Rules-based interplanetary order: U.S. Space Command takes conflict with China and Russia to the heavens
General James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command (SPACECOM), testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 21 and laid out the purpose, progress and plans of the Pentagon’s latest unified combatant command. SPACECOM in its current avatar was established slightly more than a year and a half ago.
Its mission statement begins with: “United States Space Command (USSPACECOM) conducts operations in, from, and to space to deter conflict, and if necessary, defeat aggression, deliver space combat power for the Joint/Combined force, and defend U.S. vital interests with allies and partners.”
Unlike U.S. Space Force in Huntsville, Alabama, it’s slogan is not Maybe your purpose on this planet isn’t on this planet. SPACECOM is concerned about dominating space against very earthly enemies. The theme of war in space is as old as the Assyrian writer Lucian’s narrative of the second century and as contemporary as the latest Star Wars feature. Now, though, it may no longer exist exclusively in the realm of fiction.
Dickinson began his testimony (in transcript it runs to eighteen pages) by asserting, “The number one priority for the Command is to understand our competition….” As his talk proceeded, though, it became obvious that he wasn’t speaking about competitors, not even rivals, but adversaries. And those adversaries were, inevitably, the same identified recently by the commanders of Africa Command, European Command and Strategic Command, the U.S. Army in relation to the Arctic, America’s top intelligence agencies and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: China and Russia. With Iran and North Korea assigned to the lower tier of the U.S.’s new Axis of Evil.
The commander’s assumptions are breathtaking in their scope and hubris. Although at times warning that China and Russia are striving to achieve superiority in space (or any other domain’s) warfighting capabilities, he also warned that “an increasingly assertive China and a resurgent Russia” – the two are invariably coupled – jointly could “actively integrate advanced space and counterspace technologies into multi-domain warfighting strategies to challenge U.S. regional superiority, position themselves as space powers, and create improved balance of power dynamics in their near abroad.” At another point in his speech he spoke of “potential adversaries continu[ing] their effort to achieve parity in space.“
By challenging U.S. regional superiority it’s to be understood he is not speaking only about America’s own “near abroad” but every region in the world. The Pentagon divides up the entire land mass of the world into six geographical unified combatant commands and the world’s oceans between six naval fleets and eleven nuclear-powered aircraft supercarriers. Russia and China are accused of employing, or intending to employ, space assets for “improved balance of power dynamics” in their own neighborhoods. That is to be forestalled, to be combated at all costs. Though that brutal geopolitical imperative is disguised behind language like “safeguard[ing] our national interests at home and abroad and…support[ing] a rules-based international order….” In space.
China and Russia are accused of having weaponized space “to deter and counter U.S. and allied intervention and military effectiveness in future conflicts.” Given the U.S.’s and its NATO allies’ wars in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa of the past twenty-two years alone, in the abstract the prospect of neutralizing such wars from space is not such a terrifying idea. There could be a Nobel Peace Prize in the offing for the creators of such a project. It evidently didn’t occur to the commander, or if it did he thought better than to acknowledge the fact, that China and Russia may be justified in attempting to match Space Command’s capabilities for defensive or deterrent purposes.
China is accused of being “a long-term strategic competitor” to the U.S.; one which “continues its decades-long military modernization campaign in order to build what it terms a ‘world-class military.'” Something the U.S. has brandished for over a century; a world-class military that has demonstrated its prowess in China’s neighborhood on several occasions and in China itself at the beginning of the last century.
Dickinson’s assertion that an improved Chinese military “will almost certainly be able to hold U.S. and allied forces at risk at greater distances from the Chinese mainland,” then could be translated as China may be able to fend off military threats further from its coastline. Though hardly so far as Washington claimed to be doing of late in the Hindu Kush mountain range or the southern Balkans to be sure.
Russia’s military remains “an existential threat to the United States and a potent tool designed to maintain Russia’s influence over the states along its periphery.” One would hardly know that the U.S. had staged armed invasions of nations like the Dominican Republic, Grenada and Panama in the past fifty-six years to “maintain influence along its periphery.” In Russia’s case, moreover, Dickinson was alluding not only to Russia’s neighbors but former parts of Czarist, Provisional Government and Soviet Russia itself. As with the earlier charge against China, and with near-identical phraseology, Russia is accused of “developing space attack systems to hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk.” The SPACECOM commander assured the Senate committee that American and allied military expansion into space is solely for peaceful purposes. China’s and Russia’s are exclusively for illegitimate and aggressive ones. The term for such a radical dichotomous worldview is Manichaeism.
The rest of the testimony is essentially an extension of the above, with specific technologies and programs detailed, and obligatory disavowals of any hostile intent on the part of Space Command, even against such pernicious and perfidious “existential” threats as China and Russia.
And Iran and North Korea. These two adjuncts, junior leaguers, aspiring “pacing threats” and “near-peer adversaries” are accused of advancing “their own counter-space threats through cyberattacks, jamming, and electronic warfare.” Hardly activities that would grab and hold the attention of Star Wars aficionados.
But any port in a storm and any imaginary military threat when it’s time to appear before Congress for military appropriations. In concluding remarks that will keep the cash flow unimpeded, the Space Command chief left the Senate committee with these inspiring words, only lacking a Nathan Hale-inspired effusion like “I regret that I have only five domains to wage war in.”
“The U.S. must continue to build resilience in the vital space capabilities the Joint Force requires to fight and win in space, as well as in the air, land, sea, and cyber domains, while strengthening its space warfighting capability to counter these rising peer, near-peer, and asymmetric threats.”