China and Russia are actively contesting America’s long-held space dominance by targeting US’ reliance on space-based systems to project combat power in areas of conflict and instability.
Released this month by the US Defense Intelligence Agency, a report entitled Challenges to Security in Space says China’s emergence as a space power and a resurgent Russia have “expanded the militarization of space, as both countries integrate space and counter-space capabilities into their national and warfighting strategies to challenge the US.”
The report says that between 2019 to 2021, China and Russia’s space fleets have grown 70% after a period of rapid growth from 2015 to 2018, when both countries increased their combined satellite fleets by 200%.
The report also notes that China and Russia are developing systems to reduce their reliance on the US-based Global Positioning System (GPS) and other space technologies, fielding increasing sophisticated anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons and continuing to position themselves as leading space powers with the goal of creating global space norms to undercut US leadership.
The report also briefly summarizes China and Russia’s space warfare doctrines. It mentions that China views counter-space operations as a means to deter US intervention in Taiwan, with the potential destruction of US space assets making it difficult for the US and its allies to use precision-guided weapons.
It also states that China could target satellites performing intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, communication and early warning roles to “blind” US and allied forces.
The report says Russia views space as a critical enabler of US force projection and precision strike capabilities, and that these capabilities are an Achilles’ heel that can be exploited to offset a perceived US military advantage.
Russia has deployed its space denial capabilities in Ukraine, with reports suggesting it has deployed GPS jamming and spoofing to hamper Ukrainian military operations while concealing its own.
However, it is also believed that Russia has not deployed the full extent of its electronic warfare (EW) capabilities and that its EW ASAT efforts appear to be confined to the local level.
Moreover, commercial satellite services have enabled Ukraine to resist better-than-expected Russia’s EW capabilities and disinformation campaigns.
China is no doubt observing developments in Ukraine and adopting lessons for its own Taiwan contingency. China has likely taken note that US intelligence-sharing with Ukraine has played a major part in Russian military reverses and heavy material losses, and may seek to avoid a repeat of that scenario if it chooses to invade Taiwan.
In a fight for Taiwan, it is highly likely that the US will have the same free hand in intervening as it does in assisting Ukraine.
Both China and Russia have deployed sophisticated ASAT capabilities, ranging from electronic warfare, cyberwarfare, directed energy weapons, ASAT missiles and armed satellites. At present, both US adversaries are regularly attacking US satellites with non-kinetic means, such as lasers, radiofrequency jammers and cyberattacks.
China is believed to be significantly ahead of Russia in developing ASAT capabilities, which it has fielded at a comparatively rapid pace.
Those weapons include an ultra-high power microwave device that can potentially jam satellite communications or damage sensitive satellite electronics. The device, known as a Relativistic Klystron Amplifier (RKA), can be mounted on satellites for offensive and defensive purposes.
The device can be used as a source of high-powered microwaves to burn out the electronics of enemy satellites and as a defensive asset to absorb high-power microwaves before they can cause damage.
Another such weapon is a satellite-mountable solid-state laser capable of generating a megawatt of laser light and fire for 100 times a second for half an hour without overheating in space.
Such a laser is capable of dazzling satellite cameras or even permanently blinding satellites. Upon testing, the device reportedly generated a beam lasting only 5 nanoseconds, but it was powerful enough to permanently blind human beings or vaporize target surfaces.
China is also likely to have significant capabilities against GPS, although the exact nature of its capabilities is difficult to ascertain via open-source information.
While there is significant evidence of Chinese scientific research and development of electronic warfare capabilities for counter-space applications and some open-source evidence of Chinese electronic warfare counter-space capabilities being deployed, there is no public evidence of their active use in military operations.