The United States, which earned its place as the premier space fairing nation on the planet with the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s, is at risk of falling behind its global competitors, according to Air Force Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast.

“In my best military judgment, China is on a 10-year journey to operationalize space. We’re on a 50-year journey,” Kwast told CNBC.

His concerns are not unfounded.  The last space shuttle mission concluded in July of 2011, and since then, NASA has relied on Soviet era Soyuz capsules operated by the Russians to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.  The shuttle’s replacement, the Space Launch System (SLS), has been plagued with delays. Most recent expert estimates suggest it still won’t be ready for its inaugural unmanned launch until midway through 2020, more than four years after its original projected launch date.

According to Kwast, the United States needs to “bring together the right talent” to spur a Wright Brothers like leap forward in our nation’s orbital capabilities, if we hope to remain peers, let alone dominant in space operations in the future.

“We could be on a five-year journey because it’s all about how aggressively we are going about this journey,” Kwast said.

While Kwast voiced serious concerns about China’s rapid military expansion into the “ultimate high ground,” they don’t present the most pressing orbital concern for America’s security. According to Kwast, it’s the comparatively underdeveloped North Korea that should spur an influx of interest and funding toward orbital defense.

“Right now, if North Korea were to launch a missile into space and detonate an electromagnetic pulse, it would take out our eyes in space,” Kwast said.

America’s massive military has grown increasingly reliant on satellites for communication and navigation in recent decades, both of which would be abruptly cut off if an opponent were to detonate a warhead in orbit.