Killer Satellites, ASAT Missiles, Lasers, Electronic Jammers, Cyber Attacks Key PLA Weapons
Latest update, Jan. 26, 2022
The People’s Republic of China is developing and deploying space weapons and other capabilities with rapid speed, providing the Marxist-Leninist regime in Beijing with strategic asymmetric warfare capabilities that will provide a decisive edge in winning a war against what Chinese leaders in Beijing regard as the sole threat to their continued rule – the United States of America.
China’s space warfare arsenal includes systems designed to bring about the deaths of tens of millions of people worldwide who face the devastating effects of satellite-killing missiles, lasers, orbiting killer robot satellites and cyberattacks to disrupt the links between earth and hundreds of orbiting systems.
Future attacks will be designed to disrupt highly wired modern societies that have grown extremely reliant on satellites for communications, transportation, finance, and other critical functions. The space warfare capabilities now deployed and coming online in the near future represent a strategic checkmate for China in a future conflict with the United States and other free and democratic societies.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in a global threat assessment made public in early 2021 said the Chinese are moving ahead with plans for a space war.
“Counterspace operations will be integral to potential military campaigns by the PLA, and China has counterspace weapons capabilities intended to target US and allied satellites,” the ODNI report said.
Training of military space forces and the fielding of new destructive and non-destructive ground- and space-based anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons is continuing, the report said.
“China has already fielded ground-based ASAT missiles intended to destroy satellites in [low earth orbit] and ground-based ASAT lasers probably intended to blind or damage sensitive space-based optical sensors
on LEO satellites.”
Robots to Crush Satellites
In October 2021, one of China’s covert space weapons was launched into space. The Shijian-21 satellite was orbited undercover as a vehicle to be used for cleaning “space debris,” according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, Beijing’s state-run space company.
The commander of the U.S. Space Command, Air Force Gen. James Dickinson said in testimony before Congress several months earlier that spacecraft like the Shijian-21 are part of an effort by China to seek “space superiority through space and space-attack systems.”
An earlier satellite the Shijian-18 was described by the general as equipped with a robotic arm that China could use in a future space weapon for grabbing other satellites, crushing them or event sabotaging them so they provide false or misleading information to satellite controllers on the ground.
These co-orbital satellites are just a part of China’s growing arsenal of space weapons being developed and deployed by the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese Communist Party-controlled military force that is devoting enormous resources to space warfare.
Shijian satellites were first observed in 2013 when three were launched. U.S. intelligence detected unusual movements by each craft. The Shiyan-7, or (Experiment-7), Chuangxin-3 (Innovation-3) and Shijian-15 (Practice-15) satellites each weighed around 22 pounds or less.
Of the three spacecraft, the Shijian-15 was the most unusual. The satellite carried a robotic arm with a pincher on the end that appeared to have been based on stolen technology from space-based arms used on the Space Shuttle and developed under the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Other Chinese space weapons include several types of ground-launched anti-satellite missiles capable of hitting satellites in low-, medium- and high-altitude orbits, and electronic jammers and lasers.
In September 2020, China launched a reusable spacecraft similar to the secretive U.S. X-37 space plane and both spacecraft could become space warfare vehicles in a future conflict.
The Chinese robotic space plane was said to be part of what state media called the peaceful exploration of space but as with all things space in China, the PLA is in overall charge of the space plane and therefore plans to use it for space war.
Beijing also is planning to deploy a space station by 2022 to host foreign payloads and astronauts.
The new U.S. Space Force concluded an agreement with NASA that revealed plans for a future defense of the boundaries of space between Earth and the Moon known as cislunar space.
Defending cislunar space — the volume of space outside of geosynchronous Earth orbit and within the moon’s gravitational pull — extends the military’s mission beyond near Earth or 22,236 miles above the surface in geosynchronous orbit.
Covering the area is also a response to Chinese military efforts to seek control of the same space and to set up bases on the Moon.
Space Force doctrine states that “humankind has changed, and our potential adversaries’ actions have significantly increased the likelihood of warfare in the space domain.”
The report concludes that operating in cislunar space will require frequent maneuvers and more fuel for spacecraft, and that moves in deeper space will be very different from the predictable and stable orbits around Earth.
The general in charge of space operations for the new U.S. Space Force also warned in 2021 that China’s arsenal of off-Earth weapons includes more than killer satellites and ground-launched anti-satellite missiles.
The PLA’s most worrying arms are lasers and electronic jammers capable of destroying or disrupting the Global Positioning System navigation satellites used by the U.S. military and civilians alike.
Air Force Gen. John W. Raymond, chief of space operations for the Space Force, and other Air Force officials testified to Congress that the U.S. military needs to move quickly to counter increasingly aggressive Chinese and Russian moves in space.
Both are building weapons designed to engage in “robust jamming of GPS and communications satellites,” as well as “directed energy systems that can blind, disrupt or damage our satellites,” Gen. Raymond testified to the House Appropriations defense subcommittee in May 2021.
When asked about Pentagon and intelligence community reports that China is deploying ground-based lasers that can destroy satellites circling the globe in low-earth orbit, the general told lawmakers: “The threat is real today and concerning.”
PRC counterspace weapons rapidly expanded
Another Space Force senior officer went further, warning that the Chinese buildup of space warfare capabilities is large-scale and rapid over the six years between 2015 and 2021.
Rear Adm. Michael Bernacchi, the command’s director of strategy, plans and policy, said China’s rapid expansion of anti-satellite missiles, orbiting weapons and electronic tools for space warfare is particularly alarming, considering where Beijing was just a short time ago.
“The thing that scares me the most: If you go back six years ago, China had almost nothing. Now you look at them and the ability for China to exponentially grow their counterspace capability is scary. I mean I don’t know how else to put it,” Adm. Bernacchi said.
The admiral, a former submarine commander, said the growing danger posed by China’s space buildup is compounded by the People’s Liberation Army’s ability to integrate space warfighting with other military capabilities, such as cyber and conventional forces.
China‘s ability “to integrate, in a cross-domain capability and start to show this in their exercises, is even more scary,” he said. “Where is this exponential growth and cross-domain capability going to stop? The answer is, I don’t know.”
Adm. Bernacchi said he, like former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, has asserted that “nothing keeps me up at night; I want to keep them up at night.”
“But if there is something that would give me pause, [it’s] the growth rate” of China’s space arms, he said.
One reason for the large-scale build-up is that Beijing’s space infrastructure does not distinguish between military and civilian space systems.
“Everything is dual-use,” Adm. Bernacchi said, adding that Beijing officials are guilty of “hypocrisy” for insisting that China‘s new space weapons are not “militarizing space.”
Both China and Russia, which also has space weaponry capable of knocking out satellites, are seeking legally binding agreements to limit the U.S. from developing space defenses.
“They want to get into the letter of the law because the United States will always honor its treaties. As a democratic nation, we always do that,” Adm. Bernacchi said.
The U.S. Space Command is working to deter China by taking an asymmetric approach to countering space threats.
“We have to make sure at Spacecom why we exist is that we have to deter that aggression,” he said. “We never go man-for-man. We’ve never done that in our history.”
The command’s approach to China’s space buildup is similar to the undersea warfare disparity between the U.S. and Soviet submarine fleets during the Cold War.
“We were outnumbered on submarines quite significantly, in some places seven, eight to one,” he said. “That didn’t bother us. It has to do with, ‘Hey, what is the capability? What is the magazine size? What’s the training, what’s the people advantage?’ It’s all about outthinking, outmaneuvering [rather] than just sheer size.”
Space Command plans to apply advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing for its arsenal, “but we have to respect the growth rate and the capability that has happened in the last six years,” the admiral acknowledged.
In prepared testimony, Gen. Raymond, acting Air Force Secretary John Roth and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown, warned that China’s military buildup is the major challenge for the new Space Force that requires a rapid development of new U.S. capabilities.
“Given China’s exponential pace of weapons development and extensive marshaling of government and industry, we do not have the leeway to simply maintain our current approach,” they stated in joint testimony. “China is on track to exceed our capacity, so it is our obligation to act with a sense of urgency. China poses challenges unlike any other in our nation’s history. We must be clear-eyed about these threats and our response to them.”
GPS satellites vulnerable
The major worry involves the vulnerability of GPS satellites. “The threat we’re most concerned about is jamming,” said Gen. Brown.
GPS satellites are in medium-earth orbit — 12,550 miles high — and the current fleet of 31 satellites that provide pinpoint navigation are vulnerable. Electronic jamming could disrupt military operations as well as a wide array of civilian applications, such as banking and automobile navigation.
The military is also concerned China could spoof GPS signals in ways that would cause high-tech U.S. precision-guided weapons to miss targets. “GPS is absolutely critical not just to our military but it’s critical to our society,” Gen. Raymond said, noting that signals from GPS satellites “underpin the information age.”
To harden the GPS system, the Air Force is developing an advanced constellation called GPS-3 that will have increased broadcast power and a security system called “m-code” to provide better protection against jamming, Gen. Raymond said.
The military is also deploying a new GPS command and control capability to provide better protection from cyberattacks.
A report on space weapons produced by the private Secure World Foundation identified Chinese electronic warfare as a significant threat to satellites. “China is assessed to be proficient in [global satellite navigation signals] jamming capabilities, having developed both fixed and mobile systems,” the report said.
However, China’s ability to jam ground-satellite uplink signals is not known. Beijing has deployed military jammers on the disputed Mischief Reef in the South China Sea, according to satellite photos published in April 2018. The Secure World Foundation report said “the imagery shows what appears to be mobile military jamming trucks.”
China also conducted satellite jamming and spoofing near Shanghai from 2018 to 2019 against the automatic identification system used to track commercial ships. The electronic spoofing producing false locations of over 300 ships in Shanghai or the Huangpu River on a single day.
The spoofing allowed the Chinese to disguise the position of the ships by showing their location changing every few minutes.
Separately, China’s anti-satellite lasers and other directed energy weapons are designed to “dazzle” satellites. Beijing was first caught by the U.S. military lasing an American spy satellite in 2006. A 2013 report by the Chinese military then disclosed Beijing’s plans to develop space-based laser weapons.
China’s development and deployment of an array of space warfare capabilities sharply increases the danger of a war that will rapidly shift from Earth to the commanding heights of space.
The Chinese space threat is not new. Warnings were issued since the late 2010s. For example, the Pentagon Joint Staff intelligence directorate issued a dire assessment classified “Top Secret” in January 2018. According to the alarming assessment, both China and Russia had built enough anti-satellite missiles and other space weapons that both states’ militaries would soon be capable of attacking every U.S. satellite in low earth orbit. The report bluntly concludes that “China and Russia will be capable of severely disrupting or destroying US satellites in low earth orbit” by 2020.
The J-2 report echoes a similar but less specific warning from other officials and reports
Every year the Pentagon produces an annual report on China’s military power and each report provides greater details on the expansion in both size and sophistication of PLA space warfare tools.
China “has demonstrated sophisticated, potentially damaging on-orbit behavior with space-based technologies,” the report said.
“The PRC has an operational ground-based Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile intended to target low- Earth orbit satellites, and China probably intends to pursue additional ASAT weapons capable of destroying satellites up to geosynchronous Earth orbit.”
China has kept secret its ASAT weapons since the 2007 test of a missile that destroyed an orbiting weather satellite, causing a debris field of tens of thousands of orbiting space junk that threatens both manned and unmanned space systems.
PLA: Cripple or destroy info systems
Despite the blackout on official space warfare comments, Chinese military writings continued to disclose plans for space weapons, that according to one PLA author, will “cripple or destroy the enemy’s information system [and] would drastically degrade the enemy’s combat capabilities by making it blind, deaf or paralyzed.”
The Secure World Foundation report also warned: “There is strong evidence suggesting that China has a sustained effort to develop a broad range of counterspace capabilities. Over the last decade, China has engaged in multiple tests of technologies and capabilities that either are offensive counterspace weapons or could be used as such. China has also begun developing the policy, doctrine, and organizational frameworks to support the integration of counterspace capabilities into its military planning and operations.”
Army Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was even more categorical than the ODNI assessment. “Both China and Russia consider space integral to winning wars, and have reorganized their militaries to integrate space operations and counterspace capabilities,” he told Congress in 2021.
US intelligence community first went public in 2018 in exposing the growing threat of anti-satellite weapons from both China and Russia, arms that include direct-ascent ASAT missiles like the DN-3, as well as lasers and electronic jammers to disrupt satellite operations, and small maneuvering satellites. The Chinese military also is planning to use its formidable cyberattack capabilities to try to disable and disrupt US satellite operations.
“Ten years after China intercepted one of its own satellites in low earth orbit, its ground-launched ASAT missiles might be nearing operational service within the PLA,” then-Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said in 2018 congressional testimony. Coats also warned that China’s small satellites, like the Shiyan-7, which is outfitted with a robotic arm for crushing or damaging on-orbit satellites, are part of Beijing’s ASAT program. But the satellite weaponry is being developed undercover as building debris-removing satellites.
Military realignments in China since the 2010s “indicate an increased focus on establishing operational forces designed to integrate attacks against space systems and services with military operations in other domains,” Coats added. “Some technologies with peaceful applications—such as satellite inspection, refueling, and repair—can also be used against adversary spacecraft.”
In a bid to prevent the United States from building space weapons, the Chinese joined with the Russians in using global information operations that seek to promote international agreements on the non-weaponization of space and the no-first-use of space weapons. The effort is a disinformation campaign designed to slow and limit American space defenses. Coats said the efforts are a deception. “Many classes of weapons would not be addressed by such proposals, allowing [China and Russia] to continue their pursuit of space warfare capabilities while publicly maintaining that space must be a peaceful domain,” Coats said.
Low earth orbit (LEO) satellites operate between 100 miles and 1,242 miles above the earth and are used for reconnaissance and earth and ocean observation. Those low-orbiting satellites provide key military data used in preparing battlefields around the world for deploying forces in a conflict or crisis. Also, weather monitoring and communications satellites, including Iridium, Globalstar, and Orbcomm, circle in low earth orbit.
A number of critical intelligence and military communications satellites also operate in highly elliptical orbits that, during orbit, travel in an extremely low perigee close to earth where they will soon be vulnerable. All these LEO satellites are now highly exposed to Chinese attacks from anti-satellite weapons and capabilities.
Less than a month after the J-2 report warning, China let the world know that their Assassin’s Mace ASAT systems are real. China carried out a flight test of the Dong Ning-3 missile, the most advanced ASAT interceptor, in early February 2018. Internet photos of the test were posted online in China and showed the missile contrails. Stung by international outrage over its 2007 ASAT test, China switched tactics and began disguising its ASAT missile tests as less threatening missile defense tests. The tests were conducted high in the atmosphere, intended to deceive US intelligence by covering up the ASAT features by intercepting a target missile. American national security officials disclosed that the missile defense aspect of the DN-3 test was a ruse.
The February 2018 ASAT test was a wake-up call for American military and defense leaders for the simple fact it demonstrated China was not seeking to match American military capabilities but seeking asymmetric advantage. “The ASAT test showed they are not following us [militarily] but trying to leap ahead,” one defense official said.
During his tenure as commander of the US Strategic Command, in charge of strategic defenses against satellites, Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, made clear that American satellites are very vulnerable to attack and that space warfare threats continue to grow rapidly. “We have very old space capabilities, very effective space capabilities, but they are very old and not built for a contested environment,” Hyten said. The US military needs “to move quickly to respond to it,” he added. Hyten would be promoted from Space Command to become vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a position that gave him greater influence in helping convince military commanders of the need for robust military space forces.
Gen. Raymond believes the danger of space warfare is extremely grave. Satellite vulnerabilities do not end with higher orbits. “We are quickly approaching the point where every satellite in every orbit can be threatened,” he warned.
Further details were made public by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board that revealed American satellite vulnerabilities to electronic jamming were nothing less than a crisis. The board concluded in a report that military satellite communications used for global operations, in particular, “will be contested by a myriad of [ASAT] effects ranging from reversible to destructive.”
“The estimated and projected electronic threats against satellite communication (Satcom) have rapidly escalated in the last few years and will continue to increase in the foreseeable future,” the board disclosed.
“Advances and proliferation in advanced electronic warfare (EW), kinetic, space, and cyber capabilities threaten our ability to maintain information superiority,” the report said, noting “under severe stress situations, jamming can render all commercial Satcom and most defense Satcom inoperable.”
“This reality should be considered a crisis to be dealt with immediately,” the board warned.
Trump order sought to protect satellites
The administration of President Donald J. Trump sought to highlight the strategic necessity of protecting satellites from attack. The 2017 National Security Strategy issued by the administration threw down the gauntlet by making the protection of satellites a vital American security interest. That declaration means the United States is willing to go to war to defend and protect the systems. “Any harmful interference with or an attack upon critical components of our space architecture that directly affects this vital US interest will be met with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner, and domain of our choosing,” the strategy stated.
Publicly, the US government has not disclosed the kinds of weapons that will be built for countering China’s space weaponry. However, in 2008, several months after the Chinese destructive ASAT test, the Pentagon made a world demonstration of an impromptu ASAT capability. The Navy within a few months modified an SM-3 anti-missile interceptor to destroy a falling National Reconnaissance Office satellite in low earth orbit. Without saying so, the government signaled that the operation, code-named Burnt Frost, was a clear demonstration of an American anti-satellite missile.
China’s DN-3 test in 2018 was at least the fourth anti-satellite missile test and showed the world as well that the weapon program was moving closer to deployment. Earlier DN-3 tests were carried out in October 2015, December 2016, and August 2017. Its capabilities are not fully known. But intelligence estimates based on information gathered about its launch and flight suggest the DN-3 will be capable of targeting satellites in low earth orbit—around 1,200 miles or less—all the way up to high earth orbit of 22,300 miles.
The multiple-satellite launch in 2013 highlights the United States unwittingly contributed to the danger of a space war with China. Blame can be placed on the policies of the Clinton administration that during the 1990s loosened export controls on space and satellite technology transfers to China. Within years of that loosening, China had exploited the cooperation with American satellite makers to improve the reliability of its long-range missiles and to develop the capability to launch multiple warheads on top of them. Motorola would later be exposed by U.S. government for working with China to launch Iridium communications satellites on the Chinese Long March booster. Through the cooperation, China illicitly obtained from Motorola certain specifications that were used to build an indigenous satellite smart dispenser, a space tool that allows for maneuvering in space and releasing multiple satellites for placement in orbit.
A classified report from the National Air Intelligence Center revealed as early as 1996 that Chinese development of the smart dispenser would assist the development of ASAT weapons.
Noting the potential uses beyond putting multiple communications satellites in orbit, the Motorola-derived smart dispenser contained solid- and liquid-fueled jets for maneuvering, avionics (including a guidance system), and telemetry systems. Together the technology provided the Chinese with new on-orbit maneuvering capability unavailable on past space launchers. With a few modifications, the dispenser was easily converted into a multiple-warhead post-boost vehicle for nuclear missiles. Last, the intelligence report warned that with the smart dispenser China has the ability to maneuver in space for use with orbital rendezvous for manned space mission and “a co-orbital anti-satellite payload.”
That is exactly what happened with the launch of the three small satellites in 2013. It took around seventeen years after developing the Motorola-designed satellite launcher, but the PLA had successfully begun sending maneuvering robots into space as ASAT weapons. It was a failure of strategic proportions that now threatened not only American defense satellites but the functioning of American society that is highly dependent on satellites for everything from dispensing cash from ATMs to watching movies.
Of the three satellites, the one that received the most attention was the Shijian-15. While all three satellites were equipped with small jets for maneuvering, only the Shijian-15 contained the mechanical arm with a pincher on the end. The extension is believed to be for attacking other satellites, grabbing them or crushing key components.
“This is a real concern for US national defense,” an American intelligence official said at the time. “The three are working in tandem, and the one with the arm poses the most concern. This is part of a Chinese ‘Star Wars’ program.”
The three satellites deployed successfully in space after reaching orbit at about two hundred miles above the earth. On August 16, one of the satellites lowered its orbit by about ninety-three miles and then changed course and rendezvoused with a different satellite. These two satellites then passed within sixty feet of each other.
Until the 2013 microsatellite launch, defense and intelligence officials mainly worried about China’s kinetic satellite attack capability demonstrated by the 2007 test of an anti-satellite missile that destroyed a satellite, and ones disguised as missile defense tests years later. A new and stealthier, and thus difficult to attribute, attack capability was revealed in the Shiyan-7. “The retractable arm can be used for a number of things—to gouge, knock off course, or grab passing satellites,” the official said. However, the Chinese, through tightly controlled state media, put out disinformation that the three microsatellites were merely experiments in satellite maintenance and debris collection.
The US official scoffed at the explanation: “This was an ASAT test.”
The Chinese were practicing with their orbiting killer satellites that can intercept and either damage or destroy target satellites. “They are learning the tactics, techniques, and procedures needed for co-orbiting anti-satellite operations,” the official said.
The Pentagon during the administration of President Barack Obama was strictly banned by anti-defense policymakers from condemning the test publicly. Behind the scenes, officials wanted to avoid giving the military a justification for building American space arms to challenge and deter the new threat from China in space. A Pentagon spokesman would only say all three Chinese spacecraft were being monitored by the Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Combatant Command for Space, “consistent with its routine operations to maintain track of objects in space.” The spacecraft were tracked beginning shortly after the July 20 launch, and the command “noticed the relative motions of these satellites amongst each other and with respect to other space objects,” a Defense Department spokesman said.
At the time of the space experiment, the Obama administration deliberately hid the weapons aspect of the test from the public, as part of that administration’s penchant for not publicly discussing such foreign threats to American security.
An earlier microsatellite test by China also fueled concerns about proximity attacks against on-orbit satellites. In 2008, China launched a BX-1 microsatellite from its manned Shenzhou-7 spacecraft. The BX-1, traveling at a relative speed of 17,000 miles an hour, maneuvered within 15 miles of the International Space Station, a dangerous action that, if the two spacecraft had collided, could have been deadly. The BX-1 test was widely viewed within the US intelligence community as a test run for a future co-orbital ASAT attack.
China military writings call space warfare ‘revolutionary’
Inside China, anti-satellite warfare plans were revealed in a military paper in 2012 on the use of kinetic energy anti-satellite missiles. The report said China was making progress with its anti-satellite warfare program with US assistance. The report reveals that a US software program called Satellite Tool Kit was being used by the Chinese military for its ASAT program.
“Kinetic energy anti-satellite warfare is a revolutionary new concept and a deterrent mode of operation,” a translation of the Chinese-language report said, adding that a space simulator would support research for “kinetic energy anti-satellite warfare.” Another PLA analysis concluded that space is the “commanding point” of the modern information battlefield. Chinese military writings emphasize the urgency of “destroying, damaging, and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance . . . and communications satellites.” Other Chinese military writings suggest satellites as an initial attack point for blinding the enemy.
“Destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors . . . will deprive an opponent of initiative on the battlefield and [make it difficult] for them to bring their precision-guided weapons into full play,” one PLA report said.
US Air Force officials revealed how GPS satellites are vulnerable to attack from electronic jammers, cyberattacks, lasers and missiles. Heather Wilson, the Air Force Secretary during the Trump administration revealed in 2018 that the service was working on hardening the GPS network with newer and more advanced systems that would be more resilient against ASAT attacks. Ultimately, the Air Force plans to replace its older GPS satellites with newer GPS Block IIIA systems. “If you just take out your phone and look at that blue dot, or if you got money from an ATM, all of those services are provided by a squadron of fewer than forty airmen in Colorado Springs, Colorado,” she said, referring to the GPS satellite controllers at Schriever Air Force Base. “We provide GPS to the world, to about a billion people every day. It’s a pretty amazing capability, and we’re going to keep it resilient for the long term.”
China learned the value of GPS for war from the Persian Gulf War. A Chinese technical report from 2013, Research on the Voidness of GPS, identified GPS satellites as key factors used in guiding 80 percent of the bombs dropped during the 1991 Gulf War. The study said China could significantly hamper navigation accuracy for American precision-guided bombs over specific areas by targeting eight satellites. “Eliminating two groups of GPS satellites can prevent GPS satellites from providing navigation service around the clock,” the study said.
Then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said in 2018 the United States needs its own arsenal of space weapons to provide strategic advantages over China and other space threats. The military needed to seek “space superiority” he defined as “freedom from attack and freedom to attack.”
“We are looking at our levels of investment in places like directed energy, hypersonics, quantum computing, all those game-changers, and looking for ways to ensure that we can put the most resources against the problem so we can swarm against the problem with the resources available and get the best possible end state coming out of that,” Gen. Goldfein said.
By the late 2000s, the Air Force operated six constellations and twelve satellite systems deemed vital to national security. The satellites provide communications, command and control, missile warning, nuclear detonation detection, weather, and GPS navigation for the world.
Retired Air Force General C. Robert Kehler, former commander of the US Strategic Command, has warned that the nuclear command-and-control system used to direct nuclear forces—submarines, missiles, and bombers—may not be able to withstand space attacks against communications satellites. “We can’t be in a position where our forces can’t operate without space,” General Kehler said. “We do not have the wherewithal today to quickly replenish in a significant way what we could lose in terms of a determined adversary attack on space.”
Doug Loverro, former deputy assistant defense secretary for space policy, testified to Congress that US military forces are ill-prepared for space warfare. “We have a Satcom jamming threat today,” he stated in 2018. “Today if we went to war in the Pacific, our Pacom commander would be hard-pressed to communicate, and yet we have nothing on the books until about 2027 to solve that problem for him. And by that time, the adversary will have gone through two or three generations of his capability.”
In addition to disrupting and destroying satellites, a more sophisticated attack being worked on by China and other adversaries is the use of cyberattacks on satellites. Getting inside a satellite electronically could result in substituting false or misleading information to cause military commanders on the ground to deliberately attack friendly forces or to make other moves that would assist their own defeat.
Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes foreign hackers from China, Russia, or other states could infiltrate data streams and manipulate the information for strategic purposes. “The worst attack you can imagine would be if someone gets into your command-and-control uplink and takes control of your satellite, then they can effectively destroy it or at least make it not usable to you,” he said.
Ian Easton, a China specialist with the Project 2049 Institute, has no doubt space warfare will be the major battleground of the future. As Easton noted:
If there is a great power war in this century, it will not begin with the sound of explosions on the ground and in the sky, but rather with the bursting of kinetic energy and the flashing of laser light in the silence of outer space. China is engaged in an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons drive that has profound implications for future US military strategy in the Pacific. This Chinese ASAT buildup, notable for its assertive testing regime and unexpectedly rapid development as well as its broad scale, has already triggered a cascade of events in terms of US strategic recalibration and weapons acquisition plans. The notion that the US could be caught off-guard in a “space Pearl Harbor” and quickly reduced from an information-age military juggernaut into a disadvantaged industrial-age power in any conflict with China is being taken very seriously by US war planners. As a result, while China’s already impressive ASAT program continues to mature and expand, the US is evolving its own counter-ASAT deterrent as well as its next-generation space technology to meet the challenge, and this is leading to a “great game” style competition in outer space.
The use of ASAT lasers by the Chinese military has been a known threat since 2006 when US intelligence agencies detected a laser “dazzling” of American reconnaissance satellites. By 2013, the PLA’s future plans for the use of laser warfare were disclosed in a military report under the headline “Development of Space-Based Laser Weapon Systems.” The article revealed key techniques being worked on for space-based high-energy laser weapons.
A future war in space would be devastating, not least for the loss of satellite communications facilitating both military operations and critical civilian needs.
A last method of attack in space might be the use by the PLA of electronics-killing electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks on orbiting satellites. The PLA has plans to conduct space detonations of nuclear bombs to create EMP. “China will increasingly be able to hold at risk US satellites in all orbits and is developing a multi-dimensional ASAT capability supporting its anti-access/area-denial strategies, with its most recent ASAT activities appearing to be focused on the refinement of its kinetic space weapons,” from a report written by Steve Lambakis, a former space warfare expert at the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency.
Beijing regards America’s reliance on satellite capabilities, such as GPS, as tools of foreign domination that must be countered. Thus Beijing has invested billions in its space programs, including the launch of nineteen Beidou orbiting navigation satellites, with plans for sixteen more. The satellites will assist the PLA in expanding its global presence and long-range strike weapons. The Chinese military’s prime objective is to deny access to the Indo-Pacific region by the United States.
China also has revealed plans of what it calls “space cyber warfare.” In December 2012, a research paper was published with that title describing digital means for waging space conflict. “A space cyber-attack is carried out using space technology and methods of hard kill and soft kill,” the paper said. “It ensures its own control at will while at the same time uses cyberspace to disable, weaken, disrupt, and destroy the enemy’s cyber actions or cyber installations.”
Other attack methods are network electromagnetic jamming technology, network access technology, hacker invasion, information deception, and jamming techniques, virus infection spreading, permeability attack, and denial-of-service attack techniques.
In 2011, China military writings revealed the planned use of high-powered microwave weapons as one of three types of Chinese-directed energy attacks for use against satellites. Microwave bursts provide “stealthiness, high efficiency, wide strike range, and immunity to effects of the surrounding environment,” one report said.
One of the more sobering space warfare techniques was outlined in a February 2014 paper published by the PLA’s General Armaments Department on building strategic space power. “Outer space has become a major arena of rivalry between major powers and a new commanding height in the international strategic contention, and space power has become [the] decisive power for checking crises, winning wars, safeguarding national rights and interests in the new century,” the report said. “Quickening the building of space power is of great strategic significance.”
With volumes of evidence revealing the Chinese space warfare threat, publicly the Chinese military continues to spread the disinformation that despite its preparations for space war, China remains a peaceful power with no intentions of bringing warfare to the heavens. “China has always been upholding the peaceful use of outer space and opposed to weaponry deployment and an arms race in outer space,” PLA Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang said, regarding the United States’ plans for space forces. “China is also opposed to the use or threat of use of force in the outer space.”
The lie that Beijing has been advancing the notion of the peaceful use of space needs to be exposed clearly in helping governments and publics to understand the lies and deception regarding the activities and statements by the Communist Party of China. More importantly, steps must be taken to counter China’s space warfare capabilities.
As Air Force General Goldfein said, “It’s time for us as a service, regardless of specialty badge, to embrace space superiority with the same passion and sense of ownership as we apply to air superiority today. We need to build a joint, smart space force and a space-smart joint force.” The American posture for a future space conflict must be “Always the predator, never the prey,” the four-star Air Force chief of staff stated.
China outlined its space warfare plans in a 2019 PLA white paper that reveals space operations are a priority for confronting the United States.
The defense strategy report produced by the People’s Liberation Army dropped earlier veiled references by bluntly identifying the United States as Beijing’s main adversary that is undermining world peace.
The report—part policy statement and part propaganda—also claims the United States seeks “absolute military superiority.”
“The U.S. has adjusted its national security and defense strategies, and adopted unilateral policies,” the report said. “It has provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defense expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defense, and undermined global strategic stability.”
Chinese propaganda outlets sought to portray the white paper as furthering Beijing’s questionable assertion that the large-scale buildup of conventional, nuclear, space, and cyber weapons posed no threat.
The white paper, however, bluntly warned that China is set to use military force against Taiwan if the self-ruled island seeks formal independence. Taiwan is a quasi-U.S. ally and the United States is obligated under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to defend it from mainland attack.
On space warfare, the PLA report states that threats to space “loom large” and as a result space security is now among eight vital Chinese strategic interests.
Other key interests include deterring attacks, opposing Taiwan independence, and “safeguarding national political security”—a reference to the PLA’s ultimate mission of keeping the ruling Communist Party of China in power.
“Outer space is a critical domain in international strategic competition,” the report said.
While insisting China favors the peaceful use of space, the white paper states that China is developing “relevant technologies and capabilities” for safeguarding satellites while maintaining the ability to safely enter, exit, and openly use space.
China also has created a Space Corps within a new service-level Strategic Support Force. The corps is believed to be the key space warfighting unit.
Space Force lags behind
The United States appears to be lagging behind China in developing space weapons. An anti-satellite missile program was killed in the 1980s. However, a Navy anti-missile interceptor was used to shoot down a falling U.S. satellite in 2008, demonstrating some ASAT capabilities.
The new Space Force is developing counterspace capabilities but has not disclosed exactly what type of weapons and systems are being drawn up.
The only space weapon currently deployed is an electronic jammer
By contrast, a 2018 intelligence report by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) stated that China is among the most advanced nations in building space weapons.
“Through military reforms, China and Russia have organized new military forces devoted to the employment of space and counterspace capabilities and regularly integrate them into military exercises,” the report said.
“Meanwhile, these countries continue to develop, test, and proliferate sophisticated anti-satellite weapons to hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk.”
The weapons include kinetic kill interceptors that destroy satellites by slamming into them at high speeds. Other space weapons include satellites armed with radiofrequency jammers, lasers, chemical sprayers, high-power microwaves, and robotic arms.
Orbiting satellite maintenance and debris removal systems now in the testing and research phase could be used to damage satellites, the report said.
Steve Lambakis, a former official at the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, said a key PLA objective is to use space weapons to cripple operations of the Hawaii-based Indo-Pacific Command during a future conflict by attacking American satellites.
“These operations would likely start with disruption and destruction of [command, control, communications, and intelligence] capabilities with cyber and kinetic attacks on satellites and ground assets in support of other Chinese kinetic capabilities,” Lambakis said
Michael J. Listner, a China expert who specializes in space issues, said the PLA white paper continues the earlier theme of outer space as a “commanding height” for the PLA but with the new facet identifying space as a critical domain for strategic competition.
The section on space in the white paper appears to be part policy and part propaganda in response to the United States’ labeling of space as a domain of warfare.
“In doing so, the defense white paper overtly points to the United States as the aggressor in outer space, which is a common refrain of western, non-governmental organizations focused on outer space security, and postures its outer space capabilities as a deterrent response as opposed to an active counterspace capacity,” said Listner, principal with Space Law and Policy Solutions, a think tank.
The PLA also is employing lawfare—legal warfare—techniques in promoting Beijing’s claims to be adhering to four major space law treaties and agreements.
“As with all policy positions taken in other domains, the PRC’s true intents in outer space are better gauged by its actions as opposed to its words,” Listner said.
The white paper states that China is seeking international dialogue and agreements setting rules for space.
The NASIC report on space said establishing international norms for military activities space “remain elusive” and that China’s efforts regarding space arms control are duplicitous.
“China and Russia continue to endorse a draft ‘Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT),” the report said.
“While this draft promotes ‘no first placement’ of weapons in space, it fails to address a variety of anti-satellite weapons and lacks meaningful verification mechanisms,” the report said. “Furthermore, despite publicly insisting that space is a peaceful domain, these competitors are continuing development of several anti-satellite weapons.”
In addition to space weaponry, China also is building cyber warfare capabilities and the white paper notes that cyber security “poses a severe threat to China.”
“China’s armed forces accelerate the building of their cyberspace capabilities, develop cyber security and defense means, and build cyber defense capabilities consistent with China’s international standing and its status as a major cyber country,” the report said.
China’s strategy for dominating space was detailed in the 2019 annual report of the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The commission report warned that China wants to dominate the zone between the Earth and the moon, known as cislunar space, as part of what the ruling Communist Party of China calls the “Space Dream.”
China is planning a permanent base on the moon as part of the dual military and commercial program. China and r
“Beijing is clearly of the view that the country that leads in space may also be economically and militarily dominant on Earth,” the commission report said.
Similarly, the Chinese military’s Joint Staff in 2018 said the goal is to achieve “space superiority” — controlling space without interference from ground-based or space-based threats.
The U.S. space warfare buildup is being conducted in secret and includes several units, including the Space Development Agency and the Air Force Space Rapid Capabilities Office at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.
Current counterspace weapons include dedicated and dual-use systems, including missiles, electronic jammers and lasers. The secretive Air Force space plane, the X-37B, also is expected to be an element of future U.S. space warfare assets.
Successive presidential administrations and Congress since the 1950s have blocked or limited development of space weapons over concerns about “weaponizing” space, but China and Russia in recent years have built and deployed anti-satellite missiles, ground-based anti-satellite lasers and orbiting robot satellite killers for space warfare.
A Rand Corp. report found that U.S. counterspace weapons in the past included ground- and air-launched Air Force satellite-killing missiles. The most recent was ASM-135, a missile launched from an F-15 jet that destroyed a U.S. satellite in a 1985 test. The program was canceled later that year.
The Air Force in 2002 began work on two ground-based electronic warfare systems capable of temporarily disrupting satellites. The Counter Surveillance Reconnaissance System was a mobile unit capable of denying enemy satellites the ability to spy on U.S. forces, but Congress defunded the system in 2004.
The second system, the Counter Communications System, is a mobile electronic jammer that can disrupt enemy command and control satellites. At least seven of these systems have been deployed.
The military also has a number of dual-use missiles and lasers that could be modified for anti-satellite warfare.
A Navy Standard Missile-3 was modified in 2008 to shoot down an orbiting National Reconnaissance Office satellite and prevent it from re-entering the atmosphere and possibly hitting a populated area.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system also is believed to have capabilities for shooting down enemy satellites.
American laser ranging stations could be used for targeting enemy satellites, and the Navy’s high-powered Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser, already used in directed energy tests to shoot down drones and missiles, also could be used in the future against satellites.
Beijing seeking space dominance
The commission report asserts that Chinese military strategists view space as the “commanding height” to be dominated in conflict. The People’s Liberation Army has adopted warfare concepts on the use of space weapons that would “destabilize the space domain,” the report said.
“China views space as a critical U.S. military and economic vulnerability, and has fielded an array of direct-ascent, cyber, electromagnetic, and co-orbital counterspace weapons capable of targeting nearly every class of U.S. space asset,” the report said.
The United States also could be unable to deter the Chinese from attacking the hundreds of U.S. satellites used for military and commercial purposes.
“China’s goal to establish a leading position in the economic and military use of outer space, or what Beijing calls its ‘space dream,’ is a core component of its aim to realize the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,’” the report states.
Larry Wortzel, a former military intelligence official and a member of the congressional commission, said China is emerging as a peer competitor from military and commercial standpoints.
“In terms of counterspace and the ability of [China] to attack U.S. space assets, the PLA may be ahead of the U.S. military,” Wortzel said. “More seriously, if it came to acting, [China] has the advantage. The People’s Liberation Army only has to get permission from one body at the top of the Communist Party to act. The U.S. military would have to run a gauntlet of lawyers, National Security Council and White House staffers, and congressional leaders before it could act.”
Wortzel said China is using its alternative to GPS known as the Beidou navigation system commercially to promote its global economic program known as the Belt and Road Initiative.
“It is a challenge for the U.S. to do the same,” he said.
Rick Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the commission’s report provides new details on China’s strategic ambition in space and the impact on U.S. security on Earth.
“China may be only catching up to the United States in space in most technical respects, but it is the Chinese Communist Party leadership’s ability to weave an integrated military-political-economic strategy for space control that may allow it to prevail in space over the democracies,” Mr. Fisher said.
One key to thwarting Chinese dominance in space will be denying Beijing control over the moon and the region of space between it and the Earth.
“If America fails to beat China back to the moon to secure commanding positions that can help deter conflict, we are then condemning our country and military forces to many future wars with China,” Mr. Fisher said.
A report by the Air Force Research Laboratory revealed that U.S. military space forces are set to defend systems beyond Earth’s orbit in areas extending to the moon and beyond.
Defending cislunar space — the volume of space outside of geosynchronous Earth orbit and within the moon’s gravitational pull — is outlined in a memorandum of understanding between the Space Force and NASA. The report was made public in June 2021 — days after China and Russia announced plans for a joint international research station to be built on the moon.
Both nations’ space programs are closely aligned with their militaries, and a moon base would give China and Russia the ability to control cislunar space.
The Space Force-NASA memo dated September 2020 extends the military’s mission beyond near Earth, or 22,236 miles above the surface in geosynchronous orbit.
Government and private-sector space operations are reaching at least 272,000 miles, the distance from the Earth to the moon.
The extension means the Space Force will need to develop greater surveillance tasks for what the military calls “space domain awareness” — spy systems used for both defense and offensive operations in space war.
The Space Force doctrine states that “humankind has changed, and our potential adversaries’ actions have significantly increased the likelihood of warfare in the space domain.”
NASA plans to extend its manned explorations beyond the orbiting International Space Station to the moon’s surface, the space between the Earth and the moon, and even interplanetary destinations.
The National Space Council’s July 2020 report, “A New Era for Deep Space Exploration and Development,” predicts the moon’s surface and cislunar space will be used to develop new technologies, operational capabilities and commercial space systems for human presence on the moon, Mars and beyond.
The Space Force does not have a direct role in civil exploration but must support combatant commands to ensure free access to space. The memo expanded the Space Force’s mission to the moon and planets.
“[U.S. Space Force] now has an even greater surveillance task for space domain awareness (SDA) in that region, but its current capabilities and architecture are limited by technologies and an architecture designed for a legacy mission,” the memo stated. It noted that American space troops must now “provide the resources necessary to protect and defend vital U.S. interests in and beyond Earth orbit.”
The report outlines problems with using electro-optical and radio frequency sensors. The distances make communications difficult, and the lack of gravitational pull means it is difficult to keep satellites in place. Sensor stations for outer-orbit space could be deployed on Earth, in Earth orbit or while orbiting the moon.
The report concludes that operating in cislunar space will require frequent maneuvers and more fuel for spacecraft, and that moves in deeper space will be very different from the predictable and stable orbits around Earth.
The space threat from China is no longer limited to the realm of the theoretical. A report by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, known as NASIC, revealed in early 2019 that People’s Liberation Army units have begun training with the satellite-killing missiles.
The report for the first time revealed that Chinese military units already are conducting training for space attacks with anti-satellite missiles.
“These missiles can destroy U.S. and allied space systems in low earth orbit, making intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and communications satellites vulnerable,” the report said.
The Air Force operates six constellations and 12 satellite systems regarded as vital to national security. They provide communications, command and control, missile warning, nuclear detonation detection, weather, and GPS for the world.
Foreign adversaries “are integrating advanced space and counterspace technologies into warfighting strategies to challenge U.S. superiority and position themselves as space powers,” the report said.
“Multiple attack options—cyber, electronic, or directed-energy weapons; anti-satellite missiles; or space-based weapons—enable potential adversaries to achieve a range of damaging effects.”
The missile type and PLA units engaged in ASAT training were not identified. However, defense officials have said with as few as two dozen ASAT missile strikes, China could cause major disruptions in U.S. and allied military operations that are heavily dependent on satellites for communications, intelligence, and precision guidance for missiles and bombs.
China’s ASAT missiles include several types with different ranges. The SC-19, a variant of the HQ-19 surface-to-air missile, was used in flight tests in 2007 and 2010. In 2013, China flight tested a new ASAT missile called the DN-2. In February, China flight-tested a more capable DN-3, which was also tested in 2017, 2016, and 2015.
Rick Fisher, a China military expert, said the 25-page NASIC report, “Competing In Space,” is important U.S. government confirmation that the PLA has progressed from a demonstrated ASAT weapon in January 2007, to multiple units equipped with ASAT missiles.
Fisher, with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said since late 2015 all PLA ASAT missile units were placed under the new Strategic Support Force and its subordinate Space Force that likely controls the missiles and will also be in charge of future space-based weapons.
“While the PLA now has actual units of ASAT weapons targeting critical American military and civilian space assets, the United States does not have a similar organized counter-space capability,” he said. “We are basically disarmed in the face of an active Chinese military-space capability.”
“America and its allies are very fortunate that President Trump has decided that the U.S. military requires a new Space Force,” he said. “This is not an offensive or destabilizing initiative; it is now a necessary and defensive capability that is urgently required by the United States.”
The NASIC report is the first time the Pentagon has described in detail how a future conflict would be carried out in space.
Additionally, the report said the number of space satellites is growing rapidly from 100 several years ago to 300 today, making the domain congested and increasing the risk of collisions.
Both China and Russia are developing new space arms to achieve military goals. At the same time, Beijing and Moscow are promoting a ban on space weapons in an apparent bid to slow or prevent the United States from matching their space warfare systems.
“Despite publicly insisting that space is a peaceful domain, these competitors are in continuing development of several anti-satellite weapons,” the report said.
China and Russia remain the most capable space warfare states but other nations also are expected to join the space arms race by building systems to wage war against American satellites.
Anti-U.S. governments in both China and Russia “continue to develop, test, and proliferate sophisticated anti-satellite weapons to hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk,” the report said.
Directed energy weapons can produce temporary and permanent damage to satellites through focused radiofrequency or laser beams.
“Reversible effects include temporarily blinding optical sensors,” the report said. “Non-reversible effects include permanently damaging or destroying sensors or other satellite components. Both China and Russia intend to field counterspace directed-energy weapons.”
Chinese defense research over the past two decades has studied several types of directed energy space weapons and Russia is reportedly building an airborne laser that could be used to attack space-based missile defense sensors.
The Pentagon was building its own anti-missile airborne laser inside a Boeing-747 but the program was canceled by the Obama administration.
Reduced launch costs and proliferation of space systems will drive more countries to integrate space weapons into their militaries, the report warned. Terrorists also could use space to support attacks using intelligence, communications, and navigation space systems.
To support both military and civilian use of space, China has a fleet of 120 remote sensing and reconnaissance satellites, half operated by the People’s Liberation Army.
The satellites allow the PLA to spy on regional rivals like India and Japan and flashpoints in Korea, Taiwan, and the East and South China Sea.
For communications, China is developing satellite systems for communications, including the world’s first quantum communications satellite, with three others planned. Quantum communications are hardened against jamming or interception.
Both China and Russia also deployed navigation satellites to reduce reliance on the American Global Positioning System. The satellites are used for guiding precision weapons.
In 2017, Beijing began orbiting a next-generation BeiDou constellation of navigation satellites that offers text messaging and user tracking that “enable mass communications for specific BeiDou users and provide additional command and control capabilities for the Chinese military,” the report said.
These alternatives to GPS could allow China and Russia to destroy GPS satellites during a future crisis or conflict, in what the report called “space denial.”
The loss of GPS would impact police, firefighters, and paramedics and prevent rapid response to emergencies; news, long-distance telephone, satellite television, and internet service also would be unavailable. Retail stores and gas stations would be unable to communicate with banks to handle purchases and critical services “could be affected by weapons targeting our space services,” the report said.
On space attacks, the report warned that a number of adversaries are building and proliferating a number of types of weapons that can disrupt or deny space services.
The range of potential space attacks include:
- Jamming global navigation and communications satellites used for command and control and naval, ground, and air forces, including drones.
- Weapons designed to target intelligence satellites would be designed to prevent locating, monitoring, and tracking enemy targets, like mobile missiles. Lasers can temporarily blind imagery satellites and other strategic sensors.
- Anti-satellite missiles can be used to shoot down satellites, like the Chinese missile test in 2007 that destroyed an orbiting weather satellite that created debris that will threaten other satellites for decades.
- China and Russia are using orbiting robot satellites that conduct sophisticated maneuvering near other satellites as part of space warfare capabilities.
- Adversaries plan to conduct physical attacks on satellite ground stations and infrastructure supporting space operations.
- Cyberattacks also can be carried out against satellites and support infrastructure.
The networks used to direct satellites and distribute their data are vulnerable to cyberattacks and electronic jamming can be used to disrupt both uplink and downlink signals. Uplink jamming is aimed at signals going up to a satellite and must operate at the same radio frequency while downlink jamming targets blocking signals coming down to the ground station. “China and Russia consider both offensive cyber capabilities and electronic warfare as key assets for maintaining military advantage,” the report said. “As a result, both countries are researching and developing cyber capabilities and modernizing electronic warfare assets.”China and Russia also are using ground- and space-based sensors to search the skies for foreign satellites. The sensors are “first in a sequence of steps that a potential adversary will use to target satellites, launch counterspace weapons, and assess the effectiveness of an attack,” the report said.
Space surveillance can also be used by militaries for denial and deception to hide sensitive military capabilities or ground operations.
Monitoring space threats is difficult for U.S. intelligence because adversaries are using dual-use civilian-military space systems that can appear benign but have hidden military and warfighting systems, such as robotic-arm satellites.
China’s military is expected to deploy a laser weapon capable of destroying or damaging U.S. military satellites in low earth orbit in the next year, the Defense Intelligence Agency disclosed in a report on space threats.
“China likely is pursuing laser weapons to disrupt, degrade, or damage satellites and their sensors and possibly already has a limited capability to employ laser systems against satellite sensors,” the unclassified intelligence report said.
“China likely will field a ground-based laser weapon that can counter low-orbit space-based sensors by 2020, and by the mid-to-late 2020s, it may field higher power systems that extend the threat to the structures of non-optical satellites.”
It was the first time a U.S. intelligence agency disclosed details of the ASAT laser deployment plans.
In addition to lasers, China has worked on other directed energy arms, including high-powered microwave, radiofrequency, railgun, and particle beam weapons.
Lasers are regarded as ideal ASAT weapons because their effects can be more easily masked.
A high-energy laser beam can destroy electro-optical detectors, optical systems, control surfaces, solar panels, and other satellite components.
An intense laser strike of 300 watts per square centimeter can melt the surface of satellite optical glass and cause optics to fail.
Ground-based lasers are believed to have a range of between 310 miles and 620 miles and require an average power greater than 1,000 watts.
Lower powered lasers are used to interfere or temporarily blind satellite optical sensors, and can also interfere or blind infrared detectors on early warning satellites used to detect missile launches and the electro-optical transducers on electro-optical reconnaissance satellites.
The Pentagon intelligence agency also outlined space threats posed by Russia, North Korea, and Iran that along with China were identified as states that regard attacks against U.S. satellites as warfighting capabilities designed to counter precision targeting of American weapons and their communications and intelligence links.
The four enemies also could detonate nuclear weapons in space to destroy satellites and conduct air or missile strikes against satellite ground control stations, the report said.
“China and Russia, in particular, have taken steps to challenge the United States,” the report said, noting military doctrines of both states’ militaries regard satellite attacks “as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness.”
Efforts to reorganize their military forces in 2015 placed a greater emphasis on space warfighting. China set up an entire service dedicated to space, cyber, and electronic warfare. Russia also bolstered its space warfare capabilities with the creation of an aerospace force.
The threat, according to DIA, is not theoretical and is increasing, backed by growing networks of space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems.
“Chinese and Russian space surveillance networks are capable of searching, tracking, and characterizing satellites in all earth orbits,” the report said. “This capability supports both space operations and counterspace systems.” Counterspace is the Pentagon term for space warfare capabilities.
China has deployed more than 120 satellites for its military, including the first quantum communications satellite, a highly secure system that transports data in a quantum state through the use of lasers.
Tracking and identifying satellites is the first step in the challenging process of firing a missile or directed energy weapon against an orbiting satellite.
“China has a robust network of space surveillance sensors capable of searching, tracking, and characterizing satellites in all earth orbits,” the report said. The systems include telescopes, radars, and other sensors.
DIA warns on electronic space attacks
The DIA revealed details of Chinese electronic warfare weapons for planned use against satellites.
“The PLA routinely incorporates jamming and anti-jamming techniques against multiple communication, radar systems, and GPS satellite systems in exercises,” the DIA said.
The Chinese electronic jammers are dedicated to disrupting synthetic aperture radar on military reconnaissance platforms in low earth orbit. “Additionally, China is developing jammers to target [satellite communications] over a range of frequency bands, including military protected extremely high-frequency communications,” the report said.
Chinese cyberattacks have been carried out against space organizations as part of the plans for future anti-satellite attacks.
“The PLA unit responsible for conducting signals intelligence has supported cyber espionage against U.S. and European satellite and aerospace industries since at least 2007,” the report said.
China’s orbiting space warfare capabilities include small maneuvering satellites capable of destroying or damaging satellites.
Because China is a signatory to an international treaty outlawing the deployment of space weapons, China’s military appears to be disguising its orbiting ASAT systems as satellite inspection and repair systems.
The orbiters “could function as a weapon,” the report said.
China also has deployed a ground-based ASAT missile capable of striking targets in low-earth orbit and has formed military units that have been training for space attacks. Other missiles appear to be testing for attacks in geosynchronous orbit, some 23,000 miles in space.
While both Russia and China are building an array of satellite killing weapons, the DIA report suggests China’s space forces appear to be advancing more rapidly.
At the same time, China’s government officially advocates the non-weaponization of space in international forums like the United Nations, Beijing “continues to improve its counterspace weapons capabilities and has enacted military reforms to better integrate cyberspace, space, and [electronic warfare] into joint military operations,” the DIA said.
China and Russia have introduced the “Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects,” known as the PPWT, at the Conference on Disarmament.
Michael Listner, a space policy expert, said the treaty appears to be part of “lawfare” by Beijing and Moscow designed to limit U.S. space capabilities.
“The PPWT, which the report mentioned, is one of those tools of lawfare both nations are employing amongst other initiatives using mechanisms and bodies of international law to make law an actual force of war in the outer space domain along with its other counter-space capabilities,” said Listner, head of Space Law and Policy Solutions.
“This is an area that has to be recognized and addressed to the same extent as hard-power implements each of these states are developing,” he said.
In April 2019, commercial satellite images for the first time provided the photographs of a secret Chinese anti-satellite laser base in western Xinjiang province, along with other high-technology weapons facilities.
The laser facility is located near a lake and is about 145 miles south of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
The facility was discovered by retired Indian Army Col. Vinayak Bhat, a satellite imagery analyst who specializes in China affairs issues.
China is using its satellite tracking stations located throughout the country as a means of identifying and targeting satellites.
“Once the accurate satellite path and other data is known, directed energy weapons located at five different places can take over the task,” Bhat said.
The Xinjiang base is one of those laser bases that include four main buildings with sliding roofs that Bhat assesses contain high-powered chemical lasers powered by neodymium.
Bhat estimates that the smaller shed with the sliding roof is a laser tracker. Taken together, the Chinese can fire one to three of the lasers against an orbiting satellite that China is seeking to disrupt.
It is not known if the Xinjiang base was the source of the well-known laser illumination of U.S. reconnaissance satellites several times in August and September of 2006. The laser “painting” occurred as the satellites passed over China.
Then-Director of the National Reconnaissance Office Donald Kerr said at the time that the laser illumination did not damage the satellite’s ability to collect information.
The 2006 incident was believed to be tests of ASAT targeting since the illumination was assessed to be from a low power laser beam.
As shown in this report, analysts regard the China space threat as real and growing rapidly.