Russia and China’s space weapons plans spur high-level Pentagon meetings

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WASHINGTON – Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will hold a confidential meeting at the Pentagon next week to address Russia and China’s possible pursuit of novel space weapons, according to a publicly disclosed agenda.

The discussion comes after two key events over the past year: Russia launched a rocket to destroy a defunct Soviet-era satellite, creating more than 1,500 pieces of space debris, and defense officials said China has a new hypersonic glide vehicle combination and a Fractional Orbital Tested Bombing System – an unpredictable capability that can remain in orbit for as long as the user determines, and then deorbit as part of its trajectory.

According to the head of US Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, China has successfully tested this capability, which “has never been seen in the world before.” Richard, speaking at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium earlier this month, said the military now needs to overhaul its missile defenses and develop systems to better warn of launches targeting the US

“I’m not at all convinced that we’ve fully thought through the implications of what this weapon system means,” he said. “They will have reduced warning periods, attribution difficulties, and an increased threat to our traditional space and missile defenses and forces.”

Austin, Assistant Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl will meet September 6-7 with the Defense Policy Board, an influential advisory group made up of former national security officials. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy John Plumb will brief the board on the Pentagon’s upcoming strategic review of space travel.

The call will focus on “how China and Russia’s potential development of fractional orbital bombing systems and space-to-surface weapons could affect US deterrence and strategic stability, as well as review US response options to the potential development of such capabilities by an adversary.” , says the agenda.

Also on the agenda are briefings from the intelligence services on Chinese and Russian space policy doctrine and capabilities, the US Space Command and Missile Defense Agency on US space and missile defense capabilities, and the State Department on strategic stability and arms control. The Board will provide advice and recommendations on a secret tabletop exercise in the Pacific Rim, as per the agenda.

The US intelligence community’s 2022 Annual Threat Assessment warned in March that Beijing was deploying “new destructive and non-destructive ground- and space-based anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons,” without mentioning the fractional orbital bombardment system, commonly referred to as FOBS. Russia, it was said, was developing electronic ground warfare and directed energy weapons to combat Western facilities in orbit.

“Russia continues to train its military space elements and deploy new anti-satellite weapons to disrupt and impair U.S. and allied space capabilities, and is developing, testing and deploying a range of non-destructive and destructive counterspace weapons — including jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, in-orbit capabilities, and ground-based ASAT capabilities — to target U.S. and allied satellites,” the assessment reads.

While the presence of senior defense officials at next week’s meeting is notable, analysts say the likelihood of Russian and Chinese FOBS and space-to-surface weapons remains unclear, in part because — while several senior defense officials have confirmed the test took place — the Pentagon has not published any evidence.

“The Russians and Chinese are clearly trying to develop systems to circumvent US-developed missile defense systems,” said Kaitlyn Johnson, deputy director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s hard to judge what that is from the public side of things, what that entails. I think that’s what this meeting is about.”

Likewise, Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation, a former Air Force space officer, said the meeting was “surprising” given that he was unaware of the public data that Russia and China are developing space-to-ground weapons.

“This meeting may be more about the possibility of China developing one of these capabilities and what implications that could have for US national security,” Weeden said. “I find that interesting because while Russia and China have worried about the US developing space-to-surface weapons for decades, the US has simultaneously resisted serious discussion or proposals, saying these are not real threats.”

Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, government and the defense industry. He was previously a convention reporter.

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