US risks losing space and military tech dominance without commercial sector support, Space Force commander warns


In brief: The United States’ dominant position when it comes to the space industry and, by extension, certain military tech could be lost as adversaries such as Russia and especially China make huge gains. The commander of the US Space Force (USSF) warns that without help from the commercial sector, “the US will lose.”

Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, Chief of Space Operations for USSF, talked about the need for the military to form partnerships with the commercial space sector, such as SpaceX, ULA, and Blue Origin (eventually), to develop new space-based tech.

“The Space Force must harness the benefits of technological innovation and emerging capabilities if we are going to be able to outcompete our competitors, or the Space Force will lose, the Joint Force will lose, and the US will lose,” Saltzman warned in his speech at the Space Foundation’s 2024 Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

Saltzman noted that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has illustrated that big wars can quickly return. He added that the conflict has also proven how cooperation between industry leaders and allies can be effective.

Saltzman is likely talking about the role Elon Musk’s SpaceX has played in Ukraine. The company has supplied over 42,000 Starlink terminals to the country and maintained them since Russia invaded, helping keep the nation’s critical infrastructure and its citizens online. The situation led to Russia reiterating its warning that SpaceX satellites could become targets if used for military purposes.

There have been moments where the Starlink/Ukraine relationship has become strained, such as when SpaceX stopped the country from using Starlink to control drones, when Musk warned that it can’t fund Ukraine indefinitely (which he went back on), and allegations that he disabled Starlink to prevent an attack on Russian ships.

Saltzman also mentioned the threat posed by China. “Frankly, China is moving at a breathtaking speed. Since 2018, China has more than tripled their on-orbit intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites,” he said. “And with these systems, they’ve built a kill web over the Pacific Ocean to find, fix, track and, yes, target United States and allied military capabilities.”

Saltzman added that China has built a range of counterspace weapons. Leaked CIA files last year showed the country is building sophisticated cyberweapons that could “seize control” of satellites belonging to enemy Western nations, rendering them ineffective at supporting communications, weapons, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. Chinese military researchers previously urged the government to develop ways of destroying or disabling the satellites.

There is precedent for the military working with commercial entities. Saltzman highlighted how the US Navy partnered with the coal industry during the Spanish-American War. In more recent times, the US Air Force has partnered with commercial satellite operators Inmarsat and Intelsat to provide satellite communication services.

The speech came just as the USSF published a new Commercial Space Strategy that calls for “cultivating commercial partnerships to increase US competitive advantage.” Space Force writes that priority areas for new commercial partnerships are tactical surveillance, reconnaissance, and tracking; space-based environmental monitoring; positioning, navigation, and timing; and space access, mobility, and logistics.


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