Report reveals US Space Force unprepared to counter orbital threats

20 years of searching for spider holes has given Russia, China lots of time to secure the skies for themselves

The US Space Force is apparently anything but, according to a think tank report that concludes the newest American military branch is woefully unprepared to defend space operations from Chinese or Russian aggression.

Instead of being primed to counter threats to US space operations, the USSF is a sitting duck, while both China and Russia have performed public tests of weapons capable of destroying satellites, the report states.

In response, the analysis argues, the USSF needs extra funds to train more people and "develop a suite of defensive and offensive counterspace systems" to compete with countries that the report's author seems to believe are running laps around American space defense power.

It's not just any old policy wonk who wrote this report, either: it was authored by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies senior fellow Charles Galbreath, who spent 27 years in the US Air Force before a two-year stint in the Space Force as its deputy chief technology and innovation officer. 

Galbreath's warnings of Russian and Chinese orbital shows of force aren't merely supposition – both Russia and China have blown up their own decommissioned satellites, and China has even launched a satellite with a grappling arm that US military leaders fear could be used to grab spacecraft and toss them out of orbit or otherwise disrupt their operations. 

Both China and Russia have also warned that civilian satellites, such as Starlink internet orbiters operated by SpaceX, could be legitimate targets.

Late last year, the Biden administration's nominee for chief of USSF space operations said much the same: China is outpacing the US in the latest space race toward military orbital domination.

"The most immediate threat, in my opinion, is the pace with which our strategic challengers – first and foremost the Chinese – are aggressively pursuing capabilities that can disrupt, degrade and ultimately even destroy our satellite capabilities and disrupt our ground infrastructure," USSF Lieutenant General B Chance Saltzman told the Senate during his confirmation hearing.

Saltzman was later confirmed to the post and still serves in the role. 

Those American space laurels are starting to look flat

While Galbreath points out a lack of funding, too little inter-branch cooperation, and a post-Cold War unwillingness to deploy weapons to space, one of the core arguments in his analysis hinges on Saltzman's conclusion that the US is being outpaced. The argument is that this is largely because of two decades spent focusing almost exclusively on countering perceived terrorist and insurgency threats from its Middle East rivals. 

That has given China and Russia 20 years to get ahead, and they've taken advantage of it, or so the argument goes. 

Along with Chinese and Russian deployments of space weapons able to theoretically disrupt or destroy US civilian and military satellites, the US has spent precious little of its absurdly large military budget on space operations, the report adds. 

It goes on to state that the USSF apparently relies on a pair of computer systems from the 1980s and early 2000s to process data from its various space sensors and satellites. 

One of those, the nearly 40-year-old Space Defense Operations Center computer system, can only ingest data in a single specific format. The other, the Correlation, Analysis and Verification of Ephemerides Network, is entirely offline and requires users to transfer data to it manually "which is clearly impractical for rapid response to threats," Galbreath said. 

Hardly the systems one would want to rely on to defend critical space infrastructure – but what's to be done?

Perhaps most startlingly, Galbreath says the US needs to explore deploying space weapons that can hit terrestrial targets "as a hedge against escalation," something that could have the opposite effect given the current space posture Russia and China have assumed and demonstrated.

China has already cautioned the US against escalating an arms race in space, making the prospect of the US deploying satellites capable of striking space or terrestrial targets a dangerous one.

But after two decades of relative orbital defense inaction and armament moves by Russia and China, a more bellicose US agenda may win out. "America did not choose this path; adversaries did," Galbreath opined in his report. ®

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