US space operations chief counts China, Russia as ‘most challenging threat’

A US general claimed that the escalating arms race had “fundamentally transformed” space in the past few years and singled out China as the “most daunting threat,” followed by Russia.

General Bradley Chance Saltzman, the US Chief of Space Operations, told a limited group of media, including AFP, that “we are witnessing a broad range of weapons being manufactured by our strategic competitors.”

Speaking late Saturday at the Munich Security Conference, he cited technology like anti-satellite missiles, ground-based directed energy, and orbit interception capabilities as the most difficult challenge, along with China and Russia.

“We must take into consideration the fundamental shift in space’s status as a contested domain. Because of the weapons that (China) and (Russia) have tested and, in some cases, operationalized, the nature of how we operate in space must change “said he.

Given the escalating US-China tensions, which were underscored by contentious discussions between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Beijing’s senior diplomat Wang Yi on Saturday in Munich over a suspected Chinese spy balloon, his statements have even more significance.

Blinken cautioned Wang against repeating such a “irresponsible behaviour” of sending a balloon over US airspace, but Wang said that Washington’s response—shooting the plane down—had harmed relations between their two countries.

  • Arms competition in space

The race for space dominance is not new. The Pentagon tested the use of a missile to demolish a satellite in 1985.

Since then, the United States’ competitors have sought to demonstrate their ability to compete; China did so in 2007, and India did so in 2019.

An American general discovered two Russian spacecraft in orbit in February 2020 that were following a US espionage satellite.

And in late 2021, Russia used a missile fired from Earth to destroy one of its own satellites in a show of power that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg criticised as being reckless.

General Saltzman stated that “adversaries are utilising space…targeting and extending the range of their weapons.”

That is the actual change that takes place within the domain.

Although nations are becoming more clandestine about their military actions in space, the rivalry is so intense that the Pentagon estimated that China and Russia may overtake the United States in 2019, the year it formed its Space Force.

Saltzman disputes the notion that Washington is to blame.

Yet the battle has changed; it is now about discovering ways to harm satellites with laser weapons or potent microwaves rather than using missiles or “kamikaze” satellites to destroy them.

The general declared, “I will always make sure that I maintain the ability to perform the most important tasks, such as national command and control or nuclear command and control.

The situation in Ukraine has served as a stark reminder of the crucial role that space plays in present and future conflicts.

Saltzman stated that “space is vital to the modern fight.”

“Space can be attacked through different vectors, such as cyber networks, without actually entering space. We must guarantee that we are protecting all of these capacities.”

Yet, the potential issues of collateral damage, destructive debris, and, more broadly, an international code of conduct are raised by the increased military action paired with the growing commercial manufacturing.

According to his aides, Saltzman has never discussed anything with his Chinese and Russian counterparts. He spoke on a panel and met the Norwegian defence minister in Munich.

We discussed acting responsibly, he said. There is a legitimate way to behave in space, which doesn’t produce trash, interfere, and has safe distances and trajectories. We also communicate when there are issues.