Russia and China Could Team Up to Challenge US Space Superiority, Experts Say

Sanctions are crushing Russia’s efforts to counter American space superiority, but analysts have a rising concern that Russian President Vladimir Putin may link up with China’s wealth to develop the weapons that could stop American war fighters in their tracks.

Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond has warned that America’s adversaries are already operating as if space was a war fighting domain, exhibiting ground and space-based weapons capabilities that can target vulnerable American satellites. House Armed Services Committee chairman Adam Smith admitted to Air Force Magazine on June 29 that satellite survivability and redundancy were his priorities for fending off adversaries, but a closer look at the budget was necessary.

“I don’t think ‘catch-up,’ is the right word,” Smith said when asked about American space weapons compared to adversaries in a Defense Writers Group discussion. “We’re not behind in this area.”

The Washington state Democrat said his priorities were cost-effective launch and the survivability of satellites and command-and-control systems.

The dropping cost of launch in America’s domestic capability has had the dual effect of robbing Russia of needed dollars to support its military space program, retired Col. Douglas Loverro said at a June 28 Center for Strategic and International Studies forum on Russia’s evolving military capabilities in space.

Loverro, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy from 2013 to 2017, also described Russia’s July 2020 test of a co-orbital satellite that aligned with an American spy satellite and fired a projectile in space.

“They view this as a decisive factor,” Loverro said. “Certainly, they are building the means, as best we can tell, to go ahead and make sure that they can eliminate U.S. space capabilities if war does occur.”

The Russian capability is despite a drop in oil prices that has cut into Moscow’s revenue coupled with crushing American sanctions related to the invasion of Crimea in 2014. Russia’s commercial space and launch programs have also taken a hit in recent years, depleting resources to invest further.

Loverro said Russia’s 10-year space development budget, released in 2016, called for $53 billion, but Moscow could only afford to commit $10 billion.

“Diplomatically, Russia is trying to reign in U.S. efforts by going ahead and aligning with China and other BRIC nations [Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa],” he added, describing UN efforts to limit the presence of weapons in space. “Those are clearly designed to try to slow down U.S. progress in this area.”

Teaming Up with China

Russia and China jointly submitted a UN resolution in 2008 to limit space weapons, but of late, their cooperation has gone further. Recently, the two cooperated on the Chinese space station and signed a memorandum of understanding on a potential lunar base.

Commercial cooperation between two of America’s chief space adversaries can easily extend to military applications, the expert panel argued, even though historical differences may arise.

“Russia has experience on deception in space,” Loverro said. “Russia has experience that is incredibly valuable to a technologically advanced, but operationally inexperienced China.”

The former head of NASA’s human spaceflight program also qualified Russia’s malicious expertise as more in the cyber realm while he viewed China as more advanced in the space domain.

“The combination of those two could be very dangerous,” he said.

Former commander of U.S. Strategic Command and Air Force Space Command, retired Gen. C. Robert Kehler spoke to his Cold War-era knowledge between the two communist countries.

“I think it remains to be seen what that partnership really does,” he said.

“During the Cold War, from my perspective, when Russia and China said that they were working together, they were going to cooperate on things, they have never seemed to me to be natural partners,” Kehler explained. “I don’t know it’s going to result in anything that’s meaningful here.”

Loverro offered the last word about the increased proximity of civil space cooperation between Russia and China.

“That represents a very dangerous position for us because Russia has the operational space knowledge, China has the technology and the funding,” he said. “Together, they can be a significant competitor for the U.S., and certainly their ambition remains to be a great space power.”

Smith hedged when asked if the $17.4 billion Space Force budget request was correctly apportioned to meet the threat posed by America’s space adversaries.

“More or less, I think that the Space Force budget is correct,” he said. “I got to do a deeper dive on that to really understand it, but I think it’s moving more or less in the right direction.”

Smith was less certain that a combined Russia-China team was percolating to challenge American space superiority, but he said the U.S. should prepare regardless.

“I don’t think anyone has any idea whether or not Russia and China are going to team up,” he said. “But whether they team up or not, we need to be ready for it. We need to be able to protect our systems and we need to be able to deter our adversaries from attacking them in the first place.”