China is building an array of high-technology space arms – anti-satellite missiles, lasers, GPS jammers and killer satellites – that Beijing says will give its military strategic advantage in a future conflict with the United States.
The People’s Liberation Army now has the capability of attacking, destroying or disrupting the 500 US satellites circling the earth at heights of between 1,200 miles and 22,000 miles, according to a new study by a US think tank, the National Institute for Public Policy.
The report, on “Foreign Space Capabilities,” also reveals that China’s military has discussed plans for using space detonations of nuclear weapons to create electronics-killing Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attacks against orbiting satellites used by militaries for precision weapons targeting, navigation and communications.
“China will increasingly be able to hold at risk US satellites in all orbits and is developing a multi-dimensional ASAT [anti-satellite] 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,” says the report, authored by Steve Lambakis, a former space warfare expert with the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency.
The report identifies other military space powers, such as Russia, but it singles out China for its large investment in building and fielding robust space warfare capabilities designed to support Beijing’s drive to challenge American information superiority and achieve regional and global hegemony.
Beijing views reliance on foreign satellite capabilities, such as GPS navigation satellites, as facilitating foreign domination that must not be permitted to continue. Thus it has invested billions in its space programs, including 19 Beidou orbiting navigation satellites, with plans for 16 more that will assist the PLA in expanding its global presence and long-range strike weapons.
The Chinese military’s prime objective is to deny the US access to the Indo-Pacific region. Military operations supporting that goal would begin with attacks aimed at destroying and disrupting command and control capabilities, including “cyber and kinetic attacks on satellites and ground assets,” the report says.
“With this range of direct-ascent ASAT capabilities, China may be capable of using hit-to-kill technologies to target and destroy surveillance satellites in low earth orbit, GPS satellites in medium earth orbit, and early warning satellites in geosynchronous orbit”
While it has been quietly a space weapons program, Beijing continues to promote the notion that it believes only in using space for peaceful purposes. However, the creation of the new Strategic Support Force in late 2015 was a clear indication that the PLA is gearing up for cyber, electronic and space warfare in a future conflict.
The array of its space weapons is impressive. China currently deploys two mobile ground-based ASAT interceptor missiles systems and is working on two more larger and more advanced ASAT systems based on the use of four-stage mobile space launchers or intercontinental ballistic missiles, including the new large DF-41 ICBM.
“With this range of direct-ascent ASAT capabilities, China may be capable of using hit-to-kill technologies to target and destroy surveillance satellites in low earth orbit, GPS satellites in medium earth orbit, and early warning satellites in geosynchronous orbit,” the report says.
On the subject of nuclear EMP attacks, the report says a single warhead used in an ASAT role could “decimate” low altitude satellites.
A Chinese official has threatened to stage EMP nuclear attacks in any future conflict over Taiwan, along with a space nuclear blast 700 miles to the east of Taiwan to keep US forces at bay.
Signs of experimental space weapons include the May 2013 launch by China of a space object into geosynchronous orbit – where critical US early warning, intelligence and communications satellites are located.
“Such a system also could place a kinetic kill vehicle in the path of satellites in medium earth orbit where GPS satellites operate, or in highly elliptical orbit where US infrared missile detection and warning satellites operate,” the report says.
Another new Chinese space weapon is maneuvering satellites, like the small Chinese satellite that triggered alarm bells at the Pentagon by maneuvering close to the International Space Station.
The Chinese are believed to have three ASAT-capable vehicles currently orbiting space, and future systems could include orbiting electronic jammers, small satellites with robotic arms, laser beam weapons, and exploding satellites.
A review of Chinese military literature over the past several years highlights Beijing’s work on space warfare capabilities.
A 2013 technical report, “Research on the Voidness of GPS,” identified GPS satellites as key factors used in guiding 80% of the bombs dropped during the 2003 Persian Gulf War.
That study revealed that China could significantly reduce the navigation accuracy of American precision-guided weapons over specific areas by attacking two groups of four GPS satellites each.
“Eliminating two groups of GPS satellites can prevent GPS satellites from providing navigation service around the clock,” the study said.
Another example is the December 2012 report on “Space Cyber Warfare,” which outlined the use of digital means in space conflict.
“A space cyber-attack is carried out using space technology and methods of hard kill and soft kill,” the report 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.”
“Space-to-space, space-to-air, space-to-ground conflicts will become unavoidable. In future wars, once one loses the support of the space system, that is equal to losing the initiative in war”
The attacks involved jamming communications links and electronic attacks using “pulsed electromagnetic weapons.”
Other means 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.
A 2011 report identified 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.”
Perhaps the most sober call for space warfare was outlined in a February 2014 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.”
China has blamed the US X-37B space plane that it claims is America’s future space warfare weapon, for spurring its efforts. The unpiloted space drone has been tested in orbit for at least five years and its missions remain secret.
“In future wars, space contention will become more intense,” the report warns. “Space-to-space, space-to-air, space-to-ground conflicts will become unavoidable. In future wars, once one loses the support of the space system, that is equal to losing the initiative in war.”
China is preparing for a future space conflict and its weapons and capabilities are formidable. To maintain the peace in space, the US, along with other Asian states, must develop their own counterspace forces to deter future conflicts from spreading to these commanding heights.