When Sputnik glided across the sky, the Soviet success surprised the American public and led to a generation of technological advancement. Sixty years later, the U.S. security establishment reacted with surprise as another communist success zoomed through the atmosphere, this time in the form of a nuclear-capable Chinese hypersonic missile. One person familiar with the test reacted to the news with the comment that “we have no idea how they did this.”
U.S. national defense is reaching an inflection point. As the world watched our chaotic pullout from Afghanistan, our adversaries saw an opportunity to expand their reach: China has been providing aid to and engaging with the Taliban, and heightened its aggressive posture toward Taiwan. Meanwhile, other adversaries have used the world’s focus on Afghanistan to advance their defense capabilities. In September, North Korea test-fired long-range cruise missiles, and Russia mobilized as many as 200,000 troops for joint military drills with Belarus, with some taking place along the North Atlantic Treaty Organization border.
These are examples of how our adversaries are working to combat and overcome American influence and defense abilities. Their attempts to expand their influence will not stop and it is only a matter of time before rivals may launch direct attacks to weaken U.S. military capacity — on earth or in the skies. We must renew our focus on national security across all theaters, both traditional and new.
Earth is not the sole focus of our adversaries’ defense and expansion strategy. Many of our rivals see space as “critical to modern warfare,” and they believe counterspace capabilities can be used to reduce opponents’ military capabilities and win future wars.
Our adversaries are already acting to address strategic defense priorities in space. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have invested in counterspace technologies to shadow American space vehicles and remove satellites from orbit using laser systems and nuclear power. These technologies risk decimating the in-space technologies that our defense systems on Earth rely on. We must be prepared to defend ourselves against these imminent threats.
While space is one of our largest vulnerabilities, it also offers significant opportunities to advance American defense priorities: deploying satellites and other strategic space assets necessary to protect our nation and advance our surveillance and counterintelligence capabilities. Recently, satellite images detected 229 missile silos under construction in China. By channeling new and existing space capabilities, the United States can ensure it remains one step ahead of its rivals.
However, our adversaries are working hard to deny America’s effective utilization of the final frontier. China has already begun to weaponize space and has invested heavily in aerospace companies, many of which are located in the United States, putting American space communication systems and other components of the U.S. defense base at high risk of infiltration. An attack against a U.S. satellite in space could halt civilian and defense GPS capabilities, stop cellular communications, cripple the financial industry and put vital American infrastructure at risk for hacks while creating catastrophic collision threats for assets in orbit.
We cannot delay our continued support for both new and existing in-space developments to combat our adversaries in battlegrounds outside of Earth. After witnessing the chaos caused by the Colonial Pipeline hack this summer, we can’t afford to put ourselves at risk for similar or more severe threats to national assets and security. We must ensure that future defense contracts and legislation put the United States in a position to successfully prevent our adversaries from infiltrating our systems and militaristic capabilities.
As futuristic as it may seem, the work we do now will protect our legacy in space and here on Earth. The United States cannot turn its back on space as one of our most vulnerable strategic assets. Congress must ensure our country can protect its interests both on the ground and above, deter opponents and help America prevail in conflict. The United States doesn’t have time to waste — now is the time to strengthen U.S. defensive capabilities in space to prevent future adversarial aggression before it is too late.
Cory Gardner, former U.S. senator from Colorado, currently serves as a member of the Strategic Advisory Group to United Launch Alliance and as director of Juggernaut, a company focused on next-generation wireless technologies; he is also a member of Michael Best Strategies Board of Advisors and serves as a strategic adviser to an investment fund in New York.
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