Beijing is currently spending a lot of time and energy on space exploration, which could destroy U.S. capabilities there. According to a report presented by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, China’s burgeoning space weapons program has been specifically designed to undermine American C5IST capabilities in the event of a conflict between the two countries. The report is set to be published by The Washington Times next month.
“China is pursuing a broad and robust array of counterspace capabilities, which includes direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles, co-orbital anti-satellite systems, computer network operations, ground-based satellite jammers and directed energy weapons,” the report reads.
The report in a nut-shell
Keeping in mind Chinese military’s overall anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) doctrine, these counterspace capabilities are aimed at countering U.S. conventional superiority by shoring up its network-centric warfare muscle. The 2015 report reiterates this line of thinking:
The PLA assesses that U.S. satellites are critical to the United States’ ability to sustain combat operations globally. PLA analysis of U.S. military operations states that “destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors will deprive an opponent of initiative on the battlefield and [make it difficult] for them to bring their precision-guided weapons into full play.”
The report further reveals that China has continued the development and testing of ground-based, medium-range SC-19 ballistic missile and the Dong Neg-2, a high-earth orbit interceptor. The Dong Neg-2 is expected to enter services in the next five to ten years, and when it happens, it will raise China’s profile as a new player in the space race.
In 2007, China tested its space capabilities by destroying a defunct weather satellite. And only last year, Beijing tested a missile-fired anti-satellite kill vehicle while disguising it as a ballistic missile defense test. Moreover, China’s nuclear arsenal has inherent anti-satellite capabilities, according to the report.
China’s space and cyber-capabilities
As of now, China is developing several different space-based weapons systems which are comprised of a satellite armed with a weapon such as a fragmentation device, explosive charge, radio frequency weapon, jammer, kinetic energy weapon or a robotic arm. Keeping in view its cyber-capabilities, Beijing will deploy its cyber-warriors and cyber-weapons to disable U.S. communications in space in the event of war by trying “to conduct computer network attacks against U.S. satellites and ground-based facilities that interact with U.S. satellites,” according to the report. And if the attack meets its objectives, it will give China a huge advantage over the U.S.
If China is able to access a satellite’s controls, it will allow it to damage or destroy the satellite, manipulate transmissions or access its capabilities. According to Chinese analysts, the United States is heavily reliant upon its satellites for a major chunk of its intelligence gathering and communication mechanism, which is why it is obvious to see China investing so much money into developing and improving its anti-satellite capabilities.
Earlier this year, Frank Kendall, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, admitted that the situation with the U.S.’s technological edge in the space domain is very bad, largely due to recent work done by China and Russia in shaping their respective anti-satellite capabilities. Washington is very concerned about Chinese and Russian capabilities that could seriously undermine the USA’s ability to coordinate missions on a global level.
Budget cuts – the biggest threat to U.S.
However, the greatest threat to the U.S. in the space domain does not necessarily come from China; its roots can be traced within its own borders. Across-the-board budget cuts mean that the U.S. is struggling to invest as heavily in its space program as China and Russia are.
Furthermore, all U.S. military satellites are not equally vulnerable to Chinese ASAT attempts. The substantial range of orbital altitude is from 1,000 kilometers to 36,000 kilometers, which means that China will not find it easy to attack most U.S. military satellites. Moreover, China, at this point in time, has very limited satellite tracking capabilities due to the fact that these capabilities are on the ground.
Thus, reliance on alternate platforms means that China will always be hard-pressed to obtain the desired results from an anti-satellite operation against the U.S.