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July 8, 2021
Notes from the Pentagon

China space war threat growing 'exponentially'

By Bill Gertz
China engaged in a large-scale, rapid buildup of space warfare capabilities over the past six years — that is a major concern for the new Space Command, a senior officer revealed.

Rear Adm. Michael Bernacchi, the command’s director of strategy, plans and policy, said the rapid expansion of anti-satellite missiles, orbiting weapons and electronic tools for space warfare is particularly alarming, considering where Beijing was just a short time ago.

“The thing that scares me the most: If you go back six years ago, China had almost nothing. Now you look at them and the ability for China to exponentially grow their counterspace capability is scary. I mean I don’t know how else to put it,” Adm. Bernacchi said during a recent webinar.

The admiral, a former submarine commander, said the growing danger posed by China’s space buildup is compounded by the People’s Liberation Army ability to integrate space warfighting with other military capabilities, such as cyber and conventional forces.

China‘s ability “to integrate, in a cross-domain capability and start to show this in their exercises, is even more scary,” he said. “Where is this exponential growth and cross-domain capability going to stop? The answer is, I don’t know.”

Adm. Bernacchi said he, like former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, has asserted that “nothing keeps me up at night; I want to keep them up at night.”

“But if there is something that would give me pause, [it’s] the growth rate” of China’s space arms, he said.

One reason for the large-scale build-up is that Beijing’s space infrastructure does not distinguish between military and civilian space systems.

“Everything is dual-use,” Adm. Bernacchi said, adding that Beijing officials are guilty of “hypocrisy” for insisting that China‘s new space weapons are not “militarizing space.”

Both China and Russia, which also has space weaponry capable of knocking out satellites, are seeking legally binding agreements to limit the U.S. from developing space defenses.

“They want to get into the letter of the law because the United States will always honor its treaties. As a democratic nation, we always do that,” Adm. Bernacchi said.

The U.S. Space Command is working to deter China by taking an asymmetric approach to countering space threats.

“We have to make sure at Spacecom why we exist is that we have to deter that aggression,” he said. “We never go man-for-man. We’ve never done that in our history.”

The command’s approach to China’s space buildup is similar to the undersea warfare disparity between the U.S. and Soviet submarine fleets during the Cold War.

“We were outnumbered on submarines quite significantly, in some places seven, eight to one,” he said. “That didn’t bother us. It has to do with, ‘Hey, what is the capability? What is the magazine size? What’s the training, what’s the people advantage?’ It’s all about outthinking, outmaneuvering [rather] than just sheer size.”

Space Command plans to apply advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing for its arsenal, “but we have to respect the growth rate and the capability that has happened in the last six years,” the admiral acknowledged.

China’s space weapons include several types of anti-satellite missiles capable of shooting down satellites in orbits ranging from low-earth to geosynchronous — 22,500 miles in space. China also has developed electronic jammers and lasers capable of disrupting or damaging orbiting satellites. Its on-orbit weapons include small maneuvering satellites, some equipped with robotic arms that can grab or crush satellites.

China also plans to use its formidable cyberwarfare capabilities to disrupt or take control of satellites by hacking enemy ground stations.

Adm. Bernacchi, who spoke last week at a meeting of the National Security Space Association, also said the new military command has been hampered by the stringent information classification rules. The secrecy has made it difficult for analysts and officers to develop plans and share information.

“I had to take a polygraph to get into the building,” he said of the command headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. “You get to a point where it’s just not productive.”

In developing space warfare plans, Adm. Bernacchi said classification levels were so high that in one meeting was limited to two admirals and a general. Unless military planners are granted access to needed information, “it’s a recipe for disaster,” he warned.

Nuclear war threat increases
The Pentagon’s Joint Staff recently made public a report on nuclear war operations that reveals that nuclear strikes in a conflict would include enemy leaders.

The report, “Joint Nuclear Operations,” also discloses that the danger a U.S. adversary will resort to nuclear arms in a conflict is growing.

“Adversaries increasingly rely on nuclear weapons to secure their interests,” the report said. “Those adversaries seeking ways to use nuclear weapons for coercion and war termination present complex deterrence and escalation management challenges.”

The report states that despite efforts by the U.S. government to reduce the role of nuclear weapons for the military, “others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction.”

“They have added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenal, increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans, and engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior,” the report said. “There now exists an unprecedented range and mix of threats, including major conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear, space, and cyber threats and violent non-state actors.”

Since 2010, no U.S. adversary has reduced either the role of nuclear arms or the number of nuclear weapons it fields.

“As a result, there is an increased potential for regional conflicts involving nuclear-armed adversaries in several parts of the world and the potential for adversary nuclear escalation in crisis or conflict,” the report said.

China is building up the number, types, and protection of its nuclear forces with new road-mobile intercontinental-range missiles, adding multiple warheads to DF-5 silo-based missiles, building new missile submarines and a new strategic bomber, providing Beijing with a “triad” of strategic arms.

Russia regards the United States as its main enemy and built up — and is continuing to build up — its nuclear forces, including systems that give Moscow the ability to rapidly expand the number of deployed warheads.

“In addition to modernizing ‘legacy’ Soviet nuclear systems, Russia is developing and employing new nuclear warheads and launchers,” the report said. “It is also developing three new intercontinental-range nuclear weapon systems; a hypersonic glide vehicle; a nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered ground-launched cruise missile; and a nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo.”

North Korea is accelerating its pursuit of nuclear arms and missiles and “expressed explicit threats to use nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies in the region,” the report said.

Iran could build nuclear weapons within a year, based on its infrastructure. Tehran’s development of long-range missiles and destabilizing regional activities “raise questions about its long-term commitment to forgoing nuclear weapons capability,” the report said.

The doctrine publication states that deterring nuclear war remains the highest priority for the military. But preparing to wage war with nuclear arms is also required.

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ for deterrence because the content of each adversary’s decision calculus is unique, and the context in which each adversary’s decision making takes place varies,” the report said. “Consequently, the United States applies a tailored and flexible approach to effectively deter a range of adversaries.”

U.S. nuclear attacks will only be carried out in extreme circumstances to defend American vital interests or those of allies and partners. The report says U.S. intelligence agencies will need to provide global awareness and help target adversaries leaders and other high-value assets.

“Assets highly valued by adversary leaders need to be identified, catalogued, targeted … and maintained for strike planning,” the report said.

The report did not specify targets for adversaries like China or Russia. However, China‘s ruling Communist Party and its power structures likely would be key targets, as would Russian leaders and regime infrastructure.

The report also notes that high-altitude nuclear bursts that cause an electromagnetic pulse to disrupt enemy electronics over wide areas are planned.

“Some high-altitude bursts, in excess of 100,000 feet, will produce widespread electromagnetic pulse (EMP) events, which may affect non-EMP-hardened systems,” the report said.

The report, dated April 17, 2020, was made public by the Project on Government Secrecy through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Air Force shows off new bomber
The Air Force this week provided the latest peek at the new B-21 Raider strategic bomber, releasing an artist’s rendering and fact sheet. The bomber shown flying over Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. in the rendering appears similar in design to the B-2 stealth bomber, with a flying-wing design.

The fact sheet states that the B-21 will be a dual-capable, nuclear and conventional bomber capable of penetrating advanced enemy air defenses.

The bomber also will be capable of being flown by pilots or remotely piloted when delivering “a broad mix of stand-off and direct-attack munitions.”

“The B-21 will form the backbone of the future Air Force bomber force consisting of B-21s and B-52s,” the fact sheet said. “Designed to operate in tomorrow’s high-end threat environment, the B-21 will play a critical role in ensuring America’s enduring airpower capability.”

A fleet of 100 new bombers are being built by Northrop Grumman, Pratt & Whitney, Janicki Industries, Collins Aerospace, GKN Aerospace, BAE Systems and Spirit Aerosystems, with initial deployment in the mid-2020s. Unit cost for each bomber is estimated to be $639 million.

The bombers likely will be based at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota; Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri; and Dyess Air Force Base, Texas.

The name Raider was taken from the historic surprise bombing raid on Tokyo in 1942 led by then-Lt. Col. James Doolittle. Sixteen B-25 bombers made the attack from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet in the western Pacific in retaliation for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

An analysis of the new bomber image by Aviation Week states that the B-21 will use special radar-evading stealth cockpit windows and a larger weapons bay than the B-2. It was the third artists’ rendering of the new bomber. Air intakes and exhaust vents were not shown in the rendering in an apparent bid to protect its stealth features from adversaries.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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