China’s soon-to-be-completed space station has garnered much media attention as a symbol of Chinese power projection into space. In comparison, little attention has been paid to more secretive developments involving Chinese directed energy programs recently exposed by the Secure World Foundation. Yet these will play just as vital a role in China’s ambitions to be a leading space power.
In recent years, China has stepped up its military activities in space in support of the leadership’s ambitious goal to field a “world class” military by 2050. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seeks to develop capabilities to asymmetrically challenge U.S. space superiority. Counterspace missions, underpinned by the use of counterspace weapons – whether kinetic physical, non-kinetic physical, electronic, or cyber – play an important role in Chinese military thinking in this regard. While China is moving to cyber and electronic means as preferred attack vectors in space, its interest in non-kinetic physical directed energy weapons (DEW) may pose a longer-term threat because of short warning time and the absence of counter-measures.
China currently possesses ground-based DEW systems, although their exact capabilities remain unknown, and is moving to develop space-based platforms as well. Technological innovation within China is indicative of the PLA’s ability to overcome technical challenges to fielding militarily useful DEW systems in the near future. If successful, the PLA will be able to limit the ability of U.S. forces, highly reliant on satellites for a range of military applications, to operate within the Indo-Pacific, a significant concern for policymakers when it comes to future warfighting scenarios between the U.S. and China.
The Role of Non-Kinetic Directed Energy Weapons
While Chinese kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, such as its 2007 direct ascent ASAT missile test, have made headlines in the past, future military operations in space will likely witness a shift to non-kinetic means of asymmetrically disrupting U.S. space operations. The reason is collateral damage: employing kinetic ASAT capabilities to destroy satellites in orbit leads to clouds of space debris, threatening satellite constellations of both sides and beyond. In comparison, non-kinetic counterspace assets offer a less risky alternative for China to achieve its counterspace objectives. Indeed, Chinese strategists view non-kinetic ASAT capabilities as “reversible,” i.e. non-destructive, and therefore less escalatory in a potential military crisis.
While cyber or electronic warfare operations represent viable options to disable adversarial space assets, DEWs are a military capability of growing importance for warfighting in space. DEWs – including technology such as high-powered lasers, high-powered microwave, millimeter wave emitter, or particle beam weapons – use concentrated electromagnetic energy to attack enemy systems and platforms.
Today’s generation of solid state or hybrid gas-solid state lasers are capable of producing far higher degrees of power and energy than their gas-based predecessors, thereby increasing their military utility. Low-powered lasers can be used to blind or disable satellite electro-optical sensors, with higher powered lasers theoretically capable of destroying entire satellite systems. Another important military application of DEWs includes the destruction or jamming of communications equipment through high-frequency microwave emissions.
Inadequate defenses or countermeasures, coupled with lack of warning time given the speed of DEW strikes, give the systems considerable usefulness for offensive counterspace missions. Defensive applications, such as space-based ballistic missile defense, are also under development and are likely to be a key capability of future military arsenals. DEWs are being developed by states such as the United States, China and Russia.
China’s DEW capabilities
The PLA’s Strategic Support Force is rapidly developing the technological capabilities required to field DEW systems for concrete counterspace applications in the near future, leading some analysts to express concern that U.S. satellites are becoming increasingly vulnerable to Chinese DEWs. While China’s DEW programs were mostly likely funded through the 863 Program until 2016, details on current DEW systems and programs remain sparse given their sensitive military nature. Nevertheless, a 2022 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report concluded that the PLA is already in possession of ground-based lasers systems with varying degrees of power. Open source evidence has found at least four or five main sites housing such systems.
Doubts persist as to whether ground-based lasers currently offer enough military utility for counterspace application. A major technical hurdle has been the levels of power required to significantly affect satellites in orbit, or even to penetrate through the atmosphere. The accuracy of DEWs at such large distances, as well as the difficulty of verifying whether DEW strikes were effective in damaging or disabling adversary satellites, remain challenges to fielding effective ground-based lasers for counterspace applications.
Nevertheless, Chinese ground-based DEWs will likely become more capable for two overarching reasons. First, the power outputs of Chinese DEWs will increase rapidly in coming years. Recent scientific breakthroughs by Chinese researchers in the use of relativistic klystron amplifier technology demonstrate that future DEW systems will likely be far more powerful than those currently in operation. An ongoing project by researchers in Shanghai, who claim they will be able to fire a 100-petawatt laser shot by circa 2023 – an output more than 10 times the capacity of the world’s largest nuclear power plant – only highlights this trend.
Second, advancements in enabling technology will also increase the efficacy of Chinese DEWs for counterspace missions. A team at the National Defense Technology University is reported to have developed a radar that will allow the tracking and observation of objects in near earth orbit up to a resolution of 3mm. Besides the cited civilian application of allowing the accurate destruction of space debris, the technology has extensive military applications such as the accurate targeting of satellite systems or facilitating damage assessments of ASAT strikes to support ground operations.
China’s Co-orbital DEW Ambitions
The PLA will further seek to develop and field co-orbital DEW weapons, if it has not already begun doing so already. Indeed, authors at the Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics, a leading research institution for the development of laser technology within China, proposed already in 2013 that space-based laser weapons were feasible for Chinese warfighting capabilities by the mid-2020s.
Co-orbitally deployed DEWs offer significant advantages over ground-based systems. With smaller distances to satellites in orbit and without the need to penetrate the atmosphere, power requirements for space-based systems would be significantly lower. Additionally, space-based systems offer a defensive capability to protect space assets from adversary ASAT attacks.
Yet these systems come with significant technical challenges, such as miniaturization and enabling small energy sources. Space-based systems will need to be significantly smaller in both size and weight than ground-based systems to be installed on orbiting satellites.
Recent Chinese technological advancements addressing these technological shortcomings are notable. In December 2021 a Chinese research team is reported to have developed a 1 megawatt pulse laser device weighing below 1.5 kilograms, thus making it possible to field the device on a relatively small satellite in space. Given the rapid speed of technological innovation in this field, co-orbital DEW systems might become feasible for military deployment within the next two decades. With conservative estimates placing China’s spending on its civil space program at $8.9 billion and funding increasingly being allocated to R&D efforts, support on a national level to overcome these hurdles through technological innovation certainly exists.
A New Threat?
The PLA’s focus on DEWs to counter U.S. space superiority is in line with overall Chinese efforts to attempt to asymmetrically contest U.S. forces across all warfighting domains, while avoiding large-scale kinetic engagements. As the PLA’s R&D effort on DEWs suggests, future military operations in space will depend less on the use of kinetic ASAT weapons systems and more on a host of non-kinetic capabilities, of which DEW systems will be a prominent part. How quickly the PLA will be able to field DEW systems, whether ground- or co-orbital-based, will depend on finding solutions to several technical challenges including lack of precision and inadequate power sources for sustained military operations. The successful fielding of Chinese DEW systems would thwart the ability of the U.S. forces to operate in the Indo-Pacific, a development that will have a significant impact on any future warfighting scenarios between the two powers as great power rivalry in the region heats up.