China is building space weapons designed to defeat U.S. and allied long-range missiles, and U.S. plans to loosen controls on satellite exports likely will boost Beijing’s space warfare programs, according to a Obama administration report made public on Wednesday.
The report warned that if the U.S. government relaxes controls on satellite exports and related items, “China would purchase and acquire more of these items, and in turn, further reduce the technological edge of the United States’ and its allies’ space assets,” the report said.
“The United States must walk a fine line and limit its transfers to China to only those non-sensitive items that are readily available from non-U.S. sources,” the report said.
The report was issued to support the administration’s plan to loosen controls on exports of satellites and space technology that were imposed in the 1990s after U.S. companies illicitly helped improve Chinese long-range missiles.
The report was produced jointly by the State Department and the Pentagon and was required by Congress. It outlined plans for loosened export controls on dual-use, civilian-military technology and products that are part of the administration’s overall push to increase U.S. high-tech exports.
Critics of the policy in Congress have said the loosened controls threaten U.S. national security because many foreign states, like China, do not distinguish between military and civilian technology.
The close ties between China’s civilian and military space industry indicate the “high likelihood that space-related items and technology will be diverted from a civil use and applied to military programs,” the report said.
“As China advances in operational space capabilities, it is actively focusing on how to destroy, disrupt, or deny U.S. access to our own space assets,” the report said.
“The United States cannot ignore the significant advances in space operational capability achieved while China has been under munitions sanctions and denied legal access to U.S. space-related technology,” the report said.
The report, required by Congress under a section of the 2010 defense authorization act, said that communications and lower-resolution remote imaging satellites that do not contain classified components will be de-controlled, along with systems and components for the satellites.
Congress must approve the many changes sought by the administration report.
On China’s anti-satellite weapons, the report said that “China is developing and testing several new classes and variants of offensive missiles, upgrading older missile systems, and developing space-based methods to counter ballistic missile defenses of the United States and our allies, including anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons.”
A section of the report provided extensive details on China’s aggressive program to obtain space technology from the United States and other nations as part of its military buildup, undermining the administration’s call for loosening restrictions on satellite exports.
The report also revealed that China’s military is continuing to develop and refine its anti-satellite weapons program as “one component of a multi-dimensional program to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by potential adversaries during times of conflict.”
China currently has “direct-ascent” missiles that can attack satellites in orbit and is developing technologies and concepts for “kinetic and directed energy for ASAT missions.”
Directed energy weapons are lasers and jammers, and kinetic weapons destroy targets by impacting them at ultra-fast speeds.
China also has weapons to jam communications satellites and Global Positioning System satellites, and Beijing has begun tracking and identifying satellites, a prerequisite for precision space warfare attacks.
Chinese space weapons could directly impact U.S. national security in any American defense of Taiwan, the report said.
“Beijing could use a variety of disruptive, punitive, or lethal space capabilities in a limited action against Taiwan,” the report said, through short-range missile strikes and precision attacks against imaging and navigation satellites.
China’s military “builds capabilities aimed not only at Taiwan, but also to deter, delay, or deny possible U.S. or allied intervention in a cross-Strait conflict,” the report said.
To boost its military buildup, China has made high technology development for both civilian and military needs a high priority.
China continues to acquire U.S. military and dual-use technologies that help advance the country’s science and technology base in areas critical to the development of military weapons and communications systems.
China is using its intelligence services and other illicit methods to circumvent and violate U.S. export laws. China also uses economic espionage to obtain technology for its civilian and defense sectors.
China’s space-launch industry is linked to its missile program, the report said.
“In addition to supplying China’s military, complete systems and missile technologies could be marketed for export,” the report said.
Disclosure of the report comes amid news and photographs showing a new North Korean ICBM carried on a mobile transporter erector launcher that appears made or designed in China.
The report concluded that China has made the development of its space-related military weapons and capabilities one of its highest national priorities.
The report outlined how the administration proposes to shift control of international sales of satellites and equipment from the U.S. Munitions List, which is used for controlling weapons exports, to the easier-to-export Commerce Control List.
The Pentagon said in a statement that the risk assessment report determined that the loosened controls could be carried out “without harming national security.”
The report calls on Congress to give back to the president the power to determine the final status of exports of satellites and related items.
The report also calls for the Pentagon to be granted authority for “appropriate monitoring and other export-control measures” in specific export cases, which the Pentagon said would help reduce the risk of improper technology exports.
The new policy shift replaces controls that were put in place on satellite exports in the late 1990s after investigators discovered that two U.S. satellite manufacturers—Loral Space and Communications Ltd. and Hughes Electronics—were sharing sensitive technology information with China.
During an approved export program involving the launch of U.S. satellites with Chinese rocket boosters, both companies were found to have shared sensitive technology that allowed the Chinese military to improve the reliability of their strategic missiles, many of which are targeted on U.S. cities and can deliver nuclear payloads.
“This in-depth report shows that the United States can safely modify the export controls placed on satellites and related component technology that are widely available, while maintaining firm control on systems and technologies deemed truly critical to national security,” said Jim Miller, acting undersecretary of defense for policy.
Miller said the recommendations in the report are part of the administration’s broader export reform efforts that seek to “build higher fences around fewer items.”
Miller also said the new satellite export policy will boost cooperation with U.S. allies and export regime partners while improving competitiveness and increasing exports.
Rep. Michael R. Turner (R., Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, welcomed the report, which he said was overdue.
Turner, who is charged with overseeing defense space programs, said he would review the report to see if it adequately seeks to protect U.S. space technology, from diversion to weapons and missile programs.
“However, the administration’s request for blanket authority to relax our export control regime over thousands of space technologies would not make this country safer, or further our goals,” Turner said.
Turner noted that the State Department “dragged its feet” for the past four years in enforcing the current export controls on companies linked to illegal diversion of space technology to China.
He was referring to the State Department’s case against the French company Thales Alenia Space that exported satellites to China that contained sensitive technology.
“Asking for this authority, with those facts in mind, suggests a lack of seriousness about the administration’s commitment to protecting U.S. space technology,” Turner said.
The report said loosening controls on satellites “presents a low risk” to U.S. national security.
In 2011, the Pentagon reviewed 1,935 export licenses for Munitions List satellite items to 36 countries and approved 95.7 percent with no restrictions, according to the report. An additional four percent were approved with restrictions, and .3 percent were denied.
The report said “special scrutiny” will be applied to China and other states that are developing advanced missile and space-related weapons “for direct use against U.S. national interests.”
“Uncontrolled technology transfer has the potential to benefit their military modernization, research and development (R&D), and industrial capability beyond what they could achieve if these items were controlled on the [Commerce Control List] and at a commensurate level for foreign suppliers,” the report said.
“The potentially harmful outcomes of transferring the identified satellites and related items include reverse engineering and gaining knowledge that enhances the military industrial base or improves the performance of a country’s entire space system,” the report said.
The report also said Munitions List special export controls will remain in place to avoid “substantial risks” associated with satellite failure and anomaly resolution, launch know-how, launch services, and launch failure analysis—the kinds of technology that was transferred improperly by Loral and Hughes.
“Inadvertent or deliberate transfer of space-related expertise poses the most significant potential harm to U.S. national interests,” the report said.