China earlier this month conducted the latest flight test of one of its newest and deadliest strategic missiles—the DN-3 anti-satellite interceptor.
The test, as in the past, was masked by the Chinese military as a missile defense interceptor test. American defense officials, however, said the DN-3 is one of several direct ascent anti-satellite missiles capable of destroying most U.S. satellites.
A more significant development was disclosed eight days later through intelligence made public during a Senate hearing: China is moving beyond the testing and development of space weapons and will soon deploy military units dedicated to attacking satellites and conducting space warfare.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, appearing at the annual worldwide threat briefing with U.S. intelligence leaders, said China's destructive anti-satellite weaponry "probably will reach initial operational capability in the next few years."
It was the first time the U.S. intelligence community publicly commented on the growing threat posed by anti-satellite weapons from both China and Russia, arms that include direct ascent anti-satellites missiles such as China's DN-3, as well as lasers and electronic jammers that can disrupt satellite operations, and small maneuvering satellites that can grab and crush orbiting satellites.
China's cyber attack forces also will be used in a future conflict to penetrate military and civilian ground control stations used to communicate and operate satellites.
The threat is real and growing and could produce devastating impacts on American infrastructure that is heavily reliant on satellites for communications, transportation, and finance.
Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command and a space warfare expert, sees American satellites as vulnerable to attack and the space warfare from China and Russia is growing rapidly.
"We have very old space capabilities, very effective space capabilities, but they are very old and not built for a contested environment," he said last year. Hyten warned that the U.S. military needs "to move quickly to respond to it."
Three years ago, Air Force Lt. Gen. John "Jay" Raymond, commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, issued a more dire warning. "We are quickly approaching the point where every satellite in every orbit can be threatened," Raymond told Congress in March 2015.
The Pentagon's Defense Science Board also warned about the danger to satellites from electronic jamming in a report last year.
"The estimated and projected electronic threats against satellite communication (satcom) have rapidly escalated in the last few years and will continue to increase in the foreseeable future," the board said in a report.
"Under severe stress situations, jamming can render all commercial satcom and most defense satcom inoperable, except for the low- and medium-rate modes of defense extremely high frequency satcom. This reality should be considered a crisis to be dealt with immediately."
Coats, in prepared testimony, said the goal of anti-satellite weapons is "to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness" in a future conflict.
Both destructive and non-destructive weapons are being development.
"China’s PLA has formed military units and begun initial operational training with counterspace capabilities that it has been developing, such as ground-launched ASAT missiles," Coats said. Counterspace is the military's term for space warfare operations and weaponry.
American intelligence agencies assess future conflicts will include attacks on U.S. and allied satellites to "offset any perceived U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems," Coats said.
Military realignments in China over the past several years "indicate an increased focus on establishing operational forces designed to integrate attacks against space systems and services with military operations in other domains," he added.
One specific worry, according to the DNI, is the use of satellites dubbed "experimental" that carry out sophisticated on-orbit operations, including some that appear designed for anti-satellite attacks.
"Some technologies with peaceful applications—such as satellite inspection, refueling, and repair—can also be used against adversary spacecraft," Coats said.
To thwart U.S. military efforts against these growing space threats, both China and Russian have launched information operations to promote international agreements aimed at the non-weaponization of space, and the no-first-deployment of space weapons.
The agreements are a deception, however. "Many classes of weapons would not be addressed by such proposals, allowing [China and Russia] to continue their pursuit of space warfare capabilities while publicly maintaining that space must be a peaceful domain," Coats said.
Rick Fisher, a China military affairs expert, said Coats's statement was the first official confirmation that China has formed military units training for space warfare and specifically anti-satellite missions.
"There is no formal space warfare unit in the U.S. military," Fisher added.
China's space warfare units have not been discussed publicly in China but are believed to be under the command of the new Strategic Support Force, a military service-level force that is in charge of military space, cyber, and electronic warfare operations.
Fisher believes that the People's Liberation Army will soon deploy air force and navy forces with weapons and sensor systems that will be used for combined armed space attacks.
Additionally, the Strategic Support Force will likely control surveillance or weapons to be deployed on China's large space station in 2019.
"China's space station could eventually launch small harder to detect co-orbital satellites, also mentioned by DNI Coats," he said.
"And when China's PLA-controlled space program reaches the moon, perhaps in the early 2030s, we can expect the Strategic Support Force to deploy dual-use assets to benefit the PLA."
Michael J. Listner, a space expert and founder of Space Law and Policy Solutions, said the disclosure that Chinese and Russian space warfare unites will soon become operational is not surprising. "It is highly probable these systems are mature enough to pose a threat to U.S. space systems today."
"The only game plane we appear to have to deal with the threat is resilience, which sounds good on paper but relies on too many assumptions about how China and Russia will behave," Listner said.
The Air Force, the military service leading U.S. defenses and warfare in space, has not disclosed what it may be doing in terms of preparing for space warfare, other than discussing the need for "resiliency"—the ability to recover from satellite attacks and other hostile space operations.
The Pentagon's unclassified national defense strategy made public in January makes few references to space threats. It states that the Pentagon will "prioritize investments in resilience, reconstitution, and operations to assure our space capabilities."
The White House National Security Strategy made public in December, however, states clearly that the United States is prepared to go to war if American satellites are attacked.
The strategy states that the United States regards unfettered access to and freedom to operate in space as "a vital interest."
"Any harmful interference with or an attack upon critical components of our space architecture that directly affects this vital U.S. interest will be met with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner, and domain of our choosing," the strategy says.
So far, the development of U.S. space weapons has not been discussed or disclosed in public.
In 2008, a modified Navy SM-3 missile was used to destroy a falling National Reconnaissance Office satellite in low-earth orbit, a demonstration of some anti-satellite missile capabilities.
China's Feb. 5 ASAT test was at least the fourth anti-satellite test and indicates the weapon is moving closer to deployment. Earlier DN-3 tests took place in October 2015, December 2016, and August 2017.
The DN-3 capabilities are not fully known but defense officials believe it is capable of targeting satellite in low-earth orbit—around 1,200 miles or less—to high-earth orbit, up to 22,000 miles.
Those orbits are used by military communications satellites, intelligence satellites, and GPS satellites.