Ruppersberger Worries About Counterspace Threats, Advocates Commercial Space

Ruppersberger Worries About Counterspace Threats, Advocates Commercial Space

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) pressed Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper about other countries’ counterspace capabilities at a House Intelligence Committee hearing yesterday.  Though it seems an unusual venue for such a discussion, he also called for relaxing “out-dated regulations” that may hamper the U.S. commercial space industry.

The hearing on worldwide threats was the House committee’s counterpart to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearing on the same topic last week, with the same set of witnesses: DNI Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, FBI Director James Comey, and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Matthew Olsen.

Ruppersberger is the top Democrat, or ranking member, on the committee and therefore one of the “Gang of Eight” (the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, the Speaker of the House, the House Minority Leader, the Senate Majority Leader and Senate Minority Leader) whom the President must keep informed of the country’s most secret intelligence activities.

Clapper’s testimony yesterday was similar to what he told the Senate Committee, which is based on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s assessment of current worldwide threats.  An unclassified version of that report has one paragraph describing Chinese and Russian counterspace threats.

Yesterday, Ruppersberger broached space issues as part of his opening statement and followed up during the question and answer period.  Space was just a small part of the discussion, but is nonetheless significant in the context of this broad hearing.   He called out China’s counterspace activities as one of three areas of particular concern to him (cyber and the East China Sea were the other two), and also cited keeping the U.S. commercial space industry competitive as another important issue.

“This year, we must also continue to focus our attention on space.  We must continue to promote our commercial space industry and relax those out-dated regulations that are hampering our competitive advantage.  I cannot emphasize enough that U.S. companies must also be allowed to compete in the free market.  This competition will promote innovation in our space industry.”

Commercial space did not arise again, but Ruppersberger did have a dialog with Clapper about counterspace activities, a subject the two apparently already had discussed in a classified session the previous day.  

Ruppersberger began by stressing the importance of space:  “We have to keep our eye on the ball as it relates to space.  With all the other issues, Snowden and Syria and Iran, space is still one of the most important things that we do to protect the United States of America.”   He expressed concern about China’s 2007 antisatellite (ASAT) test and the resulting debris that threatens U.S. space operations, but primarily he worried that “countries are working on the ability to destroy our satellites, on which so much of our daily lives and our military intelligence capabilities depend.”  He asked Clapper to describe the counterspace threat and whether China understands the “ramifications” of disabling a U.S. satellite.

Clapper replied that the importance of space assets is “why I intentionally brought this up at our closed session yesterday evening” where he had explained “there are countries who are pursuing very aggressive, very impressive counterspace capabilities which I cannot go into here because of classification restrictions.”   In the report he presented to Congress, China and Russia were the only countries specifically identified as pursuing counterspace systems and at yesterday’s hearing he again singled them out.  He asserted that both of those countries “well understand the implications of  — as an act of war — to do something destructive against any of our satellites.”

The question of whether China understands the repercussions of attacking U.S. space systems arose at a House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing on January 28.   Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center, a witness at the hearing, said he was not sure China does understand the consequences because the United States and China are not engaged in the types of dialogues and negotiations that characterized the U.S.-Soviet relationship during the Cold War.  Krepon argued that he sees dysfunction between the Chinese political and military leadership and having bilateral discussions between the two countries would get everyone sitting at the same table talking about “red lines.”    Another witness, Robert Butterworth of Aries Analytics, disagreed, saying that he believes China fully understands that attacking U.S. satellites “means war,” the same assessment Clapper provided yesterday.

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