Experts: China Boosts Space Warfare Capabilities

U.S. military and commercial satellites highly vulnerable to Beijing’s anti-satellite missiles, killer robot satellites

China launches communication satellite into orbit
China launches communication satellite into orbit / AP
January 29, 2014

China is developing anti-satellite missiles and other exotic weapons that can destroy or disrupt vital U.S. military and commercial communications, space warfare experts told Congress on Tuesday.

"The current and evolving counterpace threat posed by China to U.S. military operations in the Asia Pacific theater and outside is extremely serious," said Ashley J. Tellis, a former State Department and National Security Council strategic specialist.

"And the threat ranks on par with the dangers posed by Chinese offensive cyber operations to the United States more generally," said Tellis, now with the Carnegie Endowment.

China’s growing space warfare capabilities were the subject of a hearing at the House Armed Services joint subcommittees on strategic forces and seapower.

Robert L. Butterworth, a former chief of strategic planning at Air Force Space Command, said China’s growing space weapons include cyber weapons, electronic jammers, laser, both high- and low-earth orbit ASAT missiles, and recently the launch of small maneuvering satellites capable of attacking or grabbing U.S. satellites.

China’s military is preparing for a future military conflict with the United States, and as a result its counterspace weaponry is being developed to limit U.S. joint warfighting that currently is very reliant on satellites for communications and the maneuvering forces over long distances, Butterworth said.

"For the near term, at least, I think [China] will probably favor systems to achieve mission kill by attacking U.S. satellites directly, either from orbit or on the ground," said Butterworth, now head of the consulting firm Aries Analytics.

As part of preparations for future space warfare, China is seeking to determine what U.S. satellites to kill, and in the future may covertly place sensors in space near key U.S. strategic satellites to assist in targeting for future attacks, he added.

Butterworth said many U.S. war plans currently assume military satellites will be functioning normally in a future conflict. He said war planners must now prepare for the loss of satellites as Chinese space weaponry advances.

China and the United States are engaged in a "long term military competition," and China regards neutralizing U.S. satellites as a key warfighting priority, he said. To counter the anti-satellite threat "will require real capabilities" that will require high financial costs, he said.

The Chinese space threat "won’t be moderated by proselytizing space norms, or deterrence by demarche, or a code of conduct for good guys in space," Butterworth said.

War with China is not inevitable, but stepping up efforts to counter China’s space warfare capabilities militarily would help ensure China is dissuaded from conducting attacks in space, he added.

Michael Krepon, a strategic analyst with the Stimson Center, said he regards the space debris caused by China’s 2007 ASAT test as a major concern regarding space warfare.

Krepon said he opposes developing dedicated space weapons to counter the Chinese space threat because current capabilities, like anti-missile defenses, have some space warfare capabilities.

Krepon said he backs a "multilayered approach" to the threat combining strategic deterrence of space attacks, with adding more and smaller satellites that are difficult to target and working out an international code of conduct with China and other space-faring nations for space.

"Deterrence is increased by complicating the plans of the attacker," Krepon said.

Tellis, however, said he doubts a collaborative arrangement can be reached with China on conduct in space because Beijing recognizes that U.S. military operations are far more reliant on space. Thus U.S. military advantages can be neutralized by Chinese attacks on U.S. satellites.

Future attacks on U.S. satellites would give China asymmetric military advantages that the Chinese are not likely to give up through diplomacy, he said.

"These dangers are acute because U.S. space systems are extraordinarily vulnerable and extraordinarily valuable at the same time," Tellis said.

Tellis called for greater defense spending on space defenses to counter the threat.

Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Randy Forbes (R., Va.) said Chinese efforts to restrict U.S. access to space "pose a serious challenge to stability in the Asia Pacific."

"Providing our military with the resources needed to counter potential asymmetric threats to U.S. space assets must be a critical priority for the Defense Department and the Congress," Forbes said.

Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers (R., Ala.) said China’s space warfare program was highlighted by the 2007 anti-satellite missile test.

"While the foreign threats are real, serious, and increasing, I don't believe we are responding with real defenses and deterrence," Rogers said.

"We will do so in my fiscal 2017 [defense authorization] mark, and this hearing, and these experts, will help us chart a course to ensure that our space capabilities, and warfighters who depend on them, will continue to be assured," he said.

All three experts said determining whether satellites are under cyber, electronic, or laser attack is very difficult. Additionally, finding the source of an attack also is difficult.

"It can take weeks and weeks and weeks to try and find out where that is coming from and then to actually try to find out who’s doing it," Butterworth said.

Tellis said kinetic interference with satellites is more easily detected than electronic and other non-kinetic disruptions.

Detecting such disruptions during a crisis or wartime would be even more difficult than in peacetime, Tellis added.

Asked which satellites flying at high-orbit or low orbit are most at risk of attack, Butterworth said satellites at both altitudes in danger.

"The Chinese have recently demonstrated a high-altitude, direct ascent ASAT capable of reaching geo-[synchronous orbit]," Butterworth said, referring to satellites orbiting 22,000 miles above earth.

Additionally, the Chinese recently launched small satellites that are very difficult to track that can interfere with satellites at different altitudes, he said.

The latest annual report by the congressional U.S. China Economic and Security Commission said China on May 13 launched a suborbital missile that went into high-altitude but did not place a satellite in orbit.

"Although Beijing claims the launch was part of a high-altitude scientific experiment, available data suggest it was intended to test at least the launch vehicle component of a new high-altitude antisatellite (ASAT) capability," the report said.

Published under: China