Ex-CIA officer: US could fall behind China in space satellite wars

According to the report and the briefings, Beijing wants to develop anti-satellite weapons with capabilities from dazzling to jamming, to kinetic kill-from-the-ground as well as from space.

A computer-generated redition of the nano-satellites in orbit (photo credit: Courtesy)
A computer-generated redition of the nano-satellites in orbit
(photo credit: Courtesy)

If the US is not careful, China will overtake it in the race for dominating space-related issues, with a range of consequences for any future conflicts, former CIA space analyst Tim Chrisman said on Thursday.

Though Chrisman’s focus is the US-China race, if Beijing overtook Washington, this could also have serious negative implications for American allies like Israel who benefit from satellite intelligence, and lead to the providing of intelligence to Chinese allies, like Iran.

Chrisman also served in army intelligence and is currently serving as co-founder of Foundation for the Future, a scientific education and public works advocacy group dedicated to creating an infrastructure to live and work in space.

In a July briefing and in America’s annual National Intelligence Assessment report in April, top American national security officials said that China was making sizable, long-term investments in weapons designed to jam or destroy satellites as it seeks to rapidly narrow the US lead in space technology.

According to the report and the briefings, Beijing wants to develop anti-satellite weapons with capabilities from dazzling to jamming, to kinetic kill-from-the-ground as well as from space.

A satellite (credit: INGIMAGE)A satellite (credit: INGIMAGE)

If Washington lost its space satellite advantage, this could impact everything from closing off major advantages in American intelligence collection to impairing global wireless networking capabilities of US military air, land and sea-based units.

Referring to the impending potential space satellite wars issue, Chrisman said, “it’s definitely been the concern, very similar to how China is treating the South China Sea or Russia has used Kaliningrad to create these products of area denial. Either of these countries can use these asymmetric weapons to, if not destroy, then sideline the US capabilities,” in space.

“In space, in the eventuality of conflict, some of these – whether cyber or laser – may not be directly attributable because of lacking sensors or otherwise lacking the ability to know where it came from,” the former CIA analyst said. “That then adds a layer of complexity and tension in case of conflict.”

He was questioned about whether he believed the US intelligence community was committed to taking the threat seriously or whether its commitment was more limited to occasional declarations to Congress.

Responding, he said: “In general, the sense from outside the Space Force [established in December 2019] and a handful of pockets elsewhere in the government, is that the US is always dominant in space, so clearly we still do [dominate], and so there is this kind of odd, balanced response to any announcement by China or Russia about new capabilities,” he said.

On the one hand, officials convey they are “overly worried this will damage everything about the US’s ability to fight,” but on the other hand, there is a “lack of a long-term focus on how to counter that and stay ahead.”

“The creation of the Space Force is a great tool, giving a single entity the motivation and clout to start tackling this head on, but there definitely [still] seems to be a lack of urgency about anything in space,” said Chrisman.

Asked if the culture of the security establishment to emphasize near-term threats over long-term ones impacted how much attention the issue received, he said that, “in general, we were listened to,” but that, “I think you were exactly right with the time frame. The second we say something outside a six-month to a one-year window,” they lost the interest of higher ranking officials and the issue was relegated to meetings in the distant future.

In terms of how he crossed into following space issues for the CIA, Chrisman said that he first published a book about the future of humanity in space.

This facilitated him moving from a focus on Afghanistan with much of the rest of the agency to space issues in general and especially the race with China for dominance.

Chrisman noted that the CIA commitment to space is extremely small and that in general the Pentagon, the Space Force and other military services likely have more than 5,000 personnel working on the issue – besides of course the civilian NASA contingent.