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Opinion A shadow war in space is heating up fast

The International Space Station on April 24. (Photo by NASA / AFP) (-/AFP/Getty Images)

When Russia blows up a satellite in space with a missile (as it did this month), or when China tests a new hypersonic missile (as it did last month), the ongoing arms race in space leaps into the news. But in between these “Sputnik”-like moments, outside the public’s view, the United States and its adversaries are battling in space every day.

While Washington officials and experts warn of the risks of an arms race in space, the United States’ adversaries are constantly conducting operations against U.S. satellites that skirt the line between intelligence operations and acts of war. The pace of conflict is intensifying, according to a top Space Force general, who told me that China could overtake the United States to become the number one power in space by the end of the decade.

“The threats are really growing and expanding every single day. And it’s really an evolution of activity that’s been happening for a long time,” Gen. David Thompson, the Space Force’s first vice chief of space operations, told me in an interview on the sidelines of the recent Halifax International Security Forum. “We’re really at a point now where there’s a whole host of ways that our space systems can be threatened.”

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Right now, Space Force is dealing with what Thompson calls “reversible attacks” on U.S. government satellites (meaning attacks that don’t permanently damage the satellites) “every single day.” Both China and Russia are regularly attacking U.S. satellites with non-kinetic means, including lasers, radio frequency jammers and cyber attacks, he said.

Thompson repeatedly declined to comment on whether China or Russia has attacked a U.S. military satellite in a way that did permanent or significant damage, telling me that would be classified if it had happened. The Chinese military is quickly deploying ground-based systems for doing battle in space, such as lasers that can damage nosy U.S. intelligence community satellites, which could be considered an act of war.

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“The Chinese are actually well ahead [of Russia],” Thompson said. “They're fielding operational systems at an incredible rate.”

Both the Russians and the Chinese are working on satellites that can attack other satellites, he said. For some time now there have been reports that China was developing a satellite that could claw another satellite or grab one with a robotic arm or a grappling hook. The Chinese government has several reasons to want to disable U.S. satellites, which have been useful in revealing concentration camps built to intern Uyghur Muslims and new Chinese nuclear missile silo fields.

In 2019, Russia deployed a small satellite into an orbit so close to a U.S. “national security satellite” that the U.S. government didn’t know whether it was attacking or not, Thompson said. Then, the Russian satellite backed away and conducted a weapons test. It released a small target and then shot it with a projectile.

“It maneuvered close, it maneuvered dangerously, it maneuvered threateningly so that they were coming close enough that there was a concern of collision,” he said. “So clearly, the Russians were sending us a message.”

China is building its own version of satellite-based global positioning systems, said Thompson. That’s in addition to the “couple of hundred” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites China has now deployed to watch over any part of the globe. China is also putting satellites into space at twice the rate of the United States, meaning that if nothing changes on our end, China will surpass the United States in capability in space in a few years, he estimated.

“We are still the best in the world, clearly in terms of capability. They're catching up quickly,” he said. “We should be concerned by the end of this decade if we don't adapt.”

While China is quickly weaponizing space, its government points fingers at United States, claiming that Washington is the diplomatic stumbling black. There are reports that the Biden administration is reaching out to Beijing to establish new negotiations for a nuclear arms control, as well as international norms for cyberspace and space, but U.S. officials say that China won’t meaningfully engage.

The U.S. military is trying to speed up the procurement and deployment of space assets by creating structures like the Space Rapid Capabilities Office and the Space Development Agency, he said. Thompson’s idea is to deploy a large number of relatively low-cost satellites in constellations that increase the resiliency of U.S. space assets if they come under attack.

Conventional thinking about how to deter an enemy from attacking on the ground, by sea or in the air doesn’t really apply to space. New doctrines and norms for space need to be established, mostly by diplomats. That work will take years. Meanwhile, the arms race in space is heating up, and the United States risks losing it if it doesn’t recognize this reality.