourselves as many problems as we do for the adversary. I just can't live with debris fields flying around all these orbits for hundreds of years. I've got too many plans for space and the space domain.”