China and the US: the arms race in space
The Trump administration has given new life to America's military presence in space - standing up a new Space Force and US Space Command. But US military officials believe China is hot on their heels. US foreign policy and defence correspondent Katrina Manson reports
Produced by Ben Marino
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Welcome to our first monthly instalment of the FT's new foreign policy and defence vlog. And I'm just back from a visit to US Space Command in Colorado. That's the new combatant command that was re-established late last year after a 17-year hiatus, and which now sees space, according to a strategy document out last month, as a distinct war-fighting domain. Yep, that means war in space.
The new line of effort has even spawned a new branch of the military to match, US Space Force. For now it only has 90 people working for it but that's set to rise to 2,400 soon, and with more to come. It's already been ridiculed by some. There's even a new TV sitcom sending up the whole enterprise. And US military officials laugh openly about whether people working for Space Force might one day become known as space warriors or even space men and space women.
But the militarisation of space is deadly serious. I caught up with Brigadier General Shawn Bratton, who's deputy director of operations at US Space Command. He's focused on everything, including jammers and laser capabilities, right the way up to the potential for space-on-space weapons. Not only did he tell me he binge-watched all of Space Force in one night, but that he's come to the conclusion that what China is up to in space, what he calls ambiguity, can mean only one thing.
I think China is developing weapons in space. They're moving in that direction. They see it as an area where they can compete with us. And should we go to conflict where they would aggressively come after us, I think for US Space Command, our responsibility is to be able to defend against those threats.
US simulations of large-scale conflict already show battles quickly ascending into space. And US Space Command is now working on what a definition of deterrence might look like. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans nuclear weapons in space, but it doesn't mean that all weapons will be absent. I asked Professor Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the Naval War College, just how aggressive US moves in space might look to China.
We worry about ambiguous Chinese technology. They worry about ambiguous US technology. And that gets both countries into a classic security dilemma of continually ratcheting up their technology in potentially counterproductive terms.
Dean Cheng, an expert in China's space ambitions, told me China's real target is in the geosynchronous orbit, way up high.
Geosynchronous is where is the truly valuable real estate. It's where you have key weather satellites, it's where you have key communications satellites. And perhaps most worryingly, it's where you have a lot of the nuclear command and control missile launch detection, nuclear detonation detection satellites. Those are all out of geosynchronous.
So the fact that the Chinese tested a anti-satellite weapon designed to go all the way out there is notable for a number of reasons, not just because of the potential targets, but because no other country, not the United States, not the Soviet Union, not Russia, has tested a weapon designed for that part of the orbital regime.
Despite America's overwhelming dominance in and reliance on space, he claims the US is now playing catch-up to China and Russia when it comes to readying for the prospect of conflict in space.
Chinese created their version of a Space Force, called the PLA Strategic Support Force, at the end of 2015. The Russians created an aerospace force, also in 2015. So the Russians and Chinese have actually had a space service, if you will, in place for five years.
US Space Force had no input into the production of the Netflix show, Space Force, but they told me that any programme that opened up conversation about Space Force and its mission, it saw as a worthwhile endeavour. It's only recently struck upon its new motto, semper supra. That means, always above. And that certainly shows you where US ambition in space is headed.