As Threats in Space Mount, U.S. Lags in Protecting Key Services

The United States and China are locked in a new race, in space and on Earth, over a fundamental resource: time itself.

And the United States is losing.

Global positioning satellites serve as clocks in the sky, and their signals have become fundamental to the global economy — as essential for telecommunications, 911 services and financial exchanges as they are for drivers and lost pedestrians.

But those services are increasingly vulnerable as space is rapidly militarized and satellite signals are attacked on Earth.

Yet, unlike China, the United States does not have a Plan B for civilians should those signals get knocked out in space or on land.

The risks may seem as remote as science fiction. But just last month, the United States said that Russia may deploy a nuclear weapon into space, refocusing attention on satellites’ vulnerability. And John E. Hyten, an Air Force general who also served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and who is now retired, once called some satellites “big, fat, juicy targets.”

Tangible threats have been growing for years.

Russia, China, India and the United States have tested antisatellite missiles, and several major world powers have developed technology meant to disrupt signals in space. One Chinese satellite has a robotic arm that could destroy or move other satellites.

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