U.S. is concerned about rivals’ space threats, leaked documents show

Russia’s troubled space program “very likely will diminish during the next decade” as it faces increased global competition, U.S. sanctions and the rise of SpaceX, which has eaten a large chunk of Russia’s revenue, according to a leaked top secret U.S. intelligence document obtained by The Washington Post.

At the same time, China has developed significant capabilities “to hold key U.S. and Allied space assets at risk,” and would deploy them in any conflict with Taiwan, according to another leaked document.

Taken together, the assessments show the increased importance space has in modern warfare, highlighted by the conflict in Ukraine, and they underline the kinds of threats military analysts have been warning about for years.

The Post obtained the documents, which have not been previously reported, from a trove of intelligence material allegedly leaked to a Discord chatroom by Jack Teixeira, a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard.

The Defense Department declined to comment.

The leak comes as the U.S. Space Force enters its third year of operation and as senior Pentagon leaders sound the alarm over increased threats coming from space.

Speaking last week at the Space Symposium conference in Colorado Springs, Space Force Gen. Chance Saltzman, the chief of space operations, said the Pentagon is “seeing an incredibly sophisticated array of threats” that includes jamming of communications and GPS satellites, spacecraft that can grapple other satellites, lasers that can dazzle them, cyberattacks and even “nesting dolls,” or satellites that release others that spread out and track adversaries’ spacecraft.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said during the conference that China “has doubled the number of their satellites just since the Space Force was established.” It now has more than 700 in operation with about 250 used for ISR, or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Both China and Russia have the ability to destroy satellites in orbit with missiles. China did so in 2007, while in 2021, Russia destroyed a dead satellite with a missile, creating a massive field of debris and drawing condemnation from the United States and international community. The Post previously reported that leaked documents showed Russia has also experimented with its Tobol electronic warfare system in an attempt to disrupt SpaceX’s Starlink satellite system, which has kept Ukrainians connected throughout the conflict with Russia.

In its annual “Space Threat Assessment” report, released this month, the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that “China continues to make progress toward its goal of becoming the world leader in space. Over the past year, China has continued to grow its space and counterspace assets, maintaining its status as the second-most-capable space nation after the United States.”

China has also developed a space station in low Earth orbit, landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon and a rover on Mars. It also plans to put astronauts on the moon and is targeting the lunar south pole, where NASA’s Artemis program also intends to send astronauts.

China by far has the more dynamic space program of the two U.S. rivals, U.S. officials say.

One of the leaked documents says “[China’s] overall military strategy to establish and maintain information dominance in conflict drives Beijing’s development of space and counterspace doctrine, capabilities and TTP,” or tactics, techniques and procedures.

As part of a military strike on Taiwan, China would probably jam communications and intelligence satellites that can see through clouds, “degrade or destroy space ground networks” and “destroy ballistic missile early warning satellites,” the document says.

During a congressional hearing last week, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson repeated his belief that the country is in a space race with China on the civilian side as well, and warned that the United States needed to get its astronauts to the moon before China does.

“If you let China get there first, what’s to stop them from saying, ‘We’re here. This is our area. You stay out.’ That’s why I think it’s important for us to get there on an international mission and establish the rules of the road.”

While China’s space program has been advancing steadily, Russia’s has diminished, according to the leaked intelligence files. Along with global competition, “severed Western partnerships and disrupted supply chains also very likely have hampered the Russian space program’s ability to generate funding, which has been in decline since at least 2020,” one of the documents says.

Without mentioning SpaceX by name, the document noted that in 2020, “a named U.S. commercial company was certified to transport astronauts to the International Space Station; the U.S. had paid $75-85M per seat on Russian spacecraft.”

The document also noted that “foreign customers have canceled planned launches on Russian [rockets] and other space-related activities, eliminating a key revenue stream.”

Another factor in its gradual demise is that “Russia has been unable to easily obtain space-grade components due to Western sanctions, forcing production delays of military and civilian satellites,” according to the document.

Before 2014, the document said, “Moscow deprioritized domestic production of space components because superior Western technology was readily available.” And now, “Moscow is seeking to increase material assistance from [China] to sustain its space industry,” the document reads.

“Russian companies attempted to create space-rated components for select satellites,” the document asserts. “But the low quality of the components led to on-orbit malfunctions.” It did not identify specific failings.

Last year, the Kremlin appointed Yuri Borisov, a deputy prime minister, to replace Dmitry Rogozin as the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Rogozin had threatened to end the partnership with the United States on the International Space Station over the U.S. response to the war in Ukraine.

While the partnership has endured, Russia has had serious problems with two of its spacecraft. This year, Roscosmos was forced to send a replacement Soyuz spacecraft to the station after another one suffered a puncture to one of its external coolant lines and sprung a leak. The damaged spacecraft was deemed unsuitable for returning cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, as well as NASA astronaut Frank Rubio.

Then another spacecraft, this one used for cargo only, suffered a similar leak. It was not clear if they were hit by micrometeorites or had manufacturing defects.

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