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China is Having a ‘Strategic Breakout’ in Space Too, USSF Intel Boss Warns

A little less than three years after then-U.S. Strategic Command boss Adm. Charles Richard warned of China’s nuclear forces experiencing a “strategic breakout,” the Space Force’s top intelligence officer says the People’s Liberation Army have done the same in space.

“The PLA has rapidly advanced in space in a way that few people can really appreciate,” Maj. Gen. Gregory J. Gagnon said May 2 at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “I tried to think about historical analogies, about rapid buildups. I haven’t seen a rapid build-up like this. I was thinking about World War II, but even as I was looking more broadly, an adversary arming this fast is profoundly concerning.”

Richard’s assessment of Chinese nuclear capabilities in August 2021 came around the same time that reports first emerged of the PLA building massive nuclear silo fields and has become an oft-repeated term used by lawmakers and Pentagon officials ever since.

In recent months, top military space leaders started using similar language.

“Admiral Richard … labeled the moniker “breakout pace” for nuclear forces. He talked about the fact that, we thought they’d have 500 warheads, but they’re rapidly getting to 1,000,” Gagnon said. “The breakout pace in space is profound.”

Gagnon’s comments come a week after U.S. Space Command boss Gen. Stephen N. Whiting said during a visit to Japan and South Korea that China is moving “breathtakingly fast” in space. They also build on remarks Gagnon and Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman made in March at the Mitchell Institute’s Spacepower Security Forum.

“The PRC has more than 470 [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] satellites that are feeding a robust sensor-shooter kill web,” Saltzman said. “… This new sensor-shooter kill web creates unacceptable risk to our forward-deployed force. This is something that most of us are just not used to thinking about.”

Several years ago, Gagnon said, his warning to other Pentagon leaders and the public was that the Chinese could threaten U.S. satellites with missiles and non-kinetic weapons like high-powered lasers. But more recently, his concern has focused on how China is preparing to use space like the U.S. has—as an integral part of its military operations.

“For the last two years, they’ve placed over 200 satellites in space, both years,” Gagnon said. “Of that, over half of them are remote sensing satellites—remote sensing satellites that are purpose built to surveil and do reconnaissance in the western Pacific and globally. … And the purpose of reconnaissance and surveillance from the ultimate high ground is, of course, to inform decisions about fire control for militaries. It’s to provide indications and warning of [U.S.] Sailors, Marines, Airmen trying to move west, if directed, to defend freedom.”

Using space for ISR is something only the U.S. has been doing for years. Now, though, “that monopoly is over,” Gagnon said.

And like the U.S., the Chinese are not content with only a few, technologically exquisite satellites, Gagnon warned. Rather, they are putting up so many satellites to proliferate just like the Space Force is trying to do—making it harder for an adversary to block the ISR and targeting capability.

It is, Gagnon warned, “an architecture that’s designed to go to war and sustain at war.”

The Space Force is countering that architecture with more sensors and a new squadron—the 75th Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Squadron—for targeting space assets, their networks, and their ground stations.

All told, Gagnon said, the service is using around 600 sensors around the globe to monitor around 1,000 “priority” satellites in orbit. That marks a rapid growth from just a few years ago, when the Pentagon had no more than a couple dozen sensors, and it gives the Space Force’s intelligence enterprise greater insight into how the Chinese and other competitors are working in space.

When the Space Force first stood up, “we’re pushing out … six to seven maneuver alerts a month. ‘Hey, we saw something maneuver out there,’” Gagnon said. “Today, we’re putting out 11,000 a month.”

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