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China poised to overtake US as top space power, Space Force vice chief says

U.S. Space Force General David Thompson, the Vice Space Operations Chief. (DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittany A. Chase)
October 26, 2021

China is poised to overtake the U.S. military as the dominant space power, Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson said in an interview with The Washington Times last week.

Thompson, the second-highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Space Force, said the now two-year-old branch must speed up its implementation of new critical space technologies if it wants to maintain an edge over China. Thompson added that the next decade will be critical for staying ahead of China in space.

“Since about 2007, potential adversaries, specifically the Chinese and Russians, have noticed how effectively we use space in military operations and they have begun to develop and build weapons systems that take those capabilities away from us,” Thompson said.

In 2007, China conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test that destroyed one of its own satellites and spread debris throughout Earth’s orbit.

In April 2020, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond described Russia’s development and testing of anti-satellite weapons, including direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missiles and a January 2020 encounter Russian satellites “that exhibited characteristics of a space weapon.” In April of 2020, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) also warned of China developing anti-satellite weapons, saying “Beijing continues to train its military space elements and field new destructive and nondestructive ground and space-based antisatellite (ASAT) weapons.”

A recent report by the China Aerospace Studies Institute — a part of Air University, a part of the U.S. Air Force’s education university system — warned, “China’s military has designated outer space as a warfighting domain — described as a ‘new commanding height of war that China must fight for and seize if it is to win future wars.” The report further noted China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers and analysts “assert that space is the ultimate high ground, and that whoever controls space controls the Earth.”

Thompson said, “History is going to judge what we’re doing right now.” He said it’s “always the case” that the U.S. military has to act to maintain its technological edge, it’s especially true at this “moment in time, given the magnitude of what we have been tasked to do by our nation and its leaders.”

Thompson said, for now, China’s space operations largely mimic those of the U.S. He said, “They watch what we do in space, and they’re replicating it.”

“We’re talking about the decade of the twenties here, that is the period of concern,” he said.

One key space capability of China is its satellite constellation, which has generally been focused over the Pacific, but which has continued to grow in recent years. Thompson said China has “tremendous and exquisite capability to look from space to see, hear, track and defend” and China’s satellite constellation will eventually give them the ability to operate globally.

Thompson said China’s mimicking of the U.S. space strategy could also allow it to quickly overtake the U.S.

“Not only do they have the ability to adopt new technology and updated capabilities much more quickly, if they’re almost as good as we are today — and they are almost as good as we are — they can cycle these things in very quickly [and] they become better than we are,” he told Washington Times.

In order to keep ahead of China’s technological advancements, Thompson said the Space Force’s goal is to be able to implement new technologies on a two-to-three-year timeline rather than the six-to-seven-year timeline it has inherited.

Thompson’s goal for the Space Force’s speed in implementing new technologies comes amid a new Heritage Foundation report that gave the space branch a “weak” military strength rating. The report noted the branch is largely reliant on satellites that have exceeded their intended lifespan and faulted the branch for its “lack of defensive and offensive capabilities.”

The Heritage Foundation report also said, “There is little evidence that the USSF has improved its readiness to provide nearly real-time support to the operational and tactical levels or that it is ready in any way to execute defensive and offensive counterspace operations to the degree envisioned by Congress when it formed the Space Force.”