US-China mil-to-mil thaw reaches space

Beijing has reached out on space safety, says U.S. Space Command leader, who also issued warnings about new PLA capabilities.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado—A thawing of military-to-military talks between U.S. and Chinese military officials has extended into space, the head of U.S. Space Command said, but more communication is needed. 

Within the last six months or so, “we've heard proactively from the Chinese twice on two things they wanted to talk to us about with space safety-related issues. We think that is very positive, and we would like to continue to build on that,” said Gen. Stephen Whiting, who leads U.S. Space Command.

The command doesn’t always hear back when they push information to China, but they want to have a “regular path” to share safety information about space operations, Whiting told reporters Tuesday during the 2024 Space Symposium. 

“In the Cold War, we had ways to communicate with the Soviet Union to create trust and confidence and deescalate the misperceptions and we would like to see us find ways to have that ability to share safety information with the Chinese,” Whiting said. 

For example, he said, the U.S. regularly notifies other countries, including China and Russia, when one of their satellites is at risk of a “conjunction”—that is, an orbital collision. This allows the satellite’s operator to act to avoid a smash-up that could scatter metal chunks in space. U.S. operators are still dealing with China’s 2007 anti-satellite test that created 3,500 pieces of debris.

The general spoke days after U.S. and Chinese military officials met in Hawaii to talk about operating safely in the Pacific. The two countries resumed military talks at the end of last year after China broke them in 2022 when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan.

But amid safety talks, U.S. officials at the symposium here in Colorado continued to warn that China and Russia are fielding weapons that threaten the “peaceful use of space.” 

Since 2018, Whiting said, China has tripled its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites to build a “kill web” over the Pacific Ocean to track and target U.S. and allied military capabilities. Beijing has also fielded counterspace assets that include reversible jamming, high-energy lasers, and anti-satellite weapons. 

“All of that is now not theoretical. It's real. It's deployed out in the environment,” he said. 

While Whiting, like other U.S. officials, declined to comment on U.S. counterspace assets, he said the U.S. needs a “host of capabilities” ranging from intelligence, cyber, and “offensive and defensive capabilities.”

“There's value in ambiguity so that potential competitors and strategic competitors have to figure out what we're doing and so [we] just say we need a range of capabilities,” he said. 

Whiting has said he wants his command ready for combat by 2027, when other Pentagon officials have said China would be ready to take Taiwan. 

To get to “combat readiness” by that date, Whiting outlined his must-haves: command and control, space fires and protection, better electronic warfare, better battlespace awareness, and defensive cyber capabilities. 

Whiting said the one capability his command won’t have by then is complete resiliency, as the Space Force’s proliferated constellation in low Earth orbit, called PWSA, won’t be totally fielded yet. 

“I want all of that as fast as possible and we will not have all of that by 2027,” he said.

At the Space Symposium, Whiting announced some progress toward his goals. For example,  the command’s new threat-modeling center—dubbed the Capability Assessment and Validation Environment, or CAVE—has reached “minimum viable capability.”

“What we do in our CAVE and in other places is we model those threats. We model our capabilities and then we see how they match up and how can we best operate to survive relative to those threats, and we think this CAVE capability is going to help us get better by allowing us to do those sets and reps in the modeling and simulation realm long before hopefully we ever have to do it,” he said. 

The general also announced that the command has invited three new allies—Germany, France, and New Zealand—to join the U.S., Australia, Canada, and UK, in Operation Olympic Defender, an effort to deter conflict in space. 

“We share intelligence, we plan together, and we work to ensure that space is safe for all and we're working to even improve our integration through improved command and control and planning to make sure that we get even better in the future,” Whiting said. 

The command also announced that it was adding eight companies to its Commercial Integration Cell in Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., a group of firms that it “most closely contracts” with for services like satellite communications and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.