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China continuing space militarization and advance of destructive ‘counter-space’ capabilities and weapons

Space is increasingly becoming another domain of conflict due to enhanced militarisation i.e. utilisation of space systems by defence forces to support military operations along with the proliferation of counter-space weapons. Militaries are developing offensive space capability to fight in Space domain. There is variety of  counter space or counter satellite systems, from Direct ascent and co‐orbital anti-satellite weapons, Directed energy attacks, Electronic warfare such as jamming of communications, command and control systems/links. Satellites are a vital part of modern military forces’ communication capabilities. Satellites are the underpinnings of the world’s communication systems.

 

China is fast becoming a major space power as both its technology and launching frequency of satellites are improving at a rapid rate.  China has launched more satellites than any other country in 2020 as of Sept. 30, according to a report by Bryce Space and Technology. China has conducted the greatest number of space launches in 2018 and 2019, and last year (2020) it has already launched 36 space vehicles out of a planned 40. This puts China on track to win the space launch-rate race three years in a row. In fact, SpaceX, with 15 total launches, is second only to China’s state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which has sent 25 rockets into space, as the most active launch provider so far this year, Bryce has found.

 

“China possesses the most rapidly maturing space program in the world and is using its on-orbit and ground-based assets to support its national civil, economic, political, and military goals and objectives. China has invested in advanced space capabilities, with particular emphasis on satellite communication (SATCOM), intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), satellite navigation (SATNAV), and meteorology, as well as manned, unmanned, and interplanetary space exploration, according to Annual Report to Congress: “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015”. In addition to its on-orbit assets, China’s space program has built a vast ground infrastructure supporting spacecraft and space launch vehicle (SLV) manufacture, launch, C2, and data downlink.

 

China is pushing to develop antisatellite weapons with capabilities from “dazzling to jamming, to kinetic kill-from-the-ground, from space – all that, they’re on the march,” Rear Admiral Michael Studeman said in July 2021 during an intelligence-security trade group’s webinar.

 

The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said in April 2021 that the Chinese military “will continue to integrate space services – such as satellite reconnaissance and positioning, navigation, and timing and satellite communications – into its weapons and command-and-control systems to erode the US military’s information advantage.” Developing so-called counter-space operations will be integral to a potential military campaign, the ODNI said. Beijing continues to train its military space elements and “field new destructive and non-destructive ground- and space-based antisatellite (ASAT) weapons,” the intelligence office said in its annual Threat Assessment report.

 

It has “already fielded ground-based ASAT missiles intended to destroy satellites in low-earth orbit and ground-based ASAT lasers probably intended to blind or damage sensitive space-based optical sensors” on low-earth orbit satellites, according to the report.

 

Doctrines and Strategy

The last Chinese Defence White Paper (2019) identified space as “a critical domain of international strategic competition.” The 2019 White Paper also identified the important role that space will play in “improving the capabilities of joint operations command to exercise reliable and efficient command over emergency responses, and to effectively accomplish urgent, tough and dangerous tasks.”

 

PLA writings emphasize the necessity of “destroying, damaging, and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance … and communications satellites,” suggesting that such systems, as well as navigation and early warning satellites, could be among the targets of attacks designed to “blind and deafen the enemy.” PLA analysis of U.S. and coalition military operations also states that “destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors … will deprive an opponent of initiative on the battlefield and [make it difficult] for them to bring their precision guided weapons into full play.”

 

China has recently designated space as a military domain, and military writings state that the goal of space warfare and operations is to achieve space superiority using offensive and defensive means in connection with their broader strategic focus on asymmetric cost imposition, access denial, and information dominance. China has recently re-organized its space and counterspace forces, as part of a larger military re-organization, and placed them in a new major force structure that also has control over electronic warfare and cyber.

 

 

PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF)

China established the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force (SSF) (zhanlue zhiyuan budui, 战略支援部队) in late 2015 as part of a sweeping military reform that overhauled the PLA’s organizational structure, command and control systems, and operational paradigm. At its core, the reform aimed to improve the PLA’s ability to fight informationized conflicts (xinxihua zhanzheng, 信息化战争), and enhance joint operations and power projection capabilities in support of China’s strategic aims (Xinhua, January 1, 2016).

 

PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), a theatre command-level organization designed to combine “the PLA’s strategic space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities.” The PLASSF is an infrastructural organisation to create synergies in functions that were previously dispersed across a number of departments. Under the aegis of military reforms, the PLASSF is directly under the Central Military Commission and is responsible for centralised support to the PLA. The aim as given in the ibid White paper was “seeking to achieve big development strides in key areas and accelerate the integrated development of new-type combat forces, so as to build a strong and modernized strategic support force.”

 

China’s National Defense in the New Era

“The Strategic Support Force is a new-type combat force for safeguarding national security. It is an important growth point of the military’s new combat capability. It is mainly formed from the functional integration of various types of support forces with strong strategic, foundational and supportive functions. The establishment of the Strategic Support Force is conducive for optimizing the military’s force structure and improving integrated support capabilities. [The PLA] will persist with system integration, military-civilian integration, the construction of new combat forces, and will strive to build a strong and modern strategic support force.” (MND, January 1, 2016)

Indian Strategic Studies: The People's Liberation Army Strategic Support Force: Update 2019

The SSF, as the new information warfare force of the PLA, has two primary missions. First, it is to provide the PLA with strategic information support through space and network-based capabilities, including communications, navigation and positioning, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and the protection of military information infrastructure. Second, the SSF is to conduct information operations, including space and counterspace, cyber, electromagnetic warfare, and psychological operations.

 

Space Systems Department (SSD)

The SSD is responsible for executing the SSF’s space mission. The SSD has consolidated nearly every aspect of China’s military space operations, including space launch, telemetry, tracking, and control (TT&C), satellite communications, space intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and space-related R&D and support. They also appear to have administrative responsibilities for China’s astronauts. Before the reform of 2015/2016, these space-related responsibilities were held under the GAD, and to a lesser extent, the GSD.

 

 

Space Militarization

Presently, the USA is the space dominant nation. China has pledged to overtake the USA by 2030 and therefore it is on a drive towards space militarisation. It has been expanding its network of military intelligence satellites and testing newer weapons in space.  China plans to launch about 100 satellites into space by 2025 adding to the more than 200 that are already in orbit, an official at the China National Space Administration said. China, which is investing heavily in space technology with plans to build its own space station by 2022. It has also completed the network of satellites for its BeiDou navigation system, as an alternative to the US GPS system.

 

The country set a milestone in space exploration by landing its Chang’e-4 probe on the far side of the moon in January 2020. On 1st December 2020, China has landed Chang’e 5 Moon lander on the moon and has returned to Earth with the cargo of rock and “soil” it picked up off the Moon. It’s more than 40 years since the American Apollo and Soviet Luna missions brought their samples home. China is also working toward sending astronauts to the Moon and, eventually, Mars. It has also recently launched a re-usable ‘Space Plane’.

 

Tianwen-1 is China’s first independent interplanetary mission. The probe, a combination orbiter, lander and rover, launched from Earth aboard a Long March 5 rocket on July 23, 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having traveled 292 million miles (470 million kilometers) from Earth, Tianwen-1 successfully entered orbit around the Red Planet in Feb. of 2021.

 

“China possesses the most rapidly maturing space program in the world and is using its on-orbit and ground-based assets to support its national civil, economic, political, and military goals and objectives. China has invested in advanced space capabilities, with particular emphasis on satellite communication (SATCOM), intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), satellite navigation (SATNAV), and meteorology, as well as manned, unmanned, and interplanetary space exploration, according to Annual Report to Congress: “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015”. In addition to its on-orbit assets, China’s space program has built a vast ground infrastructure supporting spacecraft and space launch vehicle (SLV) manufacture, launch, C2, and data downlink.

 

The United States, Russia, and China are the countries with the most military satellites. The US has 123 military satellites followed by Russia with 74 satellites and China with 68. China has also launched 19 rockets. On September 20, carrier rocket, Long March-6 on its maiden flight carried 20 micro-satellites and set a new record for the number of satellites that carried by one rocket. China has become a military space power within a global context and is developing a full range of space capabilities to match the US militarily in space, while continue to invest in asymmetric technologies that pose a greater risk to the US.

 

The Pentagon recently warned China has developed and fielded ground- and space-based anti-satellite, directed-energy, and electronic warfare capabilities that place the peaceful use of international space at risk. China also fielded sophisticated on-orbit capabilities, such as satellites with robotic arm technology for inspection and repair, which the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assesses could also function as a weapon.

 

“China is in the midst of an extensive space-based C4ISR modernization program that is improving the PLA’s ability to command and control its forces; monitor global events and track regional military activities; and strike U.S. ships, aircraft, and bases operating as far away as Guam. As China continues to field additional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites, its space-based ISR coverage almost certainly will become more accurate, responsive, and timely and could ultimately extend beyond the second island chain into the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean”, says 2015 report to congress.

 

The last Chinese Defence White Paper (2019) identified space as “a critical domain of international strategic competition.” The 2019 White Paper also identified the important role that space will play in “improving the capabilities of joint operations command to exercise reliable and efficient command over emergency responses, and to effectively accomplish urgent, tough and dangerous tasks.”

 

 

Counterspace Capabilities

The Pentagon recently warned China has developed and fielded ground- and space-based anti-satellite, directed-energy, and electronic warfare capabilities that place the peaceful use of international space at risk. China also fielded sophisticated on-orbit capabilities, such as satellites with robotic arm technology for inspection and repair, which the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assesses could also function as a weapon.

 

China continues to develop a variety of capabilities designed to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during a crisis or conflict, including the development of directed-energy weapons and satellite jammers. China is progressing with the development of missiles and electronic weapons that could target satellites in low and high orbits, the Pentagon says in a new report released Sept. 2020.

 

China has at least one, and possibly as many as three, programs underway to develop direct ascent anti- satellite (DA-ASAT) capabilities, either as dedicated counterspace systems or as midcourse missile defense systems that could provide counterspace capabilities. China has engaged in multiple, progressive tests of these capabilities since 2005, indicating a serious and sustained organizational effort. Chinese DA-ASAT capability against LEO targets is likely mature and likely operationally fielded on mobile launchers. Chinese DA-ASAT capability against deep space targets – both medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and GEO – is likely still in the experimental or development phase, and there is not sufficient evidence to conclude whether there is an intent to develop it as an operational capability in the future.

 

China likely has sophisticated capabilities for jamming or spoofing space-based positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) capabilities. There are multiple open source reports of Chinese military PNT jammers being deployed on islands in the South China Sea as well as reports of sophisticated, widespread spoofing of civil GPS signals near the port of Shanghai.

 

Directed Energy Weapons

China is likely to be developing directed energy weapons (DEW) for counterspace use, although public details are scarce. There is strong evidence of dedicated research and development and reports of testing at three different locations, but limited details on the operational status and maturity of any fielded capabilities.

 

In September 2006 the U.S. publication Defense News, citing unnamed U.S. officials, was the first to report that China had used ground based lasers to “dazzle” or blind U.S. optical surveillance satellites on multiple occasions.

 

Possible Chinese confirmation of their ground-based laser testing appeared in the December 2013 issue of Chinese Optics was an article titled “Development of Space Based Laser Weapons” written by Gao Min-hui, Zhou Yu-quan and Wang Zhi-hong, all from the Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics. It is one of China’s leading institutes for the development of civil and military application laser technology. The article states: “In 2005, we have successfully conducted a satellite blinding experiment using a 50-100 KW capacity mounted laser gun in Xinjiang province. The target was a low orbit satellite with a tilt distance of 600 km. The diameter of the telescope firing the laser beam is 0.6 m wide. The accuracy of ATP (acquisition, tracking and pointing) is less than 5 microradians.

 

This would constitute militarily useful performance; an accuracy sufficient to track a large number of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) surveillance satellites and to degrade their optical imaging systems. A “tilt” distance of 600km means it can reach higher if the target passes closer to the laser. While the target satellite for the 2005 test was not identified, the ground-based laser was likely located in Korla, Xinjiang Province. Starting with the 640 Program, Korla has hosted a major base deeply involved in testing China’s anti-missile and anti-satellite weapons, writes Richard D. Fisher, Jr. Senior Fellow, International Assessment and Strategy Center.

 

China is developing a sophisticated network of ground- based optical telescopes and radars for detecting, tracking, and characterizing space objects as part of its space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities. Like the United States and Russia, several of the Chinese SSA radars also serve missile warning functions. While China lacks an extensive network of SSA tracking assets outside its borders, it does have a fleet of tracking ships and is developing relationships with countries that may host future sensors. Since 2010, China has deployed several satellites capable of conducting RPO on orbit, which likely aid in its ability to characterize and collect intelligence on foreign satellites.

 

China conducting  flight tests of a new anti-satellite missiles

On May 13, 2013, China launched a ballistic missile (DN-2) on a ballistic trajectory with a peak altitude above 30,000 km. This trajectory took it near geosynchronous orbit, where many nations maintain communications and earth-sensing satellites. Analysis of the launch determined that the booster was not on the appropriate trajectory to place objects in orbit and that no new satellites were released.

 

The launch profile was not consistent with traditional space-launch vehicles, ballistic missiles or sounding rocket launches used for scientific research. It could, however, have been a test of technologies with a counter space mission in geosynchronous orbit. The United States and several public organizations expressed concern to Chinese representatives and asked for more information about the purpose and nature of the launch. China thus far has refrained from providing additional information

 

“On July 23, 2014, China conducted a space launch that had a similar profile to the January 2007 test that resulted in the deliberate destruction of a defunct weather satellite, and the creation of hundreds of pieces of long-lived space debris. Much of that debris continues to orbit the Earth where it poses a risk to the safe operation of many nations’ satellites. China’s 2014 launch did not result in the destruction of a satellite or space debris.”

 

The test of a so-called Dong Neng-3 missile occurred on October 30 2015 at the Korla Missile Test Complex in western China. According to the Hong Kong-based newspaper Ming Pao the “final-phase missile interception test had been conducted in the upper atmosphere.” However, in the past, China has repeatedly tried to disguise anti-satellite tests as missile defense interceptor tests. Since 2005, China has conducted eight anti-satellite tests. Tests conducted in 2010, 2013, and 2014 were labelled “land-based missile interception tests.”

 

Coorbital ASATs

In August 2013 China launched the Shijian 15 satellite along with three other satellites. The main Shijian satellite also released a smaller sub satellite followed by maneuvers. The Shiyan 7 that was co-launched has a Remote Manipulator Arm whose use was also demonstrated. Once again these operations signify Chinese capabilities for ASAT operations.

 

China’s continued development of destructive space technologies represented a threat to all peaceful space-faring nations,” according to the report. China is progressing with the development of missiles and electronic weapons that could target satellites in low and high orbits, the Pentagon says in a new report released Sept. 2020. China already has operational ground-based missiles that can hit satellites in low-Earth orbit and “probably intends to pursue additional ASAT weapons capable of destroying satellites up to geosynchronous Earth orbit,” says the Defense Department’s annual report to Congress on China’s military capabilities.

 

References and Resources also include:

https://www.scmp.com/news/world/united-states-canada/article/3140634/chinese-space-technology-capable-jamming-satellites

 

About Rajesh Uppal

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