In the highly “informatized” and technologically advanced battles that characterize the 21st century, outer space will play a dominant role. Space assets direct military operations and help in making crucial battleground decisions. In this regard, attempts to weaponize space and command this sphere are to be expected from great powers. The United States and USSR started weaponizing space in the in the 1950s and 1960s respectively, and China is now following suit.
What Is the “Weaponization” of Space?
The weaponization of space includes placing weapons in outer space or on heavenly bodies as well as creating weapons that will transit outer space or simply travel from Earth to attack or destroy targets in space. Examples include the placing of orbital or suborbital satellites with the intention of attacking enemy satellites, using ground-based direct ascent missiles to attack space assets, jamming signals sent from enemy satellites, using lasers to incapacitate enemy satellites, plasma attacks, orbital ballistic missiles, and satellite attacks on Earth targets. These can be further classified into direct-energy and kinetic-energy weapons.
The weaponization of space is different from the militarization of space, which includes using space-based assets for C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance). The militarization of space assists armies on the conventional battlefield, whereas via the weaponization of space, outer space itself emerges as the battleground, sometimes referred to as the “fourth frontier of war.”
Today’s space-faring nations use their Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Systems, which include long-range ICBMs, as an auxiliary system capable of destroying space-based assets. The difference between BMD and ASATs lies mainly in the software and control algorithms used to detect, track, and home in on a satellite as compared to a warhead. China has been making impressive headway in its ICBM program and in theory, these ICBMs can target U.S. Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) satellites. There have been debates among scholars on the utility of BMD system as ASAT (Anti-Satellite) weapons. However, Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation asserts that there is no meaningful difference between a midcourse ballistic missile defense system and a hit-to-kill ASAT weapon.
Weeden argues that “because midcourse ballistic missile systems are intended to destroy warheads traveling at speeds and altitudes comparable to those of satellites, all midcourse ballistic missile defense systems have inherent ASAT capabilities.” He asserts that these BMD systems are more effective as anti-satellite weapons than as missile defense systems, since most satellites are easier to detect, track, and target than warheads, which are likely to be accompanied with penetration aids designed to confuse a potential defense. The difference between BMD and ASATs lies mainly in the software and control algorithms used to detect, track, and home in on a satellite as compared to a warhead.
China’s Space Program
In June 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to astronauts at the launch of the Shenzhou X manned mission and said that China will take bigger steps in space exploration in pursuit of its “space dream.” He acknowledged that the space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger. “With the development of space programs, Chinese people will take bigger strides to explore further into space,” he said. In another occasion, on April 24, 2016, marking China’s first “space day,” the president asked scientists to help realize China’s dream of becoming a global space giant. In both the instances, the Chinese president seemed to have benign intentions behind China’s space modernization and ambitions; however, open source literature available on China’s space dreams points out that the Chinese strategic community sees space as the ultimate high ground, the key to military success on the terrestrial battlefield.
Washington believes that underlying the various civilian aspects of China’s space program is an active military component. A 2015 report prepared by the U.S. Department of Defense suggests that China has invested in advanced space capabilities, with particular emphasis on “satellite communication (SATCOM), intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), satellite navigation (SATNAV), and meteorology, as well as manned, unmanned, and interplanetary space exploration.” The report claims that along with its civilian space program, China continues to develop a variety of capabilities designed to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during a crisis or conflict, including the “development of directed-energy weapons and satellite jammers.”
A report prepared for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission states that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) recognizes that in a time of war it must deny enemies the use of strategic information about troop and ship movements, incoming missiles, navigation, communication, etc, along with depriving its opponents the use of C4ISR systems. The report goes on to state that “Chinese analysts assess that the employment of space-based C4ISR capabilities by potential adversaries, especially the United States, requires the PLA to develop capabilities to attack space systems. Based on this assessment, Chinese analysts surmise that the loss of critical sensor and communications capabilities could imperil the U.S. military’s ability to achieve victory or to achieve victory with minimal casualties.”
There is considerable merit in Washington’s claims about the dual-use nature of China’s space program. For instance, Colonel Li Daguang, writing in his book Space War published by National Defense University in 2001, recommends that the Chinese should combine military and civilian technology and integrate peacetime and wartime facilities. His rationale was that space equipment is costly to develop and maintain, hence it is important to have civil-use technology that can also have military applications.
Evolution of China’s ASAT Weapons Capability
A brief survey of recent tests by Beijing confirms that China is rapidly improving its counter space program and making advances in its anti-satellite systems. China’s first ASAT test was conducted in May 2005 and its capabilities have come a long way since. Most notably, a 2007 test destroyed a redundant Feng Yun 1-C weather satellite owned by China, leaving over 3,000 dangerous pieces of debris in space. The test was conducted in low Earth orbit (LEO), approximately 800 kilometers above Earth.
A 2013 test by Beijing involved its new missile, the DN-2 or Dong Neng-2, and the test was conducted in “nearly geosynchronous orbit,” where most of the United States’ ISR satellites are located. The direct ascent test, launched from Xichang, reached an altitude of 18,600 miles. On October 30, 2015, China tested the DN-3 exoatmospheric vehicle, reported to be able to destroy U.S. satellites. Chinese press reports said the test was a missile defense interceptor flight test. However, The Washington Free Beacon quotes unnamed defense officials as saying that the DN-3 is “primarily a direct-ascent missile designed to ram into satellites and destroy them, even if intelligence assessments hold that the weapon has some missile defense capabilities.”
Along with direct-ascent ASAT weapons, China is also believed to be developing other space weapons. In June 2016, China launched the Aolong-1 spacecraft on a Long March 7 rocket. China claims that the Aolong-1 is tasked with cleaning up space junk and collecting man-made debris in space. However, other reports suggest that the spacecraft, equipped with a robotic arm, is a dual-use ASAT weapon. The Aolong-1 is believed to be the first in a series of spacecraft that will be tasked with collecting man-made space debris. Quoting an unnamed researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing, the South China Morning Post points out that it is unrealistic to remove all space debris with robots; rather, for the People’s Liberation Army the robot is a potential ASAT weapon.
Beijing’s recent space activities indicate that it is developing co-orbital anti-satellite systems to target U.S. space assets. Co-orbital anti-satellite 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.” Besides the “hard-kill” methods, Beijing is also testing soft-kill methods to incapacitate enemy satellites. For instance, China has been acquiring a number of foreign and indigenous ground-based satellite jammers since the mid-2000s. These jammers are designed to disrupt an adversary’s communications with a satellite by overpowering the signals being sent to or from it. The PLA can use these jammers to deny an adversary the access to the GPS and other satellite signals. Directed energy lasers are also a soft-kill method that could be used in an anti-satellite mission. China has been committing resources to the research and development for directed energy weapons since the 1990s.
China’s Counterspace Program: Aimed at the U.S.
The Chinese believe that the greatest threat to them comes from the United States. To counter the United States’ conventional strength and gain strategic parity, Chinese strategists believe, Beijing will need to strike at the U.S. Achilles heel — Washington’s over-reliance on satellites for C4ISR. Beijing plans to exploit the vulnerable space infrastructure of the United States in the case of a war.
According to a recent RAND report, space and counterspace operations would be important elements in any armed confrontation between the United States and China. The transformational warfighting capabilities that U.S. military forces have developed since the end of the Cold War are largely enabled by “satellite support, and space-based ISR and communication connectivity would be especially important in the broad expanses of the Western Pacific theater.”
The PLA’s interest in the use of space for military purposes gained momentum after the 1991 Gulf War, which has been referred to as the “first space war,” and has only increased since. According to some Chinese analysts, “the U.S. military relies upon space for 70‒80 percent of its intelligence and 80 percent of its communication.” Some Chinese writings also attribute an almost omnipotent quality to U.S. space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and conclude that the U.S. receives exquisite intelligence from these platforms.
According to Martin France and Richard Adams, however, “The PLA’s development of ASAT weapons is primarily not a reaction to U.S. space control initiatives. It is driven instead by very practical considerations of regional security and influence, and the desire to conduct asymmetric warfare against a superior foe if conflict arises.”
France and Adams believe that Beijing seeks to offset the dominance of U.S. conventional forces by exploiting their dependence on spaceborne information assets. China also hopes to guarantee the viability of its nuclear deterrent by holding the critical space-segment of American missile defense systems at risk. Finally, the Chinese space program also contributes to the PLA’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities by providing critical C4ISR support to long-range precision strike weapons and providing the ability to threaten U.S. space-based assets.
The DN-2 2013 test jolted Washington and made the United States realize that crucial national security satellites, parked in geostationary earth orbit, are well within the reach of Beijing. As a response, Pentagon announced the launch of a “Space War Center” to counter threats from China and Russia in space, part of a $5 billion boost in space security spending for the Department of Defense. However, over a year and a half later, precious little has come of the Center.
The United States, aware of the enormity of the threat, needs to do a lot more to ensure that space remains a sanctuary instead of turning into a battleground. China and Russia have been pushing for a debate on a Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) treaty, which would ensure that states observe a prohibition on space weaponization. Russia and China have also submitted a draft treaty to the UN preventing the placement of weapons in outer space. However, in all likelihood, the United States would not want an arms-control treaty if it means limiting the U.S. National Missile Defense system (which has de facto ASAT applications).Washington withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001 and went on to develop ground and sea-based missile defenses that can also act as ASAT weapons. So far the biggest boulder to an international treaty bringing more transparency and arms control to outer space is the United States.
Harsh Vasani is a Postgraduate Research Scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University.