The United States Space Force recently announced that it would be launching the Air Force’s secretive X-37B space-plane on its seventh mission, highlighting the increasing importance of space as a potential battleground. China is rapidly closing the gap in military capabilities with the United States in space, just as it has done in the sea and air domains.
Of particular concern is China’s development of missiles and satellites capable of destroying US satellites, undermining the US advantage in orbit. The destruction of satellites can create dangerous debris that threatens spacecraft from all countries until the debris burns up in Earth’s atmosphere. The US Defense Department has warned that China continues to develop various counterspace capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space by adversaries during a crisis or conflict.
While the Boeing-made X-37B is not a weapon itself, it carries prototype hardware into orbit and has the ability to change orbits frequently, making it difficult to track. China has also developed its own mini-shuttle, the CSSHQ. However, the US remains the largest space power, with the majority of satellites in orbit being American.
US satellites play a crucial role in supporting Pentagon operations, including navigation, communication, precision-guided weapons, and surveillance. However, China has been rapidly building its space arsenal, deploying hundreds of satellites in recent years. China’s anti-satellite capabilities, including ground-based lasers, jammers, missiles, and maneuverable satellites, pose a significant threat to US spacecraft in orbit.
One notable concern is China’s use of maneuverable satellites that have dual-use capabilities. While they may have peaceful purposes, they can easily be reprogrammed to tamper with or destroy other satellites. The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center projects that China could have 200 anti-satellite satellites by 2026, capable of disabling the US GPS system.
To counter China’s rise as a space power, the US Space Force plans to launch a significant number of satellites to overwhelm Chinese capabilities. The development of smaller and cheaper satellites is also a priority for the US space industry. Additionally, the Pentagon is equipping spacecraft with sensors and defense mechanisms to detect and protect against incoming attacks.
While the nightmare scenario entails a space war with satellites colliding or exploding, resulting in widespread debris, the United States has the option to escalate and target China’s own spacecraft if attacked. The US cannot prevent China’s rise in space capabilities, but it can strive to keep pace and develop effective defensive measures.