Russia and China are developing new space-based weapons and they’ll be ready “in the near future,” Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Tuesday at the Defense One Technology Summit in Washington, D.C.
The countries, which Ashley called “competitors,” are developing “the ability to interdict satellites both from a ground standpoint and from a space standpoint,” he said. “The technology is being developed right now. It is coming in the near future.”
It was the most overt admission yet from an intelligence leader that Russia and China were rapidly seeking to weaponize space. But a February report from the Office of the Director of Intelligence also hinted at it.
“Russia and China continue to launch ‘experimental’ satellites that conduct sophisticated on-orbit activities, at least some of which are intended to advance counterspace capabilities,” the report said. “Some technologies with peaceful applications—such as satellite inspection, refueling, and repair—can also be used against adversary spacecraft.”
In September, 2014, Russia launched Olymp-K, which reached orbit and undertook a series of irregular maneuvers, coming within seven miles of a pair of Intelsat communications satellites. “This is not normal behavior and we’re concerned,” Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General, told Space News at the time. The incident sparked classified meetings at the Pentagon.
Since then, observers have raised alarms about three other Russian high-maneuverability satellites.
Ashley’s remark comes in the context of a new fight to establish a “Space Force,” an entirely new U.S. military service dedicated specifically to space. Ashley didn’t say whether a separate force was a good idea, but did offer that the technological advancements available to peer nations would pressure U.S. dominance in that domain.
“The competition is only going to grow,” said Ashley. “Look at the national defense strategy. There is an acknowledgement that our technological lead is vanishing… And so when you get to the warfighting doctrine you have to account for … what is the resilience you build into the domains, the redundancy? When it's been degraded or denied, how do you fight?”
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty recognizes “the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes.”
However, the International Committee on the Red Cross has noted that the treaty does not expressly prohibit weapons in space “except the prohibition of weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear weapons) and the usage of the Moon and other celestial bodies for exclusively peaceful purposes.”
In March, Michael Griffin, the new defense undersecretary for research and engineering, said that the United States may dust off plans from the late 1980s to put a neutral-particle beam in space that could fire at missiles on earth or other space objects.