Russia and China have weaponized space and pulled far ahead of America in the space race, says geopolitical analyst Brandon Weichert. “The Americans had better start playing catch up, otherwise, we will face a space Pearl Harbor,” Weichert said.
They already have the capacity to cripple American satellites, which would not only paralyze U.S. military operations. It would also prevent you from doing basic things like paying for gas with your credit card or getting directions on your GPS.
In this episode, we sit down with Weichert to discuss his new book “Winning Space.”
This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Brandon Weichert, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Brandon Weichert: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve written a very, very interesting book about something that I don’t feel is getting enough media attention. And that is specifically the US role in space and the establishment of the space force and what that actually means for America and the world. Why don’t you give me a brief synopsis here?
Mr. Weichert: Well, what it means is that the Americans are finally going to take satellite defense seriously. Our entire society, not just the civilian, but the military as well, relies on satellites for pretty much all of our operations. In the economic domain, you can’t access your ATM card to pay for gas at the fuel pump without those signals passing through space to allow for an instantaneous transaction. You can’t access your Facebook or social media accounts without those signals at some point crossing space.
And on the military side, we can’t project power into any of the global hotspots where we’re currently engaged in, whether it be the Middle East, Venezuela, the Asia-Pacific or the Indo-Pacific now, or Eastern Europe. We need those satellites to allow for the coordination, communication, and the coalescence of American forces to be able to defend our interests globally from rivals like China, Russia, Iran, or even North Korea.
And right now, our rivals for the last decade or so have been focused on building out what are known as counter-space capabilities, the ability to deny the Americans access to those sensitive satellite constellations in the event of a geopolitical crisis, like say, a Chinese attack in the South China Sea, or the East China Sea, or against—God help us—Taiwan, or a Russian attack into Eastern Europe. By depriving us of those resources, we can’t effectively defend ourselves or our friends.
Mr. Jekielek: So let me read to you something that the Secretary of Defense [Mark Esper said]. I know this is something you are definitely watching very closely. Let me read you something that the Secretary of Defense recently said, and I want you to kind of break it down for me, please. He said, “In space, Moscow and Beijing have turned a once peaceful arena into a warfighting domain. They have weaponized space through killer satellites, directed energy weapons, and more in an effort to exploit our systems and chip away at our military advantage.”
Mr. Weichert: Yes. And so basically, what he’s commenting on is what’s been going on for the last eight years wherein first Russia really took the lead in launching what are known as co-orbital satellites. These are tiny satellites that are launched along with regular sort of communications or military satellites. And these tiny co-orbital satellites are what we nickname as space stalkers. The Russians refer to them as Istrebitel Sputnikov.
They’re basically, in peacetime, used to repair any damaged satellites for the Russians, but in wartime can be easily refashioned and can tailgate our sensitive satellites in orbit and knock them physically out of their orbits, thereby removing those American surveillance communications, early warning missile systems from operation and rendering the Americans deaf, dumb, and blind on land, at sea, in the air, in cyber.
And the Chinese have also now been developing similar capabilities. Another thing that the Chinese have been very interested in building out are laser capabilities. Usually, these are fired up from the ground in China and can temporarily blind the optical gear on sensitive satellites passing overhead, passing over the Indo-Pacific. And this is all a sort of a space Pearl Harbor attempt to knock the Americans out of any potential fight in, say, the Indo-Pacific or in Eastern Europe before the Americans can bring our superior forces to bear.
Right now, our forces completely depend on the satellite architecture that’s in orbit. And again, if you deprive those forces of access, they have no ability to really fight effectively. You have to remember the Russian and Chinese militaries would be fighting closer to their home. They would have home-field advantage. And very technically speaking, they have larger numbers of forces than we do in any given arena. And so we’d have to basically mass quickly limited numbers of forces to be able to push back the Russians or Chinese, and the Russians are counting on removing the technological interlinks and depriving us of that ability to mass and fight effectively.
And that’s what he’s referring to there. The Russians and Chinese have been really focused on trying to create a weapons capability in space to threaten and hold hostage our satellites. The Pentagon’s been aware of it since at least 2013. It’s only just now with the Space Force and the Trump administration, though, taking that threat and doing something about it. And you see that now with the Space Force, you see that with the Secretary of Defense’s comments, you see that from the White House Space Council where there is a real push in the last three years to take this threat seriously and to do something to counteract it.
Mr. Jekielek: So as far as I know, all these parties involved are under a treaty that says that we’re not militarizing space, right?
Mr. Weichert: Yes, technically speaking, the Outer Space Treaty of 1969  says exactly that. But as I note in the book, we militarized space the first time we went up into space. The Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, which was a military satellite. And everything since then has been in terms of space development, from both ourselves and other countries, has always been under the imprimatur of a military operation.
The rockets that we use to launch systems and people into space are themselves used in wartime, can be, as ballistic missiles to launch nuclear weapons. The satellites we use in peacetime for communications are and have been fashioned to act as a force multiplier in times of conflict. Even friendly countries like Israel or India have used their space programs as a military aspect as well, an ability to project power or an ability to allow for their military forces to have greater surveillance and communications capabilities.
And so the idea that space is some kind of demilitarized zone, the sanctuary view of space, this is what in the book I call utopians. This is what the utopians and sort of the academic community in the West believe, but no one else does. And the presence of these Russian and Chinese space stalkers, the co-orbital satellites, or the development of these laser systems are explicitly not just the militarization of space, but they’re the weaponization of space.
And so I argue in the book that the Americans had better start playing catch-up, otherwise we will face a space Pearl Harbor. And that could completely debilitate us in any ability to defend our interests or allies in the Indo-Pacific or in Eastern Europe. You’re seeing the end, basically, of American power projection.
Mr. Jekielek: So how far away, based on what you’ve learned, is America from the Russian and the Chinese technology? And frankly, the other question I have is, is any of that technology that’s been used by the Chinese especially, American technology actually?
Mr. Weichert: It’s funny, actually, the Chinese have stolen technology from both the United States as well as the Russians, which I always kind of laugh at because of course, now the Russians and Chinese are getting closer. And I do actually think that Washington needs to take the idea of trying to make a deal with Russia a bit more seriously. Maybe it’s too late now, but at the beginning of the Trump administration, I was one of the few who was hopeful that we could sort of get Russia out of the Chinese camp, but it’s not happened.
And so what you now have is the second most powerful space power, Russia, and the third most powerful space power, China, conglomerating together and sharing technology to leapfrog the Americans in space and to gain dominance in the strategic high ground of space.
Some of the technology, yes, is absolutely taken from the Americans when you’re talking about China. A lot of it, though, is actually borrowed from the Russians. And the Russians are very competent in terms of space technology in particular, and this is why we should be working assiduously to stop the sharing of technology from Russia to China.
This technology is actually—a colleague of mine at the Office of Net Assessment who’s now retired, at the Pentagon, he said, “Oh, this is all retro tech.” And I used to say to him, “Well, look, it may be old technology that we’re talking about, but this is technology that we haven’t really been built out. So we may have had the capabilities for these co-orbital satellites since the ’50s and ’60s, but we’re not the ones exploiting that technology. It’s the Chinese and the Russians who are.”
And so now we have to play catch-up. What I advocate in the book, and what Space Force is talking about doing and the French have really led the way in doing this and coming up with some of the theories for it, is to use our own co-orbital satellites, our own space stalkers, to form clusters of bodyguard satellites around America’s vulnerable satellites and to have sort of battle groups in space of unmanned systems that can defend existing American constellations and then also threaten the constellations of those countries like Russia and China.
Of course, the problem right now is, it’s an asymmetrical threat because China and Russia are not nearly as dependent on satellites in their existence as the Americans are, and they won’t be as dependent on satellites for at least another decade. So from 2020 to 2030, you have this really bad situation where there’s an asymmetrical threat against us, which is why in the book, I argue for more compellent space dominance doctrine on our part, rather than a deterrent-minded doctrine of space superiority. But the idea that space is a sanctuary like Antarctica is insane and dangerous and will lead to an attack on us in space from either China or Russia.
Mr. Jekielek: So up to now, we’re talking basically, as you mentioned, about unmanned satellites, drones, rockets, and so forth. And you also mentioned the Space Force, so to speak, which, of course, is a manned thing. I think NASA has been out of this since around 2011, if I’m not mistaken.
Mr. Weichert: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: But it seems like the Chinese Communist Party is planning a trip to Mars here, or at least that’s what the propaganda says. Tell me about this.
Mr. Weichert: Yes, obviously, the book is not just about satellites. That’s the near-term issue we need to contend with, and Space Force, that’s what it’s designed to do now. But there’s a longer term, more sort of societal competition going on between us and China in particular. And this is the race for national prestige and national greatness.
See, the Chinese understand that if they can signal to the world that they are the great technological innovator—and space programs are a great extension of that—then they will, they think, garner greater, not only respect for their system from the world, but they’ll also garner greater investment from around the world and attract greater levels of talent from around the world to come to China and build out the new industrial revolution in China rather than the West.
The space program is an outgrowth of that. It’s sort of a physical example of that. And a mission to Mars is something the Chinese have been planning for a while. They now plan, I think, on beating us—they certainly want to beat us—to get to the first people on Mars to sort of paint Mars red with China’s Communist Party flag. And they have worked assiduously to leapfrog the Americans.
You see this now with increasing levels of space launches. They now in China have an indigenously built a heavy, heavy lift rocket, a Long March 5B, which can move personnel and equipment into higher orbits around the earth. They can put a lot of stuff into orbit now, whereas before they were always limited in China with weight because they didn’t have the heavy lift capability indigenously. Now they have that, and that’s an integral part in leapfrogging the Americans at getting Chinese taikonauts to the surface of Mars before Americans can.
And another thing to look at is the ongoing race for returning to the moon. We got there in 1969, and throughout the ’70s, we went, but then we stopped going, and then we mothballed our heavy lift rocket, the Saturn V, and instead stuck to low Earth orbit with the space shuttle, which of course we disbanded in 2011 as you noted.
The Chinese are planning to not only get a lunar outpost by 2024 that will initially be unmanned, but then they will by 2028 put astronauts on the lunar surface with intention of mining the rare earth minerals which are in abundance on the lunar surface, and that will allow them to not only gain prestige and to dominate the most valuable real estate on the moon, but it will also allow them to get a first-mover advantage in what many assume to be a multi-trillion if not quadrillion dollar economy in space mining.
The Chinese are doing these things. We’re talking about doing it, but NASA hasn’t done it and SpaceX and the private startups are only just now starting to win government contracts en masse where they can reliably do this. But there’s a lot of hurdles our companies have to overcome that China, because they have state-owned entities and their private companies are run by Chinese communist members, the Chinese don’t have to go through these hoops that we do.
Mr. Jekielek: So I have two thoughts, quickly. One of them is I’m thinking back to the time of JFK, of course, and the Space Race and how important that was and how it was a kind of a patriotic focus of sorts for Americans. And then I’m thinking about the Netflix series “Space Force,” which kind of basically makes fun of the concept. It’s almost like the polar opposite of pride or something like that. What do you make of this?
Mr. Weichert: Well, in terms of Space Force, I actually, I watched the whole series recently. It is really more, I think, a response to the fact that the people who made the series, everybody in Hollywood hates Trump, and anything Trump wants to do or does is going to be lampooned. Even in the show, though, it’s funny, they try to make the whole thing sort of a joke.
But even in the show, from the first episode—I think it’s 13 episodes they did—every episode is about China’s threat to our systems in space. So it’s kind of funny, even as they’re trying to lampoon it, they can’t quite get there because even the Hollywood liberals who hate Trump have to admit that, “Yeah, China’s doing some bad stuff in space, and we’re going to have to be careful.” So because Trump did it, it’s going to be lampooned, but that can’t be the end of the Space Force as an institution.
We need to overcome this as a society and, God help us, unfortunately, the only upside of a space Pearl Harbor in real life would be I think everyone, Republicans and Democrats alike, would have to take the threat to our space systems at that point very seriously. And it’s just unfortunate that we would have to wait for that to happen.
The President’s trying to leapfrog that and basically prevent that from happening. The military would say he’s trying to stay left of boom. Right of boom is responding to an attack. Left of boom is avoiding the attack entirely. And that’s the thrust here that we want to do is stay left of boom. In terms of the issue of lampooning, we’re going to have to deal with that because that’s the political system we’re in.
But the President has tapped into national prestige. He has tapped into national greatness. And you see that by his continued support of not just Space Force, but the reinvigorated approach to NASA’s manned spaceflight program. Of course, he has internal resistance within the bureaucracy of NASA who don’t want to do this, but he is the president, and that carries a lot of weight, and what he wants will ultimately, I think, come through. Especially if he wins reelection, it will be very hard to deny him the opportunity to get American astronauts and NASA astronauts back to the moon by 2024, 2028.
And then, of course, the President has done more to help the private space sector, the Space Launch Services industry, with SpaceX and even Blue Origin, he’s done more than any president in the last decade. He’s really helped to keep our private sector innovation going, which will be the sort of linchpin in overcoming any Chinese threat to our space systems.
Mr. Jekielek: Brandon, another two thoughts coming from what you just talked about. I want to talk about NASA not being terribly excited from what you’re saying about implementing some of these policies. But before we go there, there has been a lot of excitement, indeed, about the private sector—Elon Musk’s recent launch and so forth. And so you mentioned that there’s some barriers, but there is also some progress that the private sector has clearly made here. Can you kind of break that down for me, please?
Mr. Weichert: Yes, the barrier, as the previously mentioned treaty that we signed in 1969  that basically not only forbids the weaponization and technically the militarization of space, but it also was written in a way that harmed the private sector’s ability to exploit space fully. So we allowed for things like communication satellites. But beyond that, there’s a lot of hurdles, regulatory hurdles, that private companies usually have to pass through because of these international laws.
And so basically, when I worked on the Hill back in 2014, we passed the Space Launch Act, which basically allowed any private space mining company from the United States that manages to get to an asteroid, that they can basically harvest the natural resources from there and sell them on the market back on Earth. That really has done a lot to help get this private space mining sector going.
The space launch services sector has been reinvigorated because before it was really for the DOD, the Pentagon side, it was the United Launch Alliance, which was sort of a conglomeration of the big defense contractors, notably Lockheed Martin and I want to say Boeing.
Basically, they [launches] were very expensive. They caused a lot of the problems we’ve had with satellites on the military side. It was basically: the launches were so costly that the military was having to design these special satellites that would last longer than their civilian counterparts because the launches were too expensive to do them regularly. So we had few spares on hand, they were needlessly complex, they were usually by the time they ran through what Thomas Taverney referred to as the “vicious space acquisition circle” in the Pentagon, they were usually somewhat outdated. And this was all because the launch costs were so expensive.
What happened was, it slowly started under the previous administration, but the new administration, the Trump administration, really pushed this thing and made it possible to have small startups come in and get the competition going for space launch services. And that’s where you have SpaceX coming in, Blue Origin starting to come in. You have a new set of startups who are really forcing costs on the launch side to go down, with reusable rockets, for instance.
And in turn, that’s allowing the Pentagon to reinvest the money saved into more ambitious space projects that will better defend the United States in orbit and allow us to enhance our standing there. That’s done a lot to encourage investment and interest and innovation in the space launch side. NASA has also started contracting out to these startups, not as much, but they’re starting to do it, which is also lowering the cost of civilian rocket launches, which is having the same sort of effect wherein we’re saving money and that money that’s being saved from the launches can be reinvested into other programs.
The biggest problem on the NASA side, the civilian side, has been sort of this resistance to the idea of manned spaceflight. There’s a lot of invested interests within the middle level of the bureaucracy at NASA, which a) thinks that robotic missions are preferable, they’re more efficient, they allow us to do more technologically without risking human life. But also there’s a sort of ideological antipathy among the lifers at NASA.
So I talked about before the utopians who just want to view space as sort of a sanctuary. Well, you also have what I call the naysayers who sort of overlap with the utopians. And these are technically-minded people, proficient with technology, but they’re skeptical that we can do much at a manned spaceflight level. They’d rather do everything at the robotic level. And that’s great if you want to save money, but to inspire national interest, you’ve got to put people up there.
And on a national defense side, if you have Americans in space, sort of how we use NATO, American troops in NATO as a tripwire, the Russians won’t attack us because they know if you kill Americans, harm Americans, the likelihood that America will fully intervene against Russia increases. Similarly, if you have manned military systems in orbit, it may not be as efficient as an unmanned satellite, but you’ve just raised the costs on an attacker significantly.
By the way, as you have a human ecosystem in space, you create new innovations there in general that I think are better than just leaving everything unmanned. And that also enhances national prestige. What we have to overcome sort of at the manned spaceflight level is this antipathy and ideological aversion because they’re worried that it’s some kind of a nationalist thing and they want to be globalists. We need to get past that. And so SpaceX and the private companies, having them win more contracts, that alone is helping to overcome those hurdles.
Mr. Jekielek: Something that just occurred to me—by the way, this is just fascinating, all these considerations. Actually, before I go there, I’ll just say, there’s so much that we actually take for granted because the typical guy like me isn’t out there thinking about the realities of how policies in space are going to play out from the national security perspective, or even from a broader perspective. This is very, very interesting.
Mr. Weichert: Well, thank you. And actually, as I detail in the book, I was just your ordinary, young congressional staffer, and my first day on the job, my boss at the time said, “I want you to go to this meeting, you know, take some notes. I really don’t care about it. It’s not my forte.” It was a meeting on this. It was a bunch of retired space experts, Air Force and NASA types, who were trying to alert Congress about the threat that was faced by our very vulnerable satellites.
And I was sitting there. I kind of felt like somebody who had caught the carriers coming to Pearl Harbor from Japan before they got there, and nobody really cared. This sort of inspired my curiosity to the point that I actually went to a master’s program and continued studying this, writing on it. And now here I am. But I was like you. I really didn’t give it much thought before I went to work in government and realized that very few people were giving it thought, and we’re very dependent on it.
And what’s more, our enemies, who are very smart and should never be underestimated, our enemies realize that we are ignorant about how vulnerable we are. And they have developed, for them, very low-cost, high-reward ways to knock out those advantages we take for granted in space. And that’s sort of been the impetus of this project. And so you’re not alone, and you don’t need to worry about it if we have people that are taking it seriously in government, and we finally are starting, just starting to get there.
Mr. Jekielek: What are some specific examples that you could kind of lay out in terms of how the Chinese Communist Party has weaponized space? Are there some specific cases that come to your mind
Mr. Weichert: Well, I think two weeks ago, they just surprised the world with their test. It was an unmanned test, successful, of a spaceplane that they sent into orbit in China. And on its way back down to earth, this Chinese space plane launched a secondary object into orbit. And NORAD tracked it. It’s not debris. It’s still in orbit now. We’ve been tracking it.
I suspect it’s one of those co-orbital satellites, one of the space stalkers, that Russia has been seeding the orbits with. I think China’s following suit now, and so that’s one way they weaponize space: it’s a dual use system. They can claim, “Actually, this is to repair any down satellites of ours.” But we all know that in times of war, of course they’re going to use that as a weapon.
Another thing, in 2007, the Chinese shocked the world with one of the sloppiest anti-satellite weapons tests imaginable. In 2007, January of 2007, they surprised the world and blew up a derelict Chinese weather satellite, creating the largest debris field in history, in the history … of any operations in spaceflight. This is the largest debris field. Still poses a shipping hazard and a traveling hazard for any satellites or ships passing through this area of the orbit.
And it was a signal to the Americans that China had arrived as a space power, and that they were not just a scientific or a civilian competitor to American space dominance. They were a military competitor. And they had the ability to knock American satellites out at will. Russia has had that capability since the ’80s. We’ve had the capability since the ’80s.
But under international law, we and the Russians usually respect the fact that if you’re going to do an ASAT test, you’ve got to give a lot of lead time, you’ve got to warn the world so that people and companies with their satellites in those orbits can get clear of any debris. China purposely did not alert the world, and they just did it. And they wanted to say, “Hey, we can really mess you up if you want to keep messing with us.” And that’s one way they’ve weaponized space.
Another way is they’ve had two, now, small space stations, Tiangong-1 and -2. These were explicitly Chinese military facilities in orbit. In fact, the Tiangong-2 was featured prominently in the 2013 Sandra Bullock film “Gravity.” It was one of the places she took refuge in. Well, this was a military installation in orbit. And I believe that the Chinese were testing an experimental electromagnetic drive on the station.
The EM drive is believed to be a propellantless, very fast engine that was originally developed by a Brit who worked at Britain’s Ministry of Defense, and he designed it for satellites in the British military. The British military pooh-poohed it, said it violates Newtonian physics, creates thrust from nothing. Well, the Chinese in 2008 said, “We’ll give it the old college try.” And they built out a mock-up, and I believe in 2015, ’14, they may have tested it in orbit.
I know now NASA Eagleworks Lab has built up their version. So for it being the impossible drive that they always mock it as being, suddenly everybody and their mother’s interested in it because I think the Chinese might have gotten there first. The EM drive can be applied to satellites, which would make it harder for us to track Chinese satellites. Also would make those co-orbital systems a lot faster and more devastating.
Also on the civilian realm, it could make the trip between Earth and Mars, it could cut it down to 70 days one way. Right now it takes I think 18 months if the Hohmann transfer point when the orbits get close, it takes about 18 months to get there under ordinary engines. Well, the Chinese have worked out a way to cut that down. You now have an innovative, cost-effective method of getting to Mars.
Under ordinary power, it takes three days to get a ship to the moon. Well, with the EM drive that they developed in China, they could get astronauts to the moon a lot quicker than that. And if they start mining the resources on the moon, they now have a marketable way of getting those resources from the harvesting point to market a lot quicker. These are all the ways that China has militarized and weaponized space, and we’re sort of left in the dust, pretending like space is still a sanctuary or that we’re still the unquestioned dominant power there. We’re not, and we need to get back to being the unquestioned dominant power there.
Mr. Jekielek: So many questions for you. Okay, here we go. The first one, was China taken to task for creating this, blowing up the satellite and creating this debris field with no warning?
Mr. Weichert: Yeah, we did issue formal complaints, diplomatic complaints. The world, including Russia, condemned it, but it’s too late. It’s a proof of concept. It works. And so the Chinese don’t care. They made their point. And they’ve since built out a much more robust suite of anti-satellite kill vehicles. And now with their hypersonic weapons that they’re developing—and Russia is really ahead of the game in hypersonic technology, believe it or not—but between Russia and China now, they also have a new family of kill vehicles with these hypersonic weapons.
The Chinese, yes, they were taken to task. But you know, dictators and authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are going to do what they’re going to do. And so all that we in the West and in democratic societies, as Taiwan has shown, can do is to prepare, is to prepare for a reliable defense. And so for us, that means we need to build out our space defenses in orbit and work on ways to threaten and hold hostage China from orbit, to deter them from acting so irresponsibly.
Mr. Jekielek: So aside from the patriotic elements, why would it be important for the US to get manned flight to Mars first, ahead of the Chinese as opposed to alongside?
Mr. Weichert: Right, well, with Mars in particular, the most important thing is the patriotic element, the prestige element, because right now, China is really intent on being seen as the new home of the new industrial revolution, technology, high-tech R&D.
We’ve already seen this with 5G. The 5G Internet has been built out by China, not by the United States. I know we’ve had the capability, but we haven’t built it out. So China lives by this “Field of Dreams” mentality: “if you build it, they will come.” And so by proving to the world that they had 5G first, they’re getting a lot of investment, and a lot of good things are coming their way that should have gone to the West.
Similarly, if China can get to Mars first, they now have proven to the world that they are the premier space power. It’s not only a prestige thing, but it’s also going to make talent in space technology development want to work in China, rather than the United States or elsewhere. And so that’s a huge boon for them at that level.
And also from Mars, you have quicker access to the asteroid belt. Now the asteroid belt is chock full of minable rare earth minerals, and we know China’s heavily invested in trying to dominate the rare earth mineral market. Rare earth minerals are essential for building out high-tech equipment. Your computer chips, your cell phones, lithium batteries, they all rely on rare earth minerals. This is why China has since 2010 been trying to dominate the market there.
Now they’re looking at space saying, “Well, now this is a whole new area of rare earth minerals we can dominate.” They have a very mercantilist view. And so Mars would allow them to have a hub near the asteroid belt. Already, in November, a Chinese company is going to launch a small mining satellite into orbit. They’re going to do a series of tests on it to see if it operates effectively.
And then next year at some point, they’re going to launch what they’re calling Yuan Wang 1, it’s little Hubble 1. And that’s going to be a small surveillance satellite directed at the asteroid belt around Earth’s orbit that can specifically pinpoint resource-rich asteroids, and then they’re going to deploy future versions of these mining satellites to the asteroid belt to harvest those minerals before the Americans can.
If they get a hub at Mars, they’ve just created the supply chain in space. And they’ll be able to cut down costs on any future mining operations. Because obviously, that’s going to be the biggest thing: distance, which will lead to greater costs for space mining. But by creating these sort of hubs, these choke points in space, they can cut down on that, and also further their ability to project power from space down to earth and into space from earth.
Mr. Jekielek: To your point about the talent, I remember Canada, where I’m from, had a very advanced fighter plane called the Avro Arrow back in the day, many, many decades ago, and that, one of the prime ministers of Canada decided to mothball it, basically shut that project down. It’s still unclear why. But the point is that essentially all the talent, which was the premier talent of the world, went straight to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and so forth. Exactly to your point.
The second point is actually, this just struck me, China has been creating these artificial islands in the South China Sea, promising they’re just making them, of course, they won’t be weaponized, and then weaponizing them, and now they have all these weapons systems. So it just struck me, this is kind of exactly the model of what we might see in space, isn’t it?
Mr. Weichert: Yes. And to that point, Zhang Kejian in 2018, who’s the head of China’s lunar [space] program, told China’s press specifically, “We in Beijing, we view the moon as the South China Sea. The universe is an ocean. We view the moon as the South China, exactly, as the South China Sea, Mars as Huangyan Island, which is an island off of the Philippines.” And he said, “If we the Chinese don’t get there into space first and take those things, another power will.” That was obviously directed at the Americans.
And when I heard that they view the moon as the South China Sea, alarm bells started going off in my head because, as you say, what they’re doing in the South and East China Sea is sort of the past, is prologue. They’re showing us what they’re going to do in space. And unlike the South and East China Sea, which remains a local regional problem that we are being pulled into, space is going to, to use the words of Walter Sobchak from “The Big Lebowski,” “It affects us all, man.” [“Come on, man, this affects all of us.”] Space is going to affect everyone everywhere.
If you control the high ground, as history of warfare has proven, if you control the high ground, you control the whole dynamic on the lower planes of battle. And the Chinese understand this, fundamentally. They view space in explicit geopolitical terms. I cannot make that clear enough. They do not view it as a scientific realm, not entirely. They view it as a specifically geopolitical realm, and they want to take it. They’ve proven in other domains, notably at sea, but now look at land, what they’re doing with India, they’ve proven that they have a very ambitious program for dominating what they view as strategic points of interest. We do not use space fully in those terms. And we need to because the rest of the world does.
Mr. Jekielek: So you mentioned some bureaucratic barriers on the side of the private sector. You mentioned some perhaps ideological barriers on the government side and NASA and so forth. What development has actually happened since the Space Force has been established on the government side?
Mr. Weichert: Well, right now it’s all reorganization. So they’ve officially developed a doctrine. It’s very rudimentary. Space Force is the smallest branch. It also is, frankly, the lowest funded branch. It’s $15.7 billion, what they’re asking for. Compare that to the Air Force, which I think wanted $153 billion, give and take, for 2021. This is a very small ask. And so they’re going to be very limited in what exactly they can do. Now, luckily, it seems like they are focusing like a laser on protecting those satellites.
And so I could foresee investments over the next year or two into the creation of these co-orbital satellite swarms. But more importantly, the Pentagon has been looking at making its military satellites, the future generations, less complex, less unwieldy, more capable to be married on to cheaper, lower cost civilian rockets, which as I proved earlier, will allow them to reinvest that money and building out more capable forces in space and making future satellites, military satellites, interoperable, more interoperable with friendly regimes—satellites belonging to Australia, India, you name it, NATO satellites—making them also less complex and easier to replace.
So if they go down, we don’t have to wait six to eight months for the vicious satellite acquisition circle to be fulfilled. We can actually just aloft one very quickly, and we’ll have spares on hand. Also, it will allow us to have mixed constellations of military and civilian satellites, so if we do lose a military satellite, say a communication satellite, we could believably offload some of those functions to a civilian system, however temporarily, that would keep us in the fight, because that’s the key. When our satellites are taken out, it’s going to be a prelude to a major conflict somewhere in the world, either in the Indo-Pacific or in Eastern Europe, and we’re going to need to stay in the fight and plug those gaps.
Mr. Jekielek: Are you familiar with the film “Moonraker”?
Mr. Weichert: Yes, yes.
Mr. Jekielek: So I hope I’ve got the right film here, but there’s this scene where a large satellite by the sinister villain in the James Bond film comes in and eats a recently launched satellite. I think it’s a US satellite. Again, I can’t remember exactly. And of course, all sorts of James Bond mayhem ensues. Is this sort of thing reality?
Mr. Weichert: Yes. And in the opening of the book, the space Pearl Harbor chapter, I open up by describing the co-orbital satellites that Russia and China launched as sort of a cannibal of other satellites. Yes, they have grappling arms, just like the Moonraker story, they have these robotic grappling arms, and they can latch on to other satellites and either rip them apart or simply push them out of orbit.
And because of our limited manned spaceflight capability, we don’t have the ability to send technicians up to space to capture and repair any down systems. We have to do it remotely. And so if we can do it remotely, that’s great. But the Chinese and Russians know we have to rely remotely, and so they can do things to make sure that a remote repair is impossible.
And given the current situation, the way things are currently arrayed, it takes weeks and weeks and months and months to build out a new replacement. And in the meantime, you have chaos and mayhem raining in the areas below that are being attacked, and you have American forces cut off and surrounded by faster moving Russian or more numerous Chinese forces. And this is the nightmare scenario.
Any defense, for instance, of Taiwan. The Taiwanese are built to withstand a Chinese assault initially, but I spoke with a Taiwanese general who was retiring back in 2015. He came out when I lived in DC, and he gave a talk, and I asked him, point blank, “Do you really think the Americans can be relied on to come rushing to your aid?” He laughed, and he said, “Look,” he goes, “Taiwan is basically built for maybe a couple of weeks of resistance alone. But all of our plans require Americans to come rushing in from over the horizon.”
Well, if you remove those technological interlinks, particularly the satellites, Americans can’t come rushing in over the horizon. We can’t coordinate, we can’t mass effectively. As General John Hyten of the Air Force said two years ago, “We will be reduced to a pre-1900s era, the 1970s era, of warfare,” and I frankly, personally, don’t think our forces are very well conditioned to fight that kind of a fight anymore. The Russians and Chinese, though, are. They are conditioned to fight under those conditions. And that gives them considerable advantages right now over us if they were to pick a fight in the next, in the next decade, really. Which I think they will.
Mr. Jekielek: This is really interesting. I wanted to bring it back a little bit to the typical lay person because I understand that a lot of our, for example, financial transactions actually go through our satellite systems as well.
Mr. Weichert: Absolutely
Mr. Jekielek: And so an attack on the satellites could also create some kind of—
Mr. Weichert: Collapse the stock market.
Mr. Jekielek: —economic collapse, or something of this vein. Tell me about this scenario.
Mr. Weichert: Yes. So basically, if you do any kind of trading on the stock market, you have these perfectly timed, sort of automated [transactions]. And it’s trillions of dollars, I mean, it’s an insane amount of money that are done with these automated transactions that are perfectly timed, perfectly synchronized. And that’s how you make the money, through these perfectly timed, quick, minute transactions.
Well, the Chinese could knock out enough of our satellites that handle those transactions, and you can’t do the trades anymore. You’ve just stopped all the trades. That obviously will shut down the stock market, and if it goes on long enough, it’ll completely throw us into a depression.
We already saw what coronavirus did. The lack of Chinese response in a timely manner basically forced us to shut our economy down. Imagine what would happen if we lose satellites. We can’t do those transactions; we can’t have those trillions of dollars worth of ones and zeros sloshing around the world system in these perfectly timed, fast ways.
You’ve just killed the American economy for probably a decade or longer because it’s going to take decades for us to replenish all of that money that was lost in the lost transactions. And the Chinese know this. The Russians know this. And I think that they absolutely have plans to debilitate us because if you take out the American economy, you’ve just taken out the American military as well because there’s not going to be any money for us to fight anymore.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s very interesting. Of course, something like this, we’ve had some kind of an economic hit across the world as a result of, as we at The Epoch Times call it, the CCP virus or coronavirus.
Mr. Weichert: Right, that’s right.
Mr. Jekielek: So again, you’re making me think about all sorts of these types of scenarios here.
Mr. Weichert: Think of 2020 as a dry run for when the excrement really hits the fan. And it’s coming, I think. I was talking to the Navy in California last week, and one of the guys there, I was talking to him off [record]. This was on the side of it; we weren’t actually officially talking at that point. This was just sort of a sidebar conversation.
I mentioned to him, “You ever feel like maybe we’re in the middle of a psychological warfare operation, like we’re kind of all being tested to see how we’ll respond when the real crisis hits?” And he laughed, and he said, “Man,” he said, “I just got through telling my buddies. I told my CO that and he said, ‘it does, it feels like this is all sort of putting the frogs in the boiling water slowly to see what’s going to happen, how the institutions respond.’ ”
And frankly, in my opinion, we’ve not responded very well. And this is with all of our technological accoutrements working very well. Imagine what happens when they’re physically removed and the EM spectrum is completely disrupted. It’s a terrifying thought.
Mr. Jekielek: So before we finish up, tell me—and I know your book speaks to this—the immediate actions that you feel need to be taken to rectify this challenge, which I think you’re making a case are considerable.
Mr. Weichert: Yes. In the book, I talk about sort of near term, medium term, long term. In the near term, we’ve got to protect those satellites with our own satellite swarms of co-orbital systems, and the Space Force right now is working that up.
We need to also give many, many, many more contracts to private small space startups, particularly in the launch sector, like SpaceX, like Blue Origin, who can drive down the cost of launch for the military, that can force the big conglomerates like Lockheed and Boeing to draw down their costs as well. That will allow us to do more in the next few years.
Then we need to build out a capability of small CubeSats that could potentially be launched in a crisis to sort of keep capabilities going to prevent that nightmare scenario from unfolding as it unfolds. And then in the medium term, we’re going to need to have a congressional push, which, this is a big ask, but we need really a trillion dollars or more over a decade invested in the space industry, in the space program, military and civilian alike.
And we need to have that also invested in longer term in the overall high tech research and development sector. Federal R&D budget has just collapsed since the ’90s. And while private sector R&D is great for coming up with a new sort of button for your iPhone, it’s not so good for building the next great Space Launch System or not so great for building a quantum computing revolution.
In China, they just throw tax dollars at any industry. Whether it works or not, they’re going to give it the old college try. The EM drive example is a great example. Another example is this new alloy in 2016 Google invested in. It works. It’s lighter than plastic, tougher than titanium. The problem is it needs $200 million for it to be built out and scaled up. Google will not invest that kind of money. As I said to a colleague recently, had that happened in China, the government would have stepped in and thrown in the $200 million at them, even if it was a 50/50* chance it might not work, they don’t care.
And so we need to have sort of that federal buy in to lower risk for venture capital to come in and allow for innovation so that we stay ahead and leapfrog the Chinese. Otherwise, the Chinese are going to hit us, and they’re going to beat us, and we’re going to be living in a very different world. And I frankly don’t want to live in a Chinese-led world order. It’s not something I’m interested in.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so that makes me think of the title of your book again, “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower.” An excellent read. Such a pleasure to have you, Brandon.
Mr. Weichert: Thank you so much.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.