WASHINGTON — A new U.S. intelligence report warns that both China and Russia are investing in weapons that could attack U.S. satellites and assets in space, and that both nations are now preparing to use space as a battlefield.
Last month, the Defense Intelligence Agency released a report about China's military capabilities, warning that the Asian country was making advances in counterspace technology that could threaten U.S. satellites responsible for communications, reconnaissance, GPS and early warnings of missile launches.
But a new DIA report, "Challenges to Security in Space," warns that both China and Russia are making advances in space technology, and that both are likely to turn to space early on in any major military conflict to cripple their adversaries.
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"Space is now a war-fighting domain like the land, sea and air," a U.S. defense official said. "We can't view space as a sanctuary from attack."
The U.S. military has grown increasingly reliant on space assets in recent years. It has communications satellites that provide internet and mobile services, reconnaissance satellites that enable signals intelligence and provide information on enemy force positions, as well as space-based sensors that alert the United States to missile launches, and position, navigation, and timing satellites that provide GPS to the military and to most Americans.
"The use of space has greatly expanded U.S. military ability to project power globally," a U.S. defense intelligence official said, adding they can do so with fewer troops deployed and therefore less risk to American service members. One common example is the use of drones, which rely on satellite signals to communicate.
While China has demonstrated an anti-satellite missile and may have perfected a laser that could attack U.S. assets in space, Russia is still working to perfect those technologies and, according to the report, focusing heavily on directed energy weapons, usually lasers or high-powered microwaves, that can disable or even destroy assets in space.
This mobile, ground-based weapon system "capable of destroying space targets," the report warns, "is likely to be operational within the next several years."
U.S. defense and intelligence officials say neither China nor Russia has surpassed the U.S. in space capabilities, but that they are investing broadly to try to best the American military, and that they are now integrating weapons that could attack in space into their conventional units.
"What concerns me the most is them having a holistic force," the defense intelligence official said. "We need to be postured to address these challenges or we do risk losing our advantages in space. We are at risk unless we posture ourselves properly."
Asked if the U.S. is now in a space race with Russia and China, the defense official said, "We certainly recognize this as a competition."
Courtney Kube is a correspondent covering national security and the military for the NBC News Investigative Unit.