New SpOC Commander Highlights ‘Destabilizing’ Acts by Russia and China in Space

Space weapons being developed by China and Russia this week pose a threat to the U.S, according the new head of Space Operations Command and a new report co-produced by the National Space Intelligence Center.

Speaking with the Space Force Association just a few days after he officially took command of SpOC, Lt. Gen. David N. Miller Jr. said that in his previous job as director of operations for U.S. Space Command, two events stood out in his memory as indicative of how space has become more challenging. 

The first came in the summer of 2021, when China launched a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS) with a hypersonic glide vehicle—incorporating concepts from an old Soviet Union system. 

“I think that is a particularly destabilizing capability. That is the potential for an adversary to launch potentially a nuclear payload into orbit, leave it there for some period of time, and then deorbit it whenever they feel like,” Miller explained. “In this case, it was back into the [People’s Republic of China]. That’s a pretty destabilizing capability. And I think that is something that while … we’ve begun to restore military-to-military communications, those are not activities that promote stability and security globally.” 

A few months later, Russia tested a direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile against one of its own spacecraft, creating thousands of pieces of debris in orbit.

Both incidents were also highlighted in a new report produced by the National Space Intelligence Center (Delta 18) and the National Air & Space Intelligence Center, titled “Competing in Space.” 

A previous edition of the report was published in December 2018, but in the six years since, the number of threats—and targets—in space have multiplied. 

“The U.S.’s key competitors, China and Russia, both operate hundreds of space systems to strengthen warfighting capabilities, boost spheres of influence, and position themselves as leaders in the international space community,” the report states. “At the same time, both of these competitors are developing counterspace capabilities capable of degrading or destroying space systems critical to civilian infrastructure and military operations.” 

China’s FOBS test traveled some 40,000 kilometers (the length of the Earth’s circumference) and stayed aloft more than 100 minutes, both records for a Chinese land attack weapon, the report noted. Meanwhile, Russia’s ASAT test created “tens of thousands of lethal but nontrackable objects.” 

“There are just things that I do not think promote stability and security, and when we say we have global competitors, it’s actions like that that bring it to the forefront. But it’s fundamentally a challenge to the rules-based order,” Miller said of those actions. 

While both events occurred more than two years ago, Miller said they “continue to this day to be concerning for me from a perspective of this is just potentially destabilizing behavior—and it’s the reason, in my view, that America has a Space Force.”

“Competing in Space” noted several other counterspace capabilities being pursued by China and Russia, including previously-reported events like the launch of a Chinese satellite with a “grappling arm” that can grab and tow satellites into different orbits and “nesting doll” Russian satellites that have tested kinetic kill capabilities. 

The report also detailed other capabilities both China and Russia are pursuing, including jammers and ground-based lasers that could blind or damage satellite sensors. 

“By the mid-to-late 2020s, Beijing may have higher-power systems capable of damaging satellites,” the report warned. 

While many of these capabilities are obvious threats, even seemingly benign developments could be dangerous, the report added. 

“The dual-use nature of some spacecraft technologies makes counterspace tests or hostile activity difficult to detect, attribute, or mitigate,” the report stated. “For example, sensors to inspect other satellites and robotic arms for servicing other satellites support peaceful missions, but can also be used to target or attack spacecraft.” 

In the face of all this, Miller said one of the main goals for his tenure atop SpOC is “improving the combat capability we have today,” from the modernization of the Space Force’s existing systems to building up the infrastructure around those systems and investing in leadership development “to make sure that America’s Guardians and Airmen in Space Operations Command are ready for the range of threats.”