Space age weapons bring a gleam to Trump's eyes. Image: iStock

Is there a true military threat in space? Yes, Americans need to be aware of the real threats that China poses to their country’s capabilities in space. The United States must prepare to make a show of force to prove its ability to respond to threats in space, and a space force is necessary to protect American satellites from being targeted by Chinese weapons. The main threat lies in an adversary’s ability to disable or destroy satellites from the ground.

US President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive-4 on February 19, ordering the Pentagon to establish the Space Force. The main goal is to secure and extend American dominance of the space domain. Since 2010, China has already demonstrated an ability to pilot satellites to approach designated targets. A space force is a crucial element of US efforts to counter China, which has been aggressively working to develop anti-satellite capabilities.

Washington’s decision to establish the Space Force reflects a growing concern in the US over the development of sophisticated new weapons by China. During the last decade, there has been growing concern over the reliance on vulnerable space capabilities for national security, and the corresponding proliferation of offensive counter-space capabilities that could be used to disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy space systems. Thus, space security has become an increasingly salient policy issue.

One of the major reasons behind the Space Force idea was to speed up the pace of acquisition as potential adversaries such as China developed counter-space weapons. China is conducting sophisticated satellite operations and is probably testing on-orbit dual-use technologies that could be applied to counter-space missions. China’s military is becoming increasingly adept at militarizing commercial space technologies. Independent analysts have revealed considerable details about China’s growing arsenal of counter-space capabilities such as directed-energy anti-satellite weapons and satellite jammers.

The US cannot ignore potential threats to satellites that are crucial to communication, navigation, weather information and other underpinnings of modern life. Eighty percent of the nearly 2,000 satellites are civilian, providing critical communications and economic services for humanity’s well being. We need to take care of space. However, if concentrating authority in the Space Force creates an incentive for nations to build space weapons that increase the likelihood of conflict, it would be a profoundly bad idea.

In 2007, China launched a missile that tracked and destroyed one of its own satellites – a highly provocative demonstration of China’s growing capability to militarize space. China has demonstrated the ability to maneuver their satellites in close proximity to US assets, posing unprecedented new dangers. So this is a reality. The United States must be able to defend American satellites in space. At the same time, if someone is going to try to engage in space with military means, the US will not stand idly by.

China is years ahead of the United States in developing the means to destroy or disable satellites that the American military depends on for everything from gathering intelligence to guiding precision bombs, missiles and drones. China is also developing counter-space technologies that could cripple America’s satellite constellations and networks. China is also working on ground-based systems, electromagnetic jamming, lasers and other anti-satellite capabilities to counter America’s advantage in space. The emergence of satellite-killing weapons and electronic warfare in space are among the trends that are reshaping the balance of power in outer space and challenging the dominance of the United States.

In addition to civil and commercial uses, Chinese space doctrines indicate that they view space as important to modern warfare and view counter-space capabilities as a means to reduce US military effectiveness. Chinese space surveillance networks are also capable of searching, tracking, and characterizing satellites in all earth orbits. This capability supports both space operations and counter-space systems. Furthermore, China is developing jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed-energy weapons, on-orbit capabilities, and ground-based anti-satellite missiles that can achieve a range of reversible to nonreversible effects.

New studies provide fresh insights into the escalating arms race in space. China emphasizes offensive cyberspace capabilities as key assets for integrated warfare and could use its cyberwarfare capabilities to support military operations against space-based assets. China is also moving forward with a new modular space station. China has successfully operated two previous space labs in low earth orbit (LEO), Tiangong-1 and -2 through its Project 921 program. The new space station will consist of three modules. The core module for the new space station is expected to be launched in 2020, while the two additional experimental modules are planned for launch in 2021 and 2022. China is also currently developing a new space telescope, which will reportedly have a field of view 300 times larger than the US Hubble Space Telescope. This telescope will be placed near the new space station, in case astronauts need to service it manually.

China emphasizes offensive cyberspace capabilities as key assets for integrated warfare and could use its cyberwarfare capabilities to support military operations against space-based assets

The militarization of space is a concern. China is the third country to have landed a rover on the moon and performed the first-ever landing on the lunar far side with its Chang’e-4 rover and lander in January 2019, and it will continue to improve its space programs, including human spaceflight. Commercially, China will compete internationally to build satellites and supply space launch, navigation, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance services. Beijing will continue to see space as integral to winning modern wars. China is developing systems that pose a threat to freedom of action in space and will continue its efforts to enhance its space and counter-space capabilities, and better integrate them into its respective military branches.

Space and counter-space capabilities are critical for China to fight and win modern military engagements. China shows no signs of slowing its investment in developing counter-space capabilities. Government and military officials often comment on how military space capabilities will ensure their success in conflict and create a significant advantage if China can interfere with America’s reliance on space architectures. China is clearly investing in its counter-space capabilities. Evidence confirms that in 2018 alone, China tested technologies in three of the four counter-space weapon categories. Specifically, China has tested several direct-ascent weapons capable of reaching satellites in LEO and possibly GEO.

Today, space is fundamental to our modern way of war. It could be cyber, it could be laser weapons, and it could be jamming the communications capability. The advantages the United States holds in space capabilities will drive some nations to improve their abilities to access and operate in space. As the number of spacefaring nations grows and as some actors integrate space and counter-space capabilities into military operations, these trends will pose a challenge to US space dominance and present new risks for assets on orbit. Moreover, the threat is real and it’s there and we need to react to it as a nation. The stakes from the US perspective couldn’t be higher. Satellites are critical to the economy, to things like Earth-bound navigation and communication right down to self-driving cars of the future.

Now the Pentagon is trying to catch up by hardening its defenses against anti-satellite weapons and honing ways to retaliate against a new form of combat that experts warn could affect millions of people, causing untold collateral damage and spread to battlefields on earth. Perhaps the most important area to watch is how the United States responds to new and ongoing developments in the counter-space capabilities of countries like China and others. Key developments to watch within the United States are further development and articulation of military space strategy and doctrine, and investments in counter-space capabilities. Changes in these areas are an indication of the level of priority being placed on space and how the United States intends to compete in this domain.

The Space Force is necessary to protect American satellites from being targeted by weapons in the hands of China and other countries. Setting up the Space Force is what it will take to ensure the United States stays ahead of adversaries that are advancing their space capabilities.

Kent Wang

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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