China recently carried out a flight test of a new anti-satellite missile that highlights the growing threat of Beijing's space warfare capabilities.
The flight test of the Dong Neng-3 direct ascent missile was tracked by U.S. intelligence agencies on July 23 from China's Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia, in northwestern China, said U.S. defense officials familiar with reports of the launch.
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The officials said the launch was not successful and the DN-3 appeared to malfunction in the upper atmosphere after the launch at night.
The launch took place after Chinese authorities posted a notice to airlines to avoid flying near the flight path of the missile. The missile's flight was captured in photographs and video by several Chinese internet users near the Jiuquan facility.
Despite the failure, China's space warfare program is said to be advancing rapidly as an asymmetric warfare weapon that will allow a less capable Chinese military to defeat the U.S. military in a future conflict.
The Pentagon's annual report on the Chinese military states that in December the Chinese created a new Strategic Support Force that will unify space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities.
"The PLA continues to strengthen its military space capabilities despite its public stance against the militarization of space, " the report said.
Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command and a space warfare expert, said both China and Russia are advancing space-war fighting capabilities.
"China right now is ahead of Russia because they've been on a consistent path for a longer time," Hyten said in an interview in Omaha last week.
Hyten said the U.S. military currently has a "very robust space capability."
"And the threats that we face are actually very small," he said.
However, the significant U.S. advantage in space is eroding and satellites are becoming more vulnerable to attack.
"We have very old space capabilities too, very effective space capabilities, but they are very old and not built for a contested environment," he said.
The space warfare threat is "a much nearer-term issue for the commander after me, and for the commander after that person, it will be more significant because the gap is narrowing quickly and we have got to move quickly to respond to it," Hyten said.
In addition to several direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles, China is developing ground-based lasers that can blind or damage orbiting satellites, as well as small robot satellites that can maneuver, grab, and destroy orbiting satellites.
Asked how to deal with China's space warfare threats, Hyten said: "It's not very complicated. You treat it as a war-fighting domain. And when you do that, the answers are not that complicated. You have to have increased maneuver capabilities on our satellites. We have to have defensive capabilities to defend ourselves. These are just war fighting problems."
Hyten said space defense requires moving much faster than current acquisitions processes in the Pentagon and military have allowed, something that is hindering the overall modernization of U.S. nuclear forces.
"So it goes back to the same question we talked about on the nuclear modernization piece: Can we go fast enough as a nation to stay ahead of our adversaries. We have to go fast," he said.
In opening remarks to a Stratcom conference on deterrence, Hyten said the military is ready to respond to attacks in space.
"We'll provide strategic deterrence [in space]," he said. "If deterrence fails, we’ll provide a decisive response."
Adversaries are planning to use an array of strategic weapons, whether nuclear or conventional forces, or space and cyber forces.
"Mass disruption to our power grid, to our financial institutions with cyber-attacks or space attacks are now constant concerns," Hyten said. "And our potential adversaries study this as well, learning from us. Demonstrating an advanced understanding of how to leverage nuclear, space, cyber, anti-access/area denial, electronic warfare, the information spectrum to exploit our vulnerabilities."
The U.S. military does not have a deployed anti-satellite missile. However, in 2008 the military used a modified SM-3 anti-missile interceptor to shoot down a falling intelligence satellite as it reentered the atmosphere. The operation, code-named Burnt Frost, showed that the Pentagon could rapidly retool for anti-satellite warfare. The operation came a year after China's major anti-satellite test on the weather satellites.
The Air Force also developed the ASM-135 during the 1980s. The anti-satellite missile was launched from an F-15 jet.
Congress banned anti-satellite missile tests against targets in space in 1985.
Rick Fisher, senior fellow in Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the Chinese military is seeking to "exercise denial and then dominance in low earth orbit (LEO) and then to extend control into the Earth-Moon system."
"Since the early 1990s China has developed four, possibly five, attack-capable space-combat systems," he said. "China may be the only country developing such variety of space weapons to include: ground-based and air-launched counter-space weapons; unmanned space combat and Earth-attack platforms; and dual-use manned platforms."
Harsh Vasani, a scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University in India, says China's ASAT program is closely linked to its anti-missile defense systems.
The difference between an ASAT missile and anti-missile interceptor is different software and control algorithms used by each missile to detect, track, and home in on either an orbiting satellite or a missile warhead.
"China has been making impressive headway in its ICBM program and in theory, these ICBMs can target U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites," Vasani stated in the Diplomat in January.
"A brief survey of recent tests by Beijing confirms that China is rapidly improving its counter space program and making advances in its anti-satellite systems," he noted.
China destroyed a weather satellite in space in 2007, causing tens of thousands of pieces of orbiting debris and sparking international condemnation.
Since 2007, China's ASAT missile tests have been against notional targets and in several cases were disguised as anti-missile interceptor tests, according to U.S. officials.
China tested a DN-2 in 2013 that traveled 18,600 miles in space where U.S. intelligence satellites are located.
The DN-3 was tested in October 2015, and again in December 2016. That DN-3 test was masked as an anti-missile interceptor test.
"The Chinese believe that the greatest threat to them comes from the United States," Vasani said.
"To counter the United States' conventional strength and gain strategic parity, Chinese strategists believe, Beijing will need to strike at the U.S. Achilles heel—Washington's over-reliance on satellites for [command, control, communications, computer, intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance]. Beijing plans to exploit the vulnerable space infrastructure of the United States in the case of a war."