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Five takeaways from the unfolding China-US space war

The stars of the new space age include not only famous entrepreneurs, but a rising generation of dreamers and actors. Small businesses, developing states and even high schools are now putting spacecraft into orbit.

But Beijing intends to dominate the democratized space age. It builds lasers on the ground that can zap spaceships and repeat cyberattacks meant to separate the Pentagon from its orbital fleets.

Seven years ago, Washington seized on a new strategy to strengthen the US military’s hand in a potential space war. The plan evolved under the Obama and Trump administrations and is expected to intensify under President Biden.

Here’s how the fight for space started and how it’s going now:

In 2007, China shattered one of its own abandoned satellites into thousands of swirling shards, making global headlines. The message to Washington was clear: Beijing was a strong new rival.

China carried out a dozen more tests after the 2007 incursion. Some of the fast warheads fired much higher, in theory endangering most classes of American spacecraft.

But Beijing has also sought to diversify its anti-satellite force beyond warheads.

The insight was simple. Every aspect of American space power was controlled from the ground by powerful computers. If penetrated, the brains of Washington’s space fleets could be degraded or destroyed. Moreover, these attacks were remarkably inexpensive compared to other anti-satellite weapons.

China began developing viruses to infect enemy computers, and in 2005 began incorporating cyber attacks into its military exercises. Increasingly, his military doctrine called for paralyzing the first attacks.

The idea is that advances in the commercial sector can do for US space forces what Steve Jobs did for terrestrial gadgets. To counter the Chinese threat, the Obama administration has sought to harness the breakthroughs of space innovators as a way to reinvigorate the military.

Washington has injected billions of dollars into commercial ventures like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. The result has been the development of swarms of tiny satellites as well as fleets of reusable rockets, innovations believed to make anti-satellite targeting much more difficult, if not impossible.

The Trump administration has pursued Obama’s trade strategy, although neither the White House nor the newly formed Space Force has publicly acknowledged its origin.

President Donald J. Trump has also sought to acquire offensive weapons. the Space Force has taken possession of its first offensive weapon, which fires beams of energy from ground sites to disrupt the orbiting enemy spacecraft.

The Trump administration last year asked Congress to start what it called counter-space weapons, valuing their expected cost at several hundred million dollars. The Army’s classified budget for offensive capabilities is said to be much higher.

Lloyd J. Austin III, a retired four-star Army general who was confirmed last week as Mr. Biden’s defense secretary, told the Senate he would keep a “laser focus” on maintaining and the sharpening of America’s “competitive advantage” over China. increasingly powerful military. Among other things, he called for further US investment in “space platforms” and repeatedly referred to space as a domain of war.

Mr. Austin spoke of the need to build orbital resilience, as well as the continued use of innovations from space entrepreneurs as a way to strengthen the military hand. The threatening new era, he said, highlighted the importance of “improving our combat capabilities” in space. And he called China “the rhythm threat.”

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