Should the US Fear China’s New Space Weapons?
Artist's conception of a Global Positioning System satellite in Earth orbit.

Should the US Fear China’s New Space Weapons?

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A new report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission offers insights into China’s burgeoning space weapons program designed to attack U.S. satellites and undermine American C5ISR capabilities in the event of a conflict.

The Washington Times obtained a copy of the report, which will be published next month. “China is pursuing a broad and robust array of counterspace capabilities, which includes direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles, co-orbital anti-satellite systems, computer network operations, ground-based satellite jammers and directed energy weapons,” the report reads.

The People’s Republic’s counterspace capabilities play a pivotal role in the Chinese military’s overall anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) doctrine to counter U.S. conventional superiority based on network centric warfare. The 2014 iteration of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report quotes a Chinese military analyst, who notes that the development long-range precision strike weapons “cannot be separated from space power.”

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The 2015 report reiterates this line of thinking:

The PLA assesses U.S. satellites are critical to the United States’ ability to sustain combat operations globally. PLA analysis of U.S. military operations states that “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.”

The report further points out that China is continuing to develop and test the ground-based, medium-range SC-19 ballistic missile, as well as the Dong Neng-2 anti-satellite missile, a high-earth orbit interceptor.  The Dong Neng-2 could enter service within the next five to ten years.

China destroyed a defunct weather satellite with a missile in 2007. In addition, Beijing tested a missile-fired anti-satellite kill vehicle in the summer of 2014, disguising it as a ballistic missile defense test. “China’s nuclear arsenal also provides an inherent anti-satellite capability,” the report states.

China is also developing a number of different space-based weapons. “These systems consist of a satellite armed with a weapon such as an explosive charge, fragmentation device, kinetic energy weapon, laser, radio frequency weapon, jammer or robotic arm,” according to the study.

Beijing, in the event of war, will furthermore deploy its cyber warriors and cyber weapons to disable U.S. communications in space by attempting “to conduct computer network attacks against U.S. satellites and ground-based facilities that interact with U.S. satellites,” the study says. Should such an attack be successful it could fundamentally undermine U.S. ability to maintain information superiority in a conflict:

For example, access to a satellite’s controls could allow an attacker to damage or destroy the satellite; deny, degrade, or manipulate its transmissions; or access its capabilities or the information, such as imagery, that can be gained through its sensors.

Chinese analysts believe that the United States relies upon satellites for 70 to 80 percent of its intelligence collection and 80 percent of its communication. It is thus easy to see why China invests heavily into developing anti-satellite capabilities.

As I reported before (See: “Is the Pentagon Losing the Arms Race in Space?”), U.S. officials are especially concerned about threats to U.S. Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites.

However, as The Diplomat contributor Jaganath Sankaran emphasized in 2014,”[T]he benefits from an ASAT [anti-satellite] attack are limited and would not confer decisive military advantage in every plausible conflict.”

“The substantial range of orbital altitude — 1,000 kilometers to 36,000 kilometers — from which satellites operate poses a challenge to China’s ability to attack U.S. military satellites (…) Unlike the U.S., China has a very limited satellite tracking capability, most of which are based in its territory and possibly a few ships,” he explains.

Furthermore he stresses that “the presence of alternate platforms and built-in redundancies substantially limit the advantages that China can obtain from anti-satellite operation against the U.S.”

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