Vice President Mike Pence said that the U.S. has more military satellites than any other country.
The U.S. has 166 military satellites, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Russia and China have the next largest constellations at 89 and 84 military satellites, respectively.
Pence touted U.S. military dominance in an Aug. 9 speech about the Trump administration’s vision for establishing a Space Force as a new branch of the military.
“Over the past 60 years, the United States has assembled the largest and most sophisticated constellation of military and intelligence satellites in the world,” Pence said.
UCS maintains a database of active satellites that details their purpose, country of operation and other publicly available information. It lists 166 operational U.S. military satellites as of April 30. That’s far more than the next two largest countries, Russia and China. Russia has 89 operational military satellites and China has 84, according to the database.
While 134 of the satellites operated by the U.S. are used solely for military purposes, some have dual functions. About 31 military satellites also serve commercial purposes, for example.
Satellites are critical to modern military communications, geo-positioning and surveillance. Military satellites detect and track missiles using infrared sensors, allow servicemembers to operate drones in the Middle East, transmit messages and monitor territory.
Experts say that space will be a theater of war in the future.
“It is absolutely inevitable that we will see conflict move into space,” Michael Schmitt, a professor and space war expert at the University of Exeter in the U.K., told The Guardian in April.
The military’s reliance on satellites makes them a liability. If the satellites were compromised, military capabilities would be, too.
“If you were an adversary attacking the U.S., you’d start by attacking satellites,” Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the think tank New America, told Business Insider in 2017. “The first shots in a war between the U.S. and China or Russia, no one would likely hear.”
Pence mentioned the threat of Chinese and Russian satellite interference in his speech. “China and Russia are also aggressively working to incorporate anti-satellite attacks into their warfighting doctrines,” he said.
Some “inspection” satellites could possibly attack or destroy other satellites if given the command. U.S. diplomat Yleem Poblete warned at a global arms control conference in Geneva Tuesday that U.S. intelligence agencies are suspicious of a Russian satellite launched last year that displayed “very abnormal behavior.”
China demonstrated its capacity to target satellites when it destroyed one of its own weather satellites with a ballistic missile launched from the ground in 2007. Pence mentioned the incident in his speech.
A February report from the U.S. intelligence community said that Russia and China continue to pursue anti-satellite weapons. “We assess that, if a future conflict were to occur involving Russia or China, either country would justify attacks against US and allied satellites as necessary to offset any perceived US military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems,” the report said.
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