U.S. Strategic Command leader Gen. Anthony Cotton (L) and U.S. Space Force Commander Gen. Stephen Whiting sit before the start of a hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 29, 2024, in Washington, DC.

U.S. Strategic Command leader Gen. Anthony Cotton (L) and U.S. Space Force Commander Gen. Stephen Whiting sit before the start of a hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 29, 2024, in Washington, DC. Getty Images / Anna Moneymaker

Chinese space, nuclear development is ‘breathtakingly fast,’ DOD officials warn

Heads of STRATCOM, Space Command discuss growing nuclear, space dangers.

China’s advancements in space technology—and its nuclear triad—are proceeding with incredible speed, while Russia remains an unpredictable and dangerous threat, top officials from U.S. Strategic Command and Space Command told lawmakers Thursday. 

What “China and Russia are doing, particularly building with their counterspace weapons, they're moving breathtakingly fast,” Gen. Stephen Whiting, the head of U.S. Space Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

U.S. forces rely heavily on space assets. China and Russia know that, and it's becoming a growing vulnerability, Whiting said. 

“Our forces today are optimized for a benign space environment. The systems were either built or the requirements were largely laid down during a time when we didn't face the threats we now see. So now we really have to focus on making sure we have the systems to protect and defend our existing architectures, even as we make our current architecture more resilient, and that we have the systems to protect the joint force from the space-enabling capabilities.”

Whiting didn’t talk specifically about the Russian nuclear anti-satellite weapon that’s been much  in the news, but he did—indirectly—address the notion that Russia would have no strategic reason to use such a weapon, since it would destroy Russian satellites as well. 

The Russian military is simply less dependent on space for their operations, he said, as “they are a continental power and they expect to be able to run fiber and to do microwave shots and those kinds of things. And they don't have the same global…military that we do, so they are less dependent.”

Russia also has a large number of smaller, tactical nuclear weapons it uses to threaten adversaries. A report this week in the Financial Times shows the criteria Russia has used to determine whether to launch a strike with a tactical nuclear weapon, such as an enemy incursion into Russian territory or the destruction of 20 percent of its strategic ballistic missile submarine fleet. 

The Biden administration has moved to scrap the development of a U.S. tactical nuclear weapon—the sea-launched cruise missile—much to the chagrin of some Republicans. 

China, on the other hand, is far more dependent on space assets and so has a strong disincentive to launch a space attack that would harm satellites indiscriminately, Whiting said. 

“They have replicated in many ways what we have done in space, because as they try to push us out from the first island chain and the second island chain in the Pacific, they have gone to space for the advantages it brings.”

China is also rapidly advancing its own nuclear triad capability, including a stealth bomber

“The breakout that we saw and the advancements, and how quickly the advancements that we're seeing in China to rapidly create a viable triad, are breathtaking,” said Gen. Anthony Cotton, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, deliberately borrowing Whiting’s term. 

China's nuclear arsenal is set to have as many as 1,500 warheads by 2035, compared to about 500 today

Beyond China and Russia, Cotton said that other nuclear players like North Korea and (soon) Iran are benefiting from their partnership with Russia in ways that make them larger threats. 

“In regards to the relationship that we see, the transactional relationship between Russia and the DPRK has manifested itself in different ways over the past few months,” he said. 

Both officials pushed for full funding in order to modernize the U.S. nuclear triad, including a bomber replacement program, replacement of the Ohio nuclear submarine with the larger Columbia class, and the replacement of ground-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, a vast effort expected to ultimately cost $1.5 trillion over the net 30 years. 

But that funding has already become controversial, particularly the program to modernize the U.S. ICBM intercontinental ballistic missiles. Dubbed Sentinel, the program is  set to cost 37 percent more than previous estimates, triggering a review of the program. 

“I am very concerned that Pentagon officials are already saying quote, ‘They will make the trade offs it takes to keep the Sentinel program funded. analysis be damned.’ I'll be watching closely to see if the DOD takes this review that is required now by law because of the cost overruns. I will be looking to see if they take this review seriously,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.