DIA: China to Deploy ASAT Laser by 2020

China, Russia also set to use anti-satellite missiles

China's President Xi Jinping
China's President Xi Jinping / Getty Images
February 15, 2019

China's military is expected to deploy a laser weapon capable of destroying or damaging U.S. military satellites in low earth orbit in the next year, the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency disclosed in a report on space threats.

The Chinese directed energy weapon is among an array of space warfare tools that include ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles, electronic jammers, cyber attacks, and small satellites Beijing plans to use in attacks on U.S. satellites in a future conflict.

"China likely is pursuing laser weapons to disrupt, degrade, or damage sat­ellites and their sensors and possibly already has a limited capability to employ laser systems against satellite sensors," the unclassified intelligence report said.

"China likely will field a ground-based laser weapon that can counter low-orbit space-based sensors by 2020, and by the mid-to-late 2020s, it may field higher power systems that extend the threat to the structures of non-optical satellites."

It was the first time a U.S. intelligence agency disclosed details of the ASAT laser deployment plans.

China's ASAT laser weapons have been known since at least 2006, when China used a ground based laser to "dazzle" an orbiting U.S. satellite in what was viewed as a test attack. The laser incident came a year before the 2007 Chinese ASAT missile test against an orbiting weather satellite that created a dangerous orbiting debris field.

China plans to use high-energy ground-based lasers in a future war to disrupt Global Positioning System satellites that provide pinpoint targeting of U.S. missiles.

In addition to lasers, China has worked on other directed energy arms, including high-powered microwave, radio frequency, railgun, and particle beam weapons.

Lasers are regarded as ideal ASAT weapons because their effects can be more easily masked.

A high energy laser beam can destroy electro-optical detectors, optical systems, control surfaces, solar panels, and other satellite components.

An intense laser strike of 300 watts per square centimeter can melt the surface of satellite optical glass and cause optics to fail.

Ground-based lasers are believed to have a range of between 310 miles and 620 miles and require an average power greater than 1,000 watts.

Lower powered lasers are used to interfere or temporarily blind satellite optical sensors, and can also interfere or blind infrared detectors on early warning satellites used to detect missile launches, and the electro-optical transducers on electro-optical reconnaissance satellites.

The Pentagon intelligence agency also outlined space threats posed by Russia, North Korea, and Iran that along with China were identified as states that regard attacks against U.S. satellites as warfighting capabilities designed to counter precision targeting of American weapons and their communications and intelligence links.

The four enemies also could detonate nuclear weapons in space to destroy satellites and conduct air or missile strikes against satellite ground control stations, the report said.

"China and Russia, in particular, have taken steps to challenge the United States," the report said, noting military doctrines of both states' militaries regard satellite attacks "as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness."

Recent efforts to reorganize their military forces in 2015 placed a greater emphasis on space warfighting. China set up an entire service dedicated to space, cyber, and electronic warfare. Russia also bolstered its space warfare capabilities with creation of an aerospace force.

The threat, according to DIA, is not theoretical and is increasing, backed by growing networks of space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

"Chinese and Russian space surveillance networks are capable of searching, tracking, and characterizing satellites in all earth orbits," the report said. "This capability supports both space operations and counterspace systems." Counterspace is the Pentagon term for space warfare capabilities.

China has deployed more than 120 satellites for its military, including the first quantum communications satellite, a highly secure system that transports data in a quantum state through the use of lasers.

Tracking and identifying satellites is the first step in the challenging process of firing a missile or directed energy weapon against an orbiting satellite.

"China has a robust network of space surveillance sensors capable of searching, tracking, and characterizing satellites in all earth orbits," the report said. The systems include tele­scopes, radars, and other sensors.

The DIA revealed details of Chinese electronic warfare weapons for planned use against satellites.

"The PLA routinely incorporates jamming and anti-jamming techniques against multiple commu­nication, radar systems, and GPS satellite systems in exercises," the DIA said.

The Chinese electronic jammers are dedicated to disrupting synthetic aperture radar on military reconnaissance platforms in low earth orbit. "Additionally, China is developing jammers to target [satellite communications] over a range of frequency bands, including military protected extremely high frequency communications," the report said.

Chinese cyber attacks have been carried out against space organizations as part of the plans for future anti-satellite attacks.

"The PLA unit responsible for conducting signals intelligence has supported cyberespionage against U.S. and European satellite and aerospace industries since at least 2007," the report said.

China's orbiting space warfare capabilities include small maneuvering satellites capable of destroying or damaging satellites.

Because China is a signatory to an international treaty outlawing the deployment of space weapons, China's military appears to be disguising its orbiting ASAT systems as satellite inspection and repair systems.

The orbiters "could function as a weapon," the report said.

China also has deployed a ground-based ASAT missile capable of striking targets in low-earth orbit and has formed military units that have been training for space attacks. Other missiles appear to be testing for attacks in geosynchronous orbit, some 23,000 miles in space.

While both Russia and China are building an array of satellite killing weapons, the DIA report suggests China's space forces appear to be advancing more rapidly.

At the same time China's government officially advocates the non-weaponization of space in international forums like the United Nations, Beijing "continues to improve its counterspace weap­ons capabilities and has enacted military reforms to better integrate cyberspace, space, and [electronic warfare] into joint military operations," the DIA said.

China and Russia have introduced the "Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects," known as the PPWT, at the Conference on Disarmament.

Michael Listner, a space policy expert, said the treaty appears to be part of "lawfare" by Beijing and Moscow designed to limit U.S. space capabilities.

"The PPWT, which the report mentioned, is one of those tools of lawfare both nations are employing amongst other initiatives using mechanisms and bodies of international law to make law an actual force of war in the outer space domain along with its other counter-space capabilities," said Listner, head of Space Law and Policy Solutions.

"This is an area that has to be recognized and addressed to the same extent as hard-power implements each of these states are developing," he said.

Rick Fisher, a China military expert, said the report was commendable but should have provided more details on the Chinese space warfare threat.

The report, for example, failed to recognize that the Chinese military uses the manned space program for military purposes.

"The first seven manned Shenzhou space capsule missions all either carried military payloads or performed military missions," said Fisher, who is with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

"Shenzhou-7 in September 2008 performed a simulated interception of the International Space Station, complete with a launched micro satellite simulating a combat payload," Fisher added. "This should have been mentioned, as is the high likelihood that China's future Space Station will employ specialized military mission modules."

Russia's space weaponry also includes laser weapons, including an airborne laser weapon for use against satellites.

Moscow delivered a laser weapon to the Aerospace Forces "that likely is intended for an ASAT mission," the report said.

Russian officials have called the laser a new type of weapon capable of attacking satellites in orbit.

The United States developed and tested an airborne laser for use against ballistic missiles, but the administration of President Barack Obama canceled the program in 2011.

Russia also is developing a ground-based ASAT missile. The mobile mis­sile system will be operational in the next several years and will be capable of destroying space targets in low-earth orbit as well as ballistic missiles.

Moscow also has ground-based electronic jammers designed to disrupt GPS, tactical communications, and satellites communications and radar.

Russia's defense minister has said a shift to focusing on space warfare is meant to counter the U.S. Prompt Global Strike system.

Prompt Global Strike is the Pentagon's plan to attack any target on earth within 30 minutes.

"Beijing and Moscow will continue to see space as integral to winning modern wars," the report said. "They are develop­ing systems that pose a threat to freedom of action in space. Both will continue their efforts to enhance their space and counterspace capabilities, and bet­ter integrate them into their respective militaries."