The new space race with China

With help from Derek Robertson

Beijing has vastly upgraded its space program over the past decade, closing the gap with American capabilities in orbit and drawing concern from officials and experts alike. China’s space efforts continue “to mature rapidly and Beijing has devoted significant resources to growing all aspects of its space program,” the Pentagon’s 2023 China Military Power Report reads.

As the name of that report suggests, one major worry is that China’s space program is directly tied to its military — and is building technology to prepare for battles in orbit, such as anti-satellite weapons and space nukes. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

A recent wave of reports and warnings from top U.S. officials have cast a new spotlight on the threat. The Pentagon’s report was published in October. On Tuesday, a 721-page report released by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressional advisory body, concluded that China’s longrunning effort to build a space-based nuclear weapon “has the potential to threaten the U.S. homeland with a new global strike capability.” (It’s widely believed that Beijing has been developing a vehicle for such a weapon for years.)

Other concerning technology China has put into orbit, or may develop soon, includes ground-launched missiles that can hit satellites in low-Earth orbit, spacecraft that can pull satellites out of orbit and a laser capable of paralyzing U.S. satellites.

With the anti-satellite missile in particular, “that’s a double problem because they can take out satellites, and the debris created by those destructions can cause other problems in orbit,” Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, the Space Force’s chief of space operations, said at an Atlantic Council event Wednesday. “It’s a compounding problem we have to figure out.”

The Pentagon, of course, is building its own space defenses, but the U.S. has promised a voluntary moratorium on any offensive military tests in space. There’s also no indication that Washington is aiming to launch a nuclear weapon into orbit, though it’s hoping to develop a nuclear-powered rocket.

But the U.S. has a different kind of space-based weapon: a civilian space agency that leads the world in science, manned flight and exploration.

Right now, NASA — not explicitly tied to the Pentagon, State Department or other makers of Washington’s foreign policy that often ruffle feathers with other countries — is working as a kind of global diplomatic agency to persuade nations to join the United States in the future of space exploration.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has made it a top priority to convince other nations to sign onto its Artemis Accords, a non-binding framework outlining rules and norms for space exploration, including data-sharing agreements and a promise to avoid conflict. Thirty-two countries have joined Washington, including countries that are close to China’s orbit, like Brazil, Argentina and Saudi Arabia.

Nelson and three former administrators emphasized to POLITICO the importance of the accords, as well as NASA’s ability to offer fledgling countries ambitious science projects that help foster a favorable relationship with Washington. Those include a deal to help Brazil track Amazon rainforest deforestation with satellite imagery and a program to help countries in the Global South and Asia manage issues with food security, water resources, land use change and natural disasters.

Not to be outflanked by the West, China has been working to form its own coalition seen as a counter to the Artemis Accords.

In October, Beijing secured two more partnerships for its International Lunar Research Station project, which aims to build a lab on the moon in the 2030s. Countries that have signed on include Belarus, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Venezuela and Azerbaijan — none of which are particularly aligned with the U.S.

The stakes are high, and Washington is still in the lead in the current technological and diplomatic “space race,” as Nelson calls it.

If China’s space program continues to grow and develop military tech in orbit, it could spell trouble for the United States — and the rest of the world, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s report warns:

“The balance of power in Asia and worldwide could be dramatically altered.”

Small, cheap drones are playing an outsized role in military conflicts across the globe, and experts believe the U.S. military needs to tweak its strategy for countering this tech on future battlefields.

The U.S. must be prepared to deal with the weapons across the entire military — not just from an air defense perspective — since the influx of drones has implications for battlefield recon and other issues, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Shaan Shaikh told Digital Future Daily.

Shaikh didn’t offer specific recommendations for the Pentagon to implement, but a report published by his team Tuesday points out problems that experts believe should be addressed, such as applying a doctrine to counter small uncrewed aerial systems (sUAS) across all the services. The Army is currently leading the effort through an office that is directing the doctrine, requirements, materiel and training.

So far the DOD has responded to these drones well, Shaikh said. In 2020, it created the Joint C-sUAS Office to test new air defenses. Two years later, the Biden administration noted the drones as a threat in its Missile Defense Review, the Pentagon’s annual report of the military’s defense capabilities.

“Everyone has a role to play in this mission. Whether you’re working in … intelligence or the special operations forces, the role that they play will be different, but they have a role to play,” Shaikh said in an interview. “It cannot stay solely within the air defense branch.” — Matt Berg

Stanford and University of Chicago researchers say we need to understand the limitations of generative artificial intelligence to recognize its true dangers heading into the 2024 election cycle.

In a white paper published today, the researchers say journalists, politicians, and voters need to be educated on what AI can and can’t do, especially given the hype surrounding the technology.

“If there is a single theme to our review, it is that voters, journalists, and everyone who cares about elections should regard claims about new technology with great skepticism,” they write, saying that applies both to fake AI-generated content and maximalist claims that the technology can sway voters en masse.

“There is ample misleading content that is not AI-generated, and there will be plenty of perfectly accurate AI-generated content,” they conclude. “Ultimately there will be no substitute for your skepticism, common sense, and trusted sources.” — Derek Robertson