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Interview

US Space Force chief convinced China would use satellite killers

Gen. John Raymond calls for intel sharing with allies

A Cygnus space freighter completes a four-month cargo mission at the International Space Station. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

WASHINGTON -- Gen. John Raymond, the chief of the U.S. Space Force, says that the security of the final frontier faces a "full spectrum of threats" from China that needs to be countered by allied cooperation.

The Chinese have built and are building "everything from reversible jammers of our GPS system -- which provides navigation and timing with precision --, to jamming of communications satellites," Raymond told Nikkei in a recent telephone interview. "They've got missiles they can launch from the ground and destroy satellites."

"I’m convinced that these capabilities that they’re developing would be utilized by them in their efforts in any potential conflict," Raymond added.

Raymond was the first person appointed to lead the Space Force, established in 2019. The body serves as the sixth branch of the military at a level comparable to that of the army and navy.

Raymond's military career spans more than three decades, mostly in the Air Force. He was stationed at the U.S. Yokota Air Base in Japan from 2010 as vice commander of the Fifth Air Force. He participated in Operation Tomodachi, the U.S. military's mission to provide assistance during the aftermath of the devastating March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond says great power competition goes beyond a competition of militaries. "It goes across all facets of governments. Space is critical to that." (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Space Force)

In his observation, the U.S. faces a space domain that has gotten "a lot more competitive."

"Space underpins all of our instruments of national power, whether it's diplomatic, economic, information, and national security," Raymond said.

"Great power competition is broader than just competition among the militaries," he added, alluding to Russia and China. "It goes across all facets of governments. Space is critical to that."

Satellites play a major role in U.S. military activities, whether tracing enemy movements or missiles, or handling communication between units.

"Access to space and freedom to maneuver in space are really important," Raymond said.

Yet critics contend that the U.S. has entrusted too much of its capabilities to space assets. If a conflict breaks out with China or Russia, one of the first things to be carried out would be an attack on U.S. satellites to severely damage America's capacity to fight, the reasoning goes.

Raymond is especially concerned about China in this respect. Not only is China developing "killer satellites" with robotic arms to incapacitate other satellites, he said, the Asian power looks to field antisatellite missiles and equipment to jam GPS services.

One option to resolve any misgivings toward Beijing is for bilateral dialogue between military officials to take place.

However, Raymond said: "I have not engaged with the Chinese leadership."

U.S. relations with China have grown complicated since former President Donald Trump was in power. The tensions appear to illustrate why Raymond has not spoken to his Chinese counterparts, and the lack of dialogue partly explains the arms race between the two countries.

During June's NATO summit, the leaders for the first time issued a joint communique stating that an attack on any member in space would trigger Article 5 provisions invoking collective defense. Raymond says this position recognizes that cooperation with allies in space has become increasingly important.

But it remains unclear whether NATO should take immediate collective action if just one of a member's satellites is attacked. For starters, it would be difficult to determine an attribution if an actor conducted an electromagnetic attack or cyberattack.

Given that NATO said in the communique it would respond to threats "on a case-by-case basis" it appears the body will consider and discuss the exact nature of such threats.

Raymond did not give a direct answer when asked if the U.S. would consider applying the mutual-defense provision of the U.S.-Japan security treaty to the space domain.

Instead he noted the increasing importance for partnerships in space. "Historically, space has been a benign, peaceful domain without threat," which meant that there was little need to rely on partnerships.

"That is not the case today, with the strategic environment that we have. We face a space domain that is much more congested."

The Space Force chief said U.S. allies should improve the speed and precision of intelligence sharing as well as expand military exercises in preparation for national security emergencies.

He said his inspiration for collaboration in space came from his experience in Japan, especially in his time with Operation Tomodachi.

"I saw, for the very first time the value of partnerships in the humanitarian assistance, disaster relief operations."

"To operate successfully in the space environment that we see today, on a global scale, you have to have partners. We are clearly stronger together," he said.

President Joe Biden, who completed the withdrawal of American military forces from Afghanistan, has been on the receiving end of criticism for abandoning a country. Securing the trust of allies will be key to expanding cooperation in space.

When it comes to space debris, "we face a space domain that is much more congested," said Raymond. The U.S. is monitoring 30,000 objects floating in space, including debris, and avoiding collision is becoming a more challenging task.

In 2007, China test-fired a ballistic missile to destroy a defunct satellite. That test generated about 3,000 more pieces of debris, according to a U.S. military estimate.

The Biden administration aspires to take the lead in establishing order in space. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin sent a memo in July regarding the "tenets of responsible behavior in space."

The tenets include limiting "the generation of long-lived debris," and avoiding "the creation of harmful interference," alluding to a country's satellite activities. The document also called for communication and notifications between nations to improve safety.

Toward this end, Group-of-Seven leaders agreed in June on a plan to advance international rule-making at the United Nations and other global bodies.

China and Russia have expressed their willingness to work on rule-making and are calling for limits in fielding space weapons. Their positions are apparently being taken to prevent the U.S. from deploying missile defense systems.

Washington has refused China and Russia's proposals, and talks to demilitarize space have reached a standstill. While the risk of a clash in space rises, hurdles to international cooperation persist.

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