China and Russia are aggressively building capabilities to wage a full-fledged war in outer space, threatening the supremacy of the United States. The Soviet Union first developed the “hunter killer” system in the 1960s. In response, the U.S. started testing anti-satellite weaponry and launched a series of advanced strategic missile projects. But neither of the Cold War foes indulged into a direct space conflict because they knew how vulnerable their satellites were.
China knows that satellites are key to the U.S. military power
Now the security situation is different. According to the Scientific American, approximately 1,300 satellites from 60 different countries orbit the Earth. They provide planetary surveillance, GPS navigation, communications, and weather forecasting. The U.S. has imaging and spy satellites, targeting sensors, and military communications networks that give it unmatched power projection capabilities.
But Russia and China now pose a serious threat to the U.S. space capabilities. They have identified American satellites and space systems as a “vulnerable center of gravity for U.S. military power,” said the Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work. In 2007, China alarmed Washington by successfully testing its first anti-satellite missile, which destroyed an obsolete weather satellite at an altitude of 550 miles. A year earlier, the U.S. government had released a report that said Beijing had tagged many American observation satellites.
U.S. steps up space defense capabilities
Earlier this year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said China had demonstrated “the need to interfere with, damage and destroy” American satellites. Launching missiles is not the only way to destroy missiles. Satellites move at very high speeds. So even a small marble can do the job. Enemies can also use lasers to damage a satellite’s sensors and other components, or they can hijack transmissions from ground controllers. China tested its latest anti-satellite missile in July last year.
Russia is also building capabilities to destroy satellites in orbit. Since 2013, Moscow has included three payloads in routine commercial satellite launches. The U.S. Air Force believes that it could be meant for sinister intentions. In response, Washington has allocated $5 billion to boost the defensive and offensive capabilities of the U.S. military space program. The Pentagon is working to make satellites better able to withstand attacks from lasers, small robot satellites, and ground-fired missiles.