US tells China: ‘We’ll fight in outer space if we have to’

A top US military official has said the country is left with “no choice” but to prepare for a conflict in outer space due to Russia’s aggression and China’s ambition of becoming the dominant space power by mid-century.

Brigadier General Jesse Morehouse, the deputy director of strategy, plans, and policy at US Space Command, was in London last week to discuss the combined space capabilities of the two countries at a conference called the Space Operations Summit 2023.

Brig Gen Morehouse told reporters at a press briefing at the US embassy that America was “ready to fight tonight in space if we had to,” the Guardian reported.

“If someone was to threaten the United States of America, or any of our interests, including those of our allies and partners with whom we have treaties of mutual defence support, we are ready to fight tonight,” he was quoted as saying.

The US Space Command was first set up in 1985 to provide command and control for military forces in outer space, but it was disbanded in 2002 and its forces and responsibilities merged into the US Strategic Command.

It was re-established under president Donald Trump in August 2019 to conduct military operations in space.

Operations in space hold a strategic value to the US, Ben Ogden, a colonel in the US Army and the assistant professor of strategic space studies at the Center for Strategic Leadership, explained recently in a podcast.

“Space power enables our way of life...It enables us to connect with each other over vast distances and its importance in advances in science and technology cannot be understated,” Col Ogden said, adding that space has become vital for US national security and defence.

Morehouse’s comments on Thursday also come as countries including China and Russia have shown capabilities to spy on and destroy the satellites of other countries, including by using missiles from the ground.

The US has previously condemned Russia’s “irresponsible” activities in orbit, including its launch of a strange satellite that appeared to have what is called a “space apparatus inspector”and that was exhibiting “very abnormal behaviour”.

A US general has also warned that Russian and Chinese spacecraft could attack satellites with lasers and jammers.

Analysts have suggested that the satellite in question, Kosmos-2558, could be an “inspector” satellite capable of moving close to other satellites and gathering intelligence.

This satellite, launched in August last year, has frequently come close to the American military satellite USA-326, which the Pentagon said is meant to gather intelligence via “overhead reconnaissance”.

Vice president Kamala Harris said in April 2022 that the US would no longer conduct anti-satellite missile tests, condemning such tests by other countries as “reckless” and “irresponsible,” and viewing them as efforts to develop anti-satellite weapons systems.

Citing an example, she said the Chinese anti-satellite missile test in 2007, and Russia’s test in 2021, destroyed their own respective satellites and generated thousands of pieces of debris with the latter found to have produced over “1,600 pieces of debris.”

Such tests were banned by the US last year due to the clouds of debris they create in orbit, posing risks to other satellites for years.

“A piece of space debris the size of a basketball, which travels at thousands of miles per hour, would destroy a satellite. Even a piece of debris as small as a grain of sand could cause serious damage,” she explained.

Morehouse said on Thursday that the US would continue to develop anti-satellite technologies, but “without engaging in irresponsible tests”.

“Can you develop a capability that can be used to counter satellites, that works very well, and validate that it works without having to create a debris cloud on orbit every time you do so? Absolutely,” he said.