An otherwise silent branch of the U.S. military has suddenly decided to speak out. Air Force Space Command is in charge of watching for one of the most serious, yet most overlooked, threats to the United States—and it recently opened its doors for a segment on “60 Minutes.”
“Somebody somewhere has made a political decision,” said William Triplett, former chief counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an expert on national security, in a phone interview.
Triplett said high-level clearance would be needed for the officers in the segment, especially in Space Command, to speak so openly with the press. This is even more so, he notes, since officers in the “60 Minutes” piece warn several times of the Chinese military.
“Think about when the last time anyone in the administration has come out and said the Chinese are a military threat,” Triplett said.
“I can’t remember anything in all the years I’ve been at this, at least since the 1970s, that the administration has come out and said the Chinese are a military threat to us this blatantly,” he said.
The “60 Minutes” segment, “The Battle Above,” aired on April 26 and gets an inside look at U.S. Space Command. Viewers were given a brief primer on one of Space Command’s top concerns: the Chinese regime’s development of anti-satellite weapons.
“You may be as surprised as we were to find out how the high-stakes game for control of space is played,” CBS correspondent David Martin states in the beginning of the piece.
“It’s part of a complex—and mostly secret—battle for what the military considers the ultimate high ground,” he states.
The security of satellites is among the least talked about elements of modern defense, yet is also one of the most critical as it affects everything from GPS to military communications. While the threat of anti-satellite weapons has usually been discussed in smaller circles of the defense community, the subject has recently begun receiving broad attention.
One venue in which anti-satellite weapons was given a thorough airing is the Space Symposium, which wrapped up on April 16 in Colorado Springs.
The conference is a global event attracting 11,000 attendees. The sessions on cybersecurity and anti-satellite weapons were only open to those with a U.S. security clearance. According to Triplett, China’s anti-satellite weapons were major topics.
“What I’m told is the whole China space ASAT [anti-satellite] thing, that really made the rounds,” he said. “I was told it was the hot topic.”
The Chinese regime’s development of anti-satellite weapons are among its most secretive programs. They’re part of its “Assassin’s Mace” and “Trump Card” programs designed to help the Chinese regime’s military fight a war against a technologically superior adversary.
In January 2007, the Chinese regime tested an anti-satellite weapon and destroyed one of its own weather satellites. The “60 Minutes” segment said the Chinese regime has tested “as many as six, ground-based, anti-satellite weapons.”
Triplett said he does not believe it’s a coincidence that Space Command is breaking its silence and bringing anti-satellite weapons into the public eye at this time.
Among the individuals who appear in the “60 Minutes” piece are U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten and Lt. Gen. John W. Raymond.
Only two weeks ago at the Space Symposium, Raymond warned about the Chinese regime’s development of anti-satellite weapons. According to the website Breaking Defense, he said “soon every satellite in every orbit will be able to be held at risk.”
Hyten had also made an appearance at the Space Symposium, where he praised the performance of a military satellite system deployed last year, designed to track potential threats in space. He said, according to the website Defense Tech, that pictures from the new satellite system “are truly eye-watering and we’re learning things already.”
During the recent “60 Minutes” segment, Hyten came public again. When asked about risks from China’s space weapons, he said “I think they’ll be able to threaten every orbital regime that we operate in. Now we have to figure out how to defend those satellites, and we’re going to.”
He also gave more direct warnings, saying the Chinese regime is going to “continue to conduct tests” of anti-satellite weapons, noting “the testing they’re doing is to make sure that the—if they ever got into a conflict with us or any other spacefaring nation, they would have the ability to destroy satellites. And that is a bad thing for the United States, a bad thing for the planet.”
According to Triplett, direct statements such as these, coming from key people in the U.S. military, aren’t given casually. When it comes to top officials publicly calling out threats from China, he said, “I’ve never seen anything like this, at least since Nixon went to China.”