Beijing's rush for anti-satellite arms began 15 years ago. Now, it can threaten the orbital fleets that give the United States military its technological edge. Advanced weapons at China's military bases can fire warheads that smash satellites and can shoot laser beams that have a potential to blind arrays of delicate sensors. And China's cyberattacks can, at least in theory, cut off the Pentagon from contact with fleets of satellites that track enemy movements, relay communications among troops and provide information for the precise targeting of smart weapons.
Among the most important national security issues now facing President Joe Biden is how to contend with the threat that China poses to the US military in space and, by extension, terrestrial forces that rely on the overhead platforms.
The Biden administration has yet to indicate what it plans to do with President Donald Trump's legacy in this area: the Space Force, a new branch of the military that has been criticized as an expensive and ill-advised escalation that could lead to a dangerous new arms race.
Trump presented the initiative as his own, and it now suffers from an association with him and remains the brunt of jokes on television. But its creation was also the culmination of strategic choices by his predecessors, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, to counter an emboldened China that raised bipartisan alarm.
"There's been a dawning realization that our space systems are quite vulnerable," said Greg Grant, a Pentagon official in the Obama administration who helped devise its response to China. "The Biden administration will see more funding " not less " going into space defense and dealing with these threats."
The protective goal is to create an American presence in orbit so resilient that, no matter how deadly the attacks, it will function well enough for the military to project power halfway around the globe in terrestrial reprisals and counterattacks. That could deter Beijing's strikes in the first place. The hard question is how to achieve that kind of strong deterrence.
Lloyd J. Austin III, a retired four-star Army general who was confirmed last week as Biden's secretary of defense, told the Senate that he would keep a "laserlike focus" on sharpening the country's "competitive edge" against China's increasingly powerful military. Among other things, he called for new American strides in building "space-based platforms" and repeatedly referred to space as a war-fighting domain.
The new administration has shown interest in tapping the innovations of space entrepreneurs as a means of strengthening the military's hand " what Austin in his Senate testimony called "partnerships with commercial space entities." The Obama and Trump administrations both adopted that strategy as a uniquely American way of sharpening the military's edge.
Experts clash on whether the United States is doing too little or too much. Defense hawks had lobbied for decades for the creation of a military Space Corps and called for more spending on weapons.
But arms controllers see the Space Force as raising global tensions and giving Beijing an excuse to accelerate its own threatening measures.