AMAC Exclusive – By Aaron Kliegman
On Monday, Russia successfully hit a Soviet-era satellite, demonstrating for the first time that the Russian military has the capability to target satellites with missiles launched from Earth. The explosion sent more than 1,500 pieces of debris hurtling through orbit, potentially endangering other satellites and even astronauts aboard the International Space Station. While State Department spokesman Ned Price called the move “reckless” and “destructive,” the test was just the latest in a series of aggressive actions in space by America’s two chief adversaries, Russia and China, setting the stage for a new battle for supremacy beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Space isn’t just crucial to modern life; it’s absolutely essential. Banking, GPS, the internet, the electric grid, even military operations — all of it and more relies on space-based technologies. Compromising some of these systems would be at best devastating and at worst apocalyptic for a nation — particularly for the United States.
The U.S. is more dependent than most countries on data coming from infrastructure set up in space. America’s space assets have certainly helped the nation achieve economic and military dominance on earth. But this fact also makes the U.S. especially vulnerable should an adversary target its satellites. Any threat to the U.S. network of satellites would undoubtedly constitute a threat to America’s position atop the global economic ladder, not to mention the country’s military capabilities.
China and Russia know all this and are trying to outcompete the U.S. in space. While the Russian missile test earlier this week was troubling, it has primarily been Chinese developments and Chinese-led joint ventures with Russia that should have American leaders concerned.
Just last week, China launched three more reconnaissance satellites into orbit. Chinese state media says the satellites are for scientific experiments and agricultural production, but many observers believe they actually have a military purpose to carry out various surveillance and national security missions.
This was China’s 43rd orbital launch of the year, extending a national record for a calendar year.
About a week earlier, China launched a new robotic satellite, the Shijian 21. Its purpose is ostensibly to test new “technologies to neutralize space debris.” That’s at least according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, China’s state-run space company. Analysts believe, however, that the satellite can be used as a weapon capable of grabbing and crushing American satellites.
Back in April, the commander of U.S. Space Command, Air Force Gen. James Dickinson, warned Congress that technology like the Shijian-21 is part of an effort by China to seek “space superiority through space and space-attack systems.”
“One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm,” Dickinson testified to lawmakers. “Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.”
China says it uses the Shijian-17 satellite for communications and to monitor space debris.
Two days before the Shijian-21 launch, the core module of China’s space station, the Shenzhou-13, blasted off for a six-month journey in space — the longest ever spaceflight for China. The crew of three onboard is supposed to help complete the space station’s construction by the end of next year. Even more concerningly, China also announced plans in March to build a lunar space station with Russia, hardly a welcome development for the United States.
This launch of Shijian-21 also followed a suspected Chinese test of a new hypersonic missile that was faster and more accurate than Western analysts expected. According to reports, the missile is capable of evading U.S. defense systems by orbiting the Earth. Of course, China says the test was a peaceful space experiment.
Perhaps NASA Administrator Bill Nelson had these recent developments in mind when he said recently that “we have every reason to believe that we have a competitor, a very aggressive competitor, in the Chinese” in space.
Nelson warned that the U.S. is slipping behind China in the new Space Race as he announced NASA’s planned moon landings will likely take place “no earlier than 2025.” Washington had hoped to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 — a setback painfully symbolic of the recent trajectory of America’s space program compared to China’s.
The bottom line is this: China is aggressively pushing for dominance in space to achieve dominance on earth, and Russia seems to be along for the ride, perhaps eager to avenge their defeat in the last Space Race. But while Moscow seems to be focused on the military advantages of a reinvigorated space program, China’s ambitions aren’t just about economic and military power. Beijing is also leveraging its advancements in space to strengthen its diplomatic clout, gaining global influence in the process.
In the West, however, leaders have been slow to recognize this reality, resting on their laurels from winning the first space race against the Soviet Union. They, like most of us, didn’t even conceive of a second space race. After all, didn’t America win? Plus, with joint projects, such as the International Space Station, the final frontier seemed to have become a place of global cooperation, not competition.
Washington can no longer afford to be stuck in this way of thinking. The situation in space is now far more complicated, with technology advancing every day and private companies playing a major role in space advancement. But the core of the issue is still simple: either free, democratic America or brutal, autocratic regimes will be the key player in space. Which vision prevails will determine what kind of a place the world will be in the years to come.
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