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June 24, 2021
Notes from the Pentagon

Space Force set to defend cislunar space, counter China and Russia’s joint effort

By Bill Gertz
U.S. military space forces are preparing to defend systems beyond Earth’s orbit in areas extending to the moon and beyond, according to a report by the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Defending cislunar space — the volume of space outside of geosynchronous Earth orbit and within the moon’s gravitational pull — is outlined in a memorandum of understanding between the Space Force and NASA. The report was made public this week after China and Russia announced plans for a joint international research station to be built on the moon.

Both nations’ space programs are closely aligned with their militaries, and a moon base would give China and Russia the ability to control cislunar space.

The Space Force-NASA memo from September extends the military’s mission beyond near Earth, or 22,236 miles above the surface in geosynchronous orbit.

Government and private-sector space operations are reaching at least 272,000 miles, the distance from the Earth to the moon.

The extension means the Space Force will need to develop greater surveillance tasks for what the military calls “space domain awareness” — spy systems used for both defense and offensive operations in space war.

The Space Force doctrine states that “humankind has changed, and our potential adversaries’ actions have significantly increased the likelihood of warfare in the space domain.”

NASA plans to extend its manned explorations beyond the orbiting International Space Station to the moon’s surface, the space between the Earth and the moon, and even interplanetary destinations.

The National Space Council’s July 2020 report, “A New Era for Deep Space Exploration and Development,” predicts the moon’s surface and cislunar space will be used to develop new technologies, operational capabilities and commercial space systems for human presence on the moon, Mars and beyond.

The Space Force does not have a direct role in civil exploration but must support combatant commands to ensure free access to space. The memo expanded the Space Force’s mission to the moon and planets.

“[U.S. Space Force] now has an even greater surveillance task for space domain awareness (SDA) in that region, but its current capabilities and architecture are limited by technologies and an architecture designed for a legacy mission,” the memo stated. It noted that American space troops must now “provide the resources necessary to protect and defend vital U.S. interests in and beyond Earth orbit.”

The report outlines problems with using electro-optical and radio frequency sensors. The distances make communications difficult, and the lack of gravitational pull means it is difficult to keep satellites in place. Sensor stations for outer-orbit space could be deployed on Earth, in Earth orbit or while orbiting the moon.

The report concludes that operating in cislunar space will require frequent maneuvers and more fuel for spacecraft, and that moves in deeper space will be very different from the predictable and stable orbits around Earth.

Russia could defeat the United States and NATO alliance in a war even though Moscow‘s grouped troops are the least modernized element of its large-scale military buildup, according to a Pentagon-sponsored study by the Rand Corp. think tank.

“Although Russia does possess a number of key advantages in the early stages of a war that would pose serious challenges to a NATO response, its current ground force structure and posture do not ensure an obvious path to defeating NATO in an extended conflict and avoiding nuclear escalation,” the report states.

A regional conflict close to Russian borders would be a serious challenge for the alliance, but it also would expose weaknesses in Moscow‘s forces.

“A prolonged conflict between Russia and NATO could expose Russia‘s limitations in personnel, key military weapons and equipment, and strategic depth,” the report said.

There are no signs that Russia is seeking a war with the West, and the military is postured to coerce or occupy nations on its periphery.

The report concludes that Russian military forces have developed “vastly greater capabilities” than any U.S. adversary, including integrated air defenses that would limit NATO from securing air superiority.

Despite NATO’s overall military superiority to Russia, “a regional conflict close to Russia‘s borders would pose enormous challenges and could result in defeat for the West,” the report said.

“The challenge of potential conflict with Russia is significantly exacerbated by Moscow‘s formidable nuclear arsenal,” said the report, noting that Moscow has the largest arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons that would shape any conventional war.

“Any conventional conflict with Russia will have to be fought in a way designed to limit the risk of nuclear escalation, which might constrain NATO from employing its full capabilities,” the report said.

Moscow‘s current military posture could “quickly shift to an offensive footing” if Russian leaders order it.

The Russian military takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and the Russian military’s role in the Syrian conflict are indicators of increased aggression and foreign adventurism, the authors argue.

If Russian leaders believe an attack on NATO could be launched quickly with little prospect of retaliation, then an offensive could be conducted, the report said.

Nearly half of Russian ground troops are conscripts, and the army has been the slowest service to modernize since 2011. As a result, Russia will have problems seizing and holding large amounts of territory, especially in a NATO counterattack.

Moscow also is in the early stages of building a strategic ready reserve force capable of being dispatched into combat with little preparation.

Russian forces are able to rapidly amass combat power across borders, but critical Russian military, political and economic infrastructure would be bombed with NATO’s long-range precision strike weapons. The danger then is escalation into a nuclear war as conventional forces deteriorate in battle.

“The possibility of a military confrontation devolving into such a scenario — in which outer defenses are worn down — is one that Russia has observed to some degree in every major conflict involving the U.S. military and its allies since 1991 and is arguably a strong deterrent against Russian aggression,” the report said.

Repeated war games conducted by Rand analysts revealed that Moscow‘s forces could rapidly overwhelm the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which lack sufficient backing by NATO allies to blunt a Russian military attack.

The alliance needs more ground-based standoff munitions to shut down Russian air defenses.

“Additionally, Russian electronic warfare, cyber, and counterspace capabilities would pose a threat to critical command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities, without which a number of key NATO warfighting functions would be degraded,” the report said.

The report urges NATO forces to develop improved missiles and other strike weapons to put Russian air and coastal defenses at greater risk as a way to deter conflict.

“Given the centrality of coastal and air defenses (and the capability to preemptively weaken Western air power) to Russian military strategy, standoff munitions, ground-based electronic warfare (EW) and air base-hardening are among the options for NATO to reduce Russia‘s ability to impose obstacles to establishing NATO air superiority,” the report said.

NATO also should harden its defenses against Russian electronic warfare, which Moscow regards as a key strategic tool to weaken the alliance’s forces.

The report, “Competing With Russia Militarily: Implications of Conventional and Nuclear Conflicts,” was sponsored by the Army and published this month. It was written by Rand analysts Clint Reach, Edward Geist, Abby Doll and Joe Cheravitch.

Republican senators this week proposed legislation that would punish China for what they say is its failure to cooperate with international efforts to find the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic and a separate bill that would restrict presidential appointees from working for China.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, introduced the coronavirus measure.

“The Chinese Communist Party does not want a full, forensic investigation into the origins of COVID-19,” Mr. Rubio said.

“If they did, it would have happened at some point during the last 18 months. Instead of hoping the Chinese authorities will suddenly cooperate, the United States needs to compel them to cooperate.”

If the Chinese government fails to cooperate within 90 days of passage, the bill would hit the leadership of Chinese scientific institutions with sanctions. All U.S. funding of research at Chinese institutes would also be halted, and “gain of function” research to make viruses more infectious would be banned.

Similar legislation is being introduced in the House by Rep. Mike Gallagher, Wisconsin Republican.

Separately, Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, introduced legislation that would ban all presidential appointees from working for Chinese companies labeled “national champions” by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Those companies include Huawei Technologies Ltd., the telecommunications giant that the U.S. government has labeled an electronic spying threat.

Mr. Sasse introduced the bill after the Senate confirmed Christopher Fonzone to be general counsel of the Office of Director of National Intelligence.

Mr. Fonzone joined law firm Sidley Austin in November 2017 and carried out legal work for the Chinese Ministry of Commerce and Huawei. He worked as a legal adviser to the White House National Security Council during the Obama administration.

“The last thing we need is a revolving door between the United States federal government and the Chinese Communist Party’s tech puppets,” Mr. Sasse said.

“Mr. Fonzone showed extremely poor judgment when he did work for Huawei after he left President Obama‘s National Security Council. Mr. Fonzone is not going to be the last nominee who will leave a national security appointment to go work for a CCP national champion and then try to come back to government service.”

The senator accused China of pursuing a strategy of “entangling relationships with America’s private sector.”

“We need to make sure we bolt this revolving door shut before more public servants make a quick buck working with the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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