HASC Told China's Counterspace Capabilities "Extremely Serious"

HASC Told China's Counterspace Capabilities "Extremely Serious"

Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) today that China’s counterspace capabilities are “extremely serious” and “on a par” with its offensive cyber operations.   The only issue on which witnesses disagreed was on the value of diplomacy and a Code of Conduct in addressing the threat.

Also testifying at the HASC hearing today were Robert Butterworth of Aries Analytics and Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center.  The hearing was before the HASC subcommittees on Strategic Forces and on Seapower and Projection Forces.

Tellis asserted that the “current and evolving counterspace threat posed by China to U.S. military operations … is extremely serious and the threat ranks on par with the dangers posed by Chinese offensive cyber operations to the United States more generally.”  He added that the “diversity and complexity” of China’s counterspace activities make them “particularly problematic.”  He listed a spectrum of capabilities from direct ascent and co-orbital antisatellite (ASAT) programs to electromagnetic warfare to directed energy and radio frequency weapons as well as computer network attack capabilities.

Butterworth and Krepon did not disagree with that characterization.   The question was what the United States should do in response.

Once again there was agreement that the United States needs more resilient military satellite capabilities perhaps based on a “disaggregated” architecture.  That term refers to building systems based on more, smaller satellites rather than a few large ones so that if one fails, others can compensate and might be easier to replace quickly.   Butterworth also stressed that U.S. military planners need to integrate space operations into the “joint fight, the contribution of space to US combat capability.”

Krepon offered that the United States needs to retain capabilities to respond to threats to space systems “in ways of our choosing if someone messes with us,” though he does not support developing dedicated systems because existing systems have sufficient latent capabilities.

All three also were unified on the need for improved Space Situational Awareness (SSA) to deter an attack or to be able to attribute an attack if one occurs.  “The extent to which we can deter depends on how much we know ahead of time.  If the committee underfunds [SSA] then our deterrence capabilities can be diminished even if we’re doing the other things right,” Krepon warned.

Tellis added that SSA “is the foundation for any kind of defensive counterspace. … We certainly have to put resources first and foremost into [SSA] because nothing else with respect to defensive counterspace is going to work” without it.  Butterworth emphasized that SSA is needed “from orbit, and some of those orbits should be very high so we are looking down” and threats can be detected from “all angles.”

The witnesses parted ways, however, on the role of diplomacy and a Code of Conduct for space activities and a related issue of whether China understands the consequences of attacking U.S. space systems.

Krepon argued strongly for diplomacy in addition to other measures for responding to the threat.   He compared the situation today in U.S.-China relations to the U.S.-Soviet relationship during the Cold War.   During the Cold War, he explained, the United States and Soviet Union had ongoing diplomatic exchanges that allowed each an understanding of the other’s motivations and where to draw the line.  Those dialogues led to several treaties.  With regard to today’s threats to space systems, “we can’t do treaties in space … but we can do… a Code of Conduct that establishes rules of responsible … behavior.”

Krepon doubts whether China really understands the consequences of attacking U.S. satellites because the United States and China are not engaged in similar dialogues.  Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) called that a “startling revelation.”   Krepon continued that he sees a “dysfunction in China between the political leadership and the military” that adds to his concern and suggested that a country-to-country dialogue would put all the parties at the same table talking about “red lines.”

Butterworth disagreed.  He believes China understands completely that attacking U.S. satellites “means war.”  He dismissed the value of a Code of Conduct — “finding ways to negate the U.S. military space advantage is a compelling strategic requirement for China.  It won’t be moderated by proselytizing space norms or deterrence by démarche or a Code of Conduct for good guys in space.”

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