Threats In Space “Extremely Concerning”: Space Force Boss

The Chief of Space Force did not mince words about the scale and scope of ways Russia and China now have to threaten U.S. satellites.

byJoseph Trevithick|
The US Space Force's top officer says he is extremely concerned by Russian and Chinese threats to American space-based assets.
An image of Landsat 8 taken from another satellite, WorldView-3, in orbit. MAXAR via NASA


The U.S. Space Force's top officer says the scale and scope of Russian and Chinese threats to American assets in orbit, including demonstrated abilities to conduct very close proximity operations, is "of paramount concern."

Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman's comments came yesterday ahead of the disclosure of a still largely unknown serious national security threat, which still-unconfirmed reports say may involve a Russian space-related capability. You can read more about what is known about that threat now in The War Zone's earlier reporting.

"Very concerning. Extremely concerning. ... give me another adjective, you guys are the writers," Saltzman said in response to a question about Russian and Chinese threats from The War Zone's Howard Altman at a media roundtable on the sidelines of the Air & Space Forces Association's 2024 Warfare Symposium. "It's of paramount concern."

Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman delivers a keynote address on the state of the U.S. Space Force during the Air and Space Forces Association 2024 Warfare Symposium on February 13, 2024. USAF

"The number of different capabilities, the number of different orbital regimes they can affect, and the systems that they have threatened by close proximity, or what we call coplanar operations – very concerning," he continued.

"I don't know if I would say there's a new category," Saltzman added when Howard Altman asked if he could talk about any new Russian or Chinese anti-satellite capabilities that his service had observed. "We're seeing continual development and operationalizing of the systems that we've seen tested – if you want to call those tests."

In 2020, Saltzman's predecessor, now-retired Gen. John "Jay" Raymond, had disclosed two Russian tests of a new on-orbit anti-satellite capability involving a small satellite capable of launching a physical projectile. That satellite itself had been deployed by another, slightly larger one in what was dubbed a "nesting doll" configuration.

That same year, Space Force publicly confirmed that a small and highly maneuverable Russian satellite was shadowing a U.S. spy satellite in orbit. Though the U.S. and Russian governments are known to keep very close tabs on each others' space-based capabilities, Gen. Raymond described this particular interaction as "unusual and disturbing."

One satellite can attack another in various ways, as seen in the graphic below from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), once it has been able to get in close proximity. It can also seek to collect imagery and other intelligence about its target or otherwise monitor its activities.


Russia has also, on more than one occasion, demonstrated ground-based anti-satellite interceptors. This includes a test in 2021 that involved the destruction of a long-defunct Soviet-era electronic intelligence satellite and the creation of a dangerous new debris field in orbit.

Counter-satellite systems capable of launching "reversible attacks" that do not permanently damage or disrupt their targets, such as electronic warfare jammers and laser dazzlers, are also in Russia's inventory, and are something it is known to routinely employ against American space-based assets.

Russia is assumed to have extensive additional anti-satellite and other space-related capabilities that remain classified. ABC News reported today, citing anonymous sources, that the aforementioned serious national security threat has to do with potential Russian plans to put nuclear weapons into orbit for possible anti-satellite use. Russia would be in violation of its commitments to The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 if it were to do this, but this would also be in line with years of President Vladimir Putin's regime rolling back its participation in international arms control agreements.

China has been amassing its own arsenal of anti-satellite capabilities. This includes ground-based anti-satellite interceptors and systems capable of reversible attacks similar to the ones that Russia has fielded. In 2021, now-retired Space Force Gen. David Thompson, then Vice Chief of Space Operations, said Russian and Chinese forces collectively were launching reversible attacks on U.S. satellites on a daily basis.

A graphic giving a general overview of different kinds of anti-satellite electronic warfare jamming, which fall in the category of "reversible attacks." DIA

"The PRC [People's Republic of China] is developing other sophisticated space-based capabilities, such as satellite inspection and repair. At least some of these capabilities could also function as a weapon," the Pentagon highlighted in its most recent annual report on Chinese military and security developments, which it released last October. "The Shijian-17 was the PRC’s first satellite with a robotic arm, technology that could be used in a future system for grappling adversary satellites. In October 2021, the PRC launched another satellite with a robotic arm, the Shijian-21, into GEO [geostationary orbit], and, in January 2022, it moved a derelict BeiDou navigation satellite to a high graveyard orbit above GEO."

As The War Zone has pointed out for years, space is an absolutely critical domain and essential for the day-to-day functioning of the U.S. military. American satellites currently provide essential support for early warning, intelligence-gathering, navigation and weapon guidance, communications and data-sharing, and more. Significant and potentially destabilizing threats to these capabilities, therefore, are inherently grave matters of national security. It's a key part of what prompted the creation of U.S. Space Force in the first place.

There seem to be growing signs that a realization is finally occurring that space is unequivocally an active battlefield, and one that requires a more active defense.

“There may come a point where we demonstrate some of our capabilities so that our adversaries understand they cannot deny us the use of space without consequence,” then-Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said at the Space Foundation's 35th annual Space Symposium back in 2019.

This painting, the very first commissioned for the U.S. Space Force, depicts a fictitious reusable space place intercepting a hostile 'killer satellite' threatening another American asset in orbit. U.S. Space Force

"That capability needs to be one that’s understood by your adversary,” she added at that time. “They need to know there are certain things we can do, at least at some broad level, and the final element of deterrence is uncertainty. How confident are they that they know everything we can do? Because there’s a risk calculation in the mind of an adversary."

Gen. Saltzman's comments yesterday show that concerns like this have only grown in the interim, which has now been further underscored by the disclosure of the serious national security threat, which may be tied to Russian space-related capabilities.

Howard Altman contributed to this story.

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