The biggest threat posed by Russia and China lies in advancements in space capabilities, said the Air Force chief during a panel at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, Calif.
Gen. David Goldfein joined the chiefs from the three other services on stage at the forum, all of whom acknowledged threats posed by both Russia and China across the various domains. However, they acknowledged that an increased focus on military anchored by a strong economy enable China to advance more quickly and with more sophistication, Defense News reported.
“Russia is a rather dangerous threat because it’s an economy in decline and the demographics are challenging for the president,” Vladimir Putin, Goldfein said. “We’ve seen his actions when he finds himself” in that position. “But China is the face of the threat. China has the economy.”
In terms of space specifically, the threat lies not only in China’s increased domain awareness, he said, but the capabilities that the country is fielding.
China has been building up its anti-satellite weapons since 2007 to include kinetic weapons, jamming devices that can block GPS or satellite communications, and ground-based lasers, the report said.
China has also built up its own space capabilities, and will boast the largest GPS-like system in space by 2020, said Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley in November.
He also noted that China conducted more space-oriented operations in 2018 than any other nation and possesses 250 military, civilian and commercial satellites in orbit — second only to the US.
Goldfein pointed to three priorities for space investments during the panel.
First, “we have to defend what we have. At the same time we need to transition to defendable architecture. But it’s not good enough to take punches in the ring. At some point you have to punch back. And third, we need to transition our force into a war-fighting force” from one that for years dealt with a domain that Goldfein described as “relatively benign.”
The Air Force chief referenced findings of war games that the Air Force has conducted in the space realm, among which was the 13th Schriever Wargame at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama in September, the report said.
In that war game scenario, the year was 2029 and the US Air Force Space Command examined the integration activities of multiple agencies associated with space systems and services.
“In every war game we determined that if you move first in space, you’re not guaranteed to win. But if you move second, you’re likely to lose,” Goldfein said.
Military analysts say the Chinese military is preparing to deploy an anti-satellite laser weapon that can be used against American satellites and those of Western powers operating in low orbit by 2020, , GreatPowerWar.com reported.
According to a Defense Intelligence Agency report on emerging space threats, the Chinese “ASAT” weapon will be capable of either damaging or destroying targeted satellites, the Washington Free Beacon reported.
“China likely is pursuing laser weapons to disrupt, degrade, or damage satellites and their sensors and possibly already has a limited capability to employ laser systems against satellite sensors,” said the unclassified report.
It added: “China likely will field a ground-based laser weapon that can counter low-orbit space-based sensors by 2020, and by the mid-to-late 2020s, it may field higher power systems that extend the threat to the structures of non-optical satellites.”
While China has also developed additional directed energy weapons, ASAT lasers are considered more advantageous because their effects can be hidden more easily.
The DIA report notes that high energy beams are able to destroy electro-optical detectors used for missile launches, optical systems that track launches, control surfaces, solar panels that power the satellites, and other vital parts as well.
Ground-based laser weapons are estimated to have effective ranges of between 310 and 620 miles and reportedly require 1,000 watts or more of power on average.
Space News reported a year ago that both Russia and China were expected to have operational ASAT capabilities including directed energy weapons by next year.