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WASHINGTON • Defense officials tried to convince a U.S. Senate panel Wednesday that a new half-billion dollar a year space force is needed to counter growing threats from Russia and China.

“They’re looking at how they can negate our capabilities in space,” said Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security.

The hearing coincides with indications from the federal government that at least part of a new space force could be at Peterson Air Force Base outside Colorado Springs.

For situational awareness of adversaries and targeting of military threats, space-based military power is “pivotal,” Rapuano said.

However, any U.S. lead in space is disappearing quickly, he said.

“You’re seeing a proliferation of that technology spreading,” Rapuano said. “China has expanded by orders of magnitude.”

U.S. Space Command gets start in Colorado Springs with local general in charge

Last year, China beat the United States in the number of rocket launches for satellites, he said.

Space-based U.S. military efforts have been overseen by the Air Force. Its U.S. Space Command was based at Peterson Air Force Base in El Paso County from 1985 to 2002.

The Defense Department closed most of it to focus on the war on terrorism in the Middle East.

Now, President Donald Trump wants to spin off the Defense Department’s space program as a separate branch of the military. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act authorizes reopening the U.S. Space Command.

Although the Defense Department has not guaranteed it would be based at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado’s political leaders are making a big play to get it.

But, some senators on the Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces questioned whether a separate space force is needed.

“It strikes me as a solution in need of a problem,” said Sen. Angus King, an Independent from Maine. “Convince me that this makes sense, it’s worth a half-billion dollars a year.”

Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management for the Government Accountability Office, explained that the Air Force’s mix of traditional flight operations plus a space program sometimes creates management problems.

“There seem to be a lot of disconnects that happen,” she said.

A separate space force would clear up the confusion and allow managers to make acquisitions from contractors that fit better with its mission, she said.

A significant part of the hearing was dedicated to determining the vulnerability of military satellites and other parts of the space force to cyberattacks.

Lt. Gen. David D. Thompson, vice commander of the Air Force Space Command, said space force cybersecurity teams can refine efforts to protect equipment.

“They have special understanding of the systems” for cybersecurity, he said.

Examples would include password management and protecting against computer viruses.

The U.S. Space Command’s computer warfare program was based at Peterson Air Force Base until June when the Air Force moved the cybersecurity unit to its Air Combat Command in Virginia.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., described a bleak scenario as the space race for military dominance heats up.

“We don’t really get a choice of whether we compete,” he said.

“We only get a choice of whether we win or lose.”

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