Beijing Goes Boldly into Anti-Satellite Weapons Frontier

Photo: enot-poloskun

Bottom Line: China is aggressively pursuing capabilities such as anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons that could diminish the U.S. military’s reconnaissance, navigation and communications in case of war in the South China Sea or on the Korean Peninsula. But while China’s ASAT capabilities threaten U.S. assets in space, it’s still unclear how they fit into Chinese military doctrine, and how or in what instances they would be deployed. The U.S. also lacks a clear path for reining in the proliferation of these capabilities because of its own reliance on ballistic missile defense systems that are viewed similarly as potential ASAT weapons.

Background: China has spent more than a decade exploring technology for interfering with foreign satellites. Non-kinetic means have included directed energy or cyber capabilities, while kinetic approaches include direct-ascent missiles and co-orbital platforms travelling alongside satellites in orbit. Much of this counter-space research has taken place with dual-use capabilities that provide a level of deniability. That could be hiding Chinese intent to develop ASAT capabilities for deployment during a time of crisis.  

John McLaughlin, former Acting Director, CIA

“China’s military modernization program clearly includes an attempt to up its game in space. Weapons for space involve more than just anti-satellite systems, but these are the most overt signs of China’s progress.”

  • The U.S. and Russia have pursued counter-space capabilities since the onset of the Cold War. But it wasn’t until January 2007 that China demonstrated its kinetic anti-satellite capacity by shooting down its oldest meteorological satellite, Fengyun 1 (FY-1C), at 800 km in low Earth orbit. It did so by using a direct-ascent SC-19 missile that essentially rammed into the satellite and created more than 3,000 pieces of space debris that continue to endanger the world’s assets in space.
  • China also conducted mid-course missile defense tests in January 2010 and 2013 that could have been dual-purposed for ASAT capabilities. Again in July 2014, Beijing conducted a missile defense test that the Pentagon has openly characterized as an ASAT-capabilities test.
  • Not all missile defense systems – categorized based on which phase of missile flight they target – have latent ASAT capabilities. Those that seek to intercept incoming ballistic missiles during their initial boost phase or during their atmospheric re-entry terminal phase – such as the Terminal High Altitude Defense (THAAD) systems – have limited ASAT utility, because they do not reach high-enough altitudes to touch many satellites. But those that intercept missiles in midcourse are designed to target objects moving through space in low Earth orbit (2,000 km and under), where many governments’ remote-sensing ISR satellites reside.
  • The U.S. Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) ballistic missile interceptor, for example, was launched in February 2008 to take out a faulty U.S. intelligence satellite, the USA-193. The maneuver demonstrated that midcourse ballistic missile defense systems could also be used for ASAT purposes.

Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning, Secure World Foundation

“Whether hit-to-kill missile defense was seen as an offensive or defensive capability was always in the eye of the beholder. The fundamental technology for mid-course missile defense is the same as that for direct-ascent ASATs. Developing the technology for one application will invariably lead to at least some capability in the other. What’s interesting is, since the U.S. use of its missile defense capabilities to destroy USA 193 in 2008, we’ve seen China take steps to cast its own hit-to-kill testing in the same light – as ‘responsible.’”

  • In May 2013, China launched a mission that Beijing said was intended to reach an altitude of 10,000 km to release a barium cloud for scientific research. The U.S. government, however, said that the launch “appeared to be on a ballistic trajectory nearly to geosynchronous Earth orbit,” or somewhere close to 36,000 km. It is possible the mission had a scientific cover with a dual-use ASAT capabilities test theoretically able to reach much of the U.S. communications and navigation satellites in medium Earth orbit. In November 2015, China tested another missile, suggesting Beijing continues to refine its direct ascent hit-to-kill ASAT capabilities under the guise of ballistic missile defense tests.
  • Beijing has also been pursuing “co-orbital” anti-satellite capabilities, whereby a Chinese satellite maneuvers through orbit until it nears enemy satellites to disrupt their use through both kinetic means, such as ramming into it or targeting it with explosives, and non-kinetic, directed-energy means, such as lasers or radio frequency jammers. In June 2016, China launched the Aolong-1 spacecraft with a robotic arm that it said was intended for collecting man-made space debris. But it also could be used as an ASAT weapon.
  • China has long been acquiring ground-based satellite jammers and has targeted space-affiliated organizations with cyber attacks. The consolidation of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) space, cyber and electronic warfare missions under the Strategic Support Force (SSF) in late 2015 suggests an emphasis on a coordinated use of these capabilities moving forward.

Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning, Secure World Foundation

“The most likely – and hardest to verify – ASAT capabilities are cyber attacks and RF jamming, which can often be just as useful in denying an adversary space capabilities. In fact, jamming is the ASAT capability we see being used right now in military conflicts around the world.”

Amb. Joseph DeTrani, former Director for East Asia Operations, CIA

“It’s fair to assume that China, for contingency planning purposes, has been pursuing the capability to interfere with U.S. communications and ISR capabilities [that are] dependent on our space-based satellite architecture, in time of conflict.”

Issue: China’s pursuit of ASAT capabilities clearly indicates a desire to threaten U.S. space infrastructure. The Chinese military may consider that especially useful during the initial moments of a conventional conflict in what Beijing considers its region of influence, such as on the Korean Peninsula or in the South China Sea. But even if ASAT capabilities provide a deterrent as part of Beijing’s anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) strategy, it remains unclear how advantageous the targeting of U.S. reconnaissance, navigation and military communications satellites would be in a time of war.

Amb. Joseph DeTrani, former Director for East Asia Operations, CIA

“China has devoted significant resources to the space domain, primarily for science and technology purposes. However, it was also obvious that the space domain could provide a country with military advantage in time of conflict. Also, neutralizing a country’s space-based assets that could provide military advantage in conflict was also an obvious reality.”

Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning, Secure World Foundation

“According to China, the main purpose of its ASAT capabilities is to deter the U.S. from aggressive action against China’s interests by holding U.S. national security space capabilities at risk. The idea is that, if they could credibly threaten to take out the space capabilities the U.S. would need to fight such a war, they could deter us from engaging in one.”

  • Due to their presence in low Earth orbit, U.S. remote-sensing intelligence satellites are likely the most vulnerable to Chinese ASAT capabilities. Targeting these ISR satellites could blind the U.S. military, should it seek to invade North Korea or forcefully take control of disputed islands in the South China Sea. But the U.S., unlike China, has numerous alternate ISR platforms. The options, which include manned and unmanned aircraft, could substantially limit the tactical advantages China could gain from targeting U.S. intelligence satellites during a time of war.
  • Targeting reconnaissance satellites also has significant escalatory risk for China. Should Beijing seek to surprise the U.S. by taking out some ISR satellites prior to military maneuvers in the region, it could invite miscalculated responses from the U.S. These U.S. satellites are early warning systems for incoming ballistic missile strikes – including nuclear-armed warheads. That means blinding them could make military leaders conclude a nuclear attack is imminent and that nuclear retaliation is warranted.
  • Targeting U.S. navigation satellites and military communications satellites presents a larger practical problem for Beijing, given their higher altitudes, than the lower-altitude ISR satellites. Direct-ascent ASAT weapons would take hours to reach the higher-altitude satellites, possibly providing time for the U.S. to maneuver its assets out of the way. But the higher satellites also are larger and less numerous, so taking out one could have a significant impact.
  • But again, the risk of escalation is high when targeting strategic military communications. These satellites effectively enable over-the-horizon communications from U.S. military commanders to their forward-deployed battle groups, but forward-deployed units don’t need them for tactical communications among their own forces. Should communications between the Pentagon and a battle group operating in the Pacific be cut by Chinese ASAT capabilities, Beijing would essentially be gambling that the battle group would stand down rather than act more rashly without guidance from higher-ranking commanders.

Deborah Lee James, former Secretary of the U.S. Air Force

“One of the greatest advantages we have in combat is a superior set of technologies that gives our troops access to information from multiple sources. Our military assets in space provide a good amount of that information and would be targets in any engagement with hostile forces. That said, we have redundancy in those systems, and one of the main focuses of the U.S. Department of Defense is to further build our resiliency, both in space, and with alternate communication systems. Additionally, while China has made advances; they have not demonstrated that they could deploy a large-scale ASAT attack covering both [low Earth orbit] and [geosynchronous Earth orbit].”

Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning, Secure World Foundation

“One of the biggest concerns from the U.S. perspective is the potential for China to “go first” and use an ASAT attack on a U.S. satellite early on. For example, China might choose to take out the U.S. satellites that provide early warning of ballistic missile launches over the Pacific. Doing so would make it much more difficult for the U.S. to defend against Chinese conventional ballistic missiles, thereby deterring the U.S. Navy from operating in the theater. However, because those very same satellites are also used to warn of Chinese, North Korean and Russian nuclear attacks against the U.S., there’s a very real concern that such a strike might be interpreted by the U.S. as a prelude to a nuclear attack, thus precipitating a U.S. nuclear response.”

Response: The U.S. military and intelligence community clearly understands the threat of China developing advanced ASAT capabilities, and is taking steps towards countering it. At the same time, the U.S. is hindered from publicly condemning Chinese ASAT tests conducted in the guise of ballistic missile defense tests, given that missile defense capabilities also are crucial to U.S. security strategies.

Deborah Lee James, former Secretary of the U.S. Air Force

“Space resiliency is one of the most critical areas of focus for the Department of Defense. Investments have been made – and will continue to be done – at an increasing rate, to improve the four dimensions of resiliency in our space assets: avoidance (diminishing the probability of a successful attack), robustness (enhancing likelihood of survivability of an attack), reconstitution (quickly returning to an acceptable level of operability after an attack), and recovery (restoring full operational capability after an attack). This is also just one piece of the solution. We are also focused on building coalitions to increase our communication capabilities and have made an explicit goal to be able to operate effectively in a degraded space environment.”

Gregory Kulacki, China Project Manager, Union of Concerned Scientists

“China’s defense science community has consistently argued that missile defense interceptors and hit-to-kill ASAT interceptors, because they rely on the same basic technology, should be discussed together. U.S. unwillingness to discuss its missile defense programs in the context of international arms control talks is one of the main reasons there has been no progress on space and nuclear arms control negotiations during the past 20 years.”

  • Following the May 2013 Chinese ASAT test, the Pentagon laid out its strategy for countering emerging counter-space weapons. In March 2014 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Doug Loverro advocated for building and reinforcing norms of responsible behavior in space, making resilient U.S. space infrastructure, deterring aggression against its space assets, and improving space situational awareness.
  • But the U.S. has typically shied away from arms control discussions seeking to rein in anti-satellite weapons. The U.S. has opposed an agreement advocated by China and Russia, the Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects, generally referred to as PPWT. Ambassador Robert Wood, the U.S. representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, cited various reasons in 2014, including a lack of restrictions on developing and stockpiling ASATs on the ground.
  • There are two likely reasons for this. First, an arms control treaty prohibiting ASAT capabilities could limit missile defense systems that have de facto ASAT applications. Given the increasing nuclear and ballistic missile threat from North Korea, it is unlikely the U.S. would give up its ability to intercept incoming missiles; a credible ballistic missile defense would lower North Korean certainty that an attack would succeed and that it would avoid retaliation, and thus potentially deter them from launching at all.
  • A second reason for the U.S. to resist such arms control discussions is that China is significantly more vulnerable to U.S. ASAT capabilities than vice versa, according to a study by RAND. Should the U.S. seek to undermine Chinese A2/AD strategy or launch a conventional offensive against Pyongyang, targeting either North Korean or Chinese satellites early on could both blind and deafen their defenses. The Obama administration’s decision to push for U.S. ASAT capabilities for active defense deterrence reflects this push.

Gregory Kulacki, China Project Manager, Union of Concerned Scientists

“There is no evidence the Chinese military intends to use ASAT weapons in a conflict with the United States. This is probably because expanding any conflict into space would be disadvantageous to China, which is more dependent on its new military space capabilities than the United States … A high-profile, meaningful U.S.-China cooperative space program – or even the resumption of normal academic and scientific cooperation – could go a long way towards diminishing the growing influence of the relatively small groups of U.S. and Chinese defense experts who mistakenly see space warfare between the two countries as inevitable.”

Jaganath Sankaran, Assistant Research Professor, Maryland School of Public Policy

“Obtaining tangible military benefits is different from being able to attack satellites. There are alternate systems and strategies the U.S. can adopt to deny any benefits to an adversary.  Additionally, the scope of retaliation the U.S. could perform may deter such offensive actions if the benefits are not immediate and valuable.”

Anticipation: Conventional militaries rely increasingly on space-based ISR, communications and navigation, and ASATs threaten those systems. But because of the proliferation of ballistic missile technology, states will pursue ballistic missile defense systems that have latent ASAT capabilities, regardless of whether ASAT weapons are explicitly prohibited. Since limiting the proliferation of ASAT capabilities remains a significant challenge, a more productive route might be to encourage good behavior in space through diplomatic avenues.

Jaganath Sankaran, Assistant Research Professor, Maryland School of Public Policy

“Among emerging powers, some analysts in India have argued for the development of ASAT capability as an offset against China. At the moment, it is unlikely that the Indian government would want to rush into such a capability.”

Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning, Secure World Foundation

“Right now, there are not a lot of incentives for either the U.S., China or Russia to agree to binding space arms control. But I think we should be looking at bilateral or trilateral agreements restricting certain types of behavior that is overly aggressive or destructive, such as testing of debris-causing ASATs. I think there’s also a lot more that can be done on open military or diplomatic lines of communication to discuss red lines, concerns and what our potential responses may be.”

Deborah Lee James, former Secretary of the U.S. Air Force

“It is a reality that China has developed and will continue to invest in ASAT capabilities. The U.S. needs to continue increasing investment in resiliency and ensure that our strategy to be able to work through a degraded space environment is clearly articulated and exercised. Diplomatically, we should explore the development of international norms that seek to delay development of a weaponized space theatre. This includes working through the U.N. to stress the importance of adherence to treaties like the Outer Space Treaty. It also includes the possibility of engaging in bilateral diplomatic efforts with China, to stress the damaging impact of ASAT proliferation.”

Levi Maxey is a cyber and technology analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @lemax13.


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2 Replies to “Beijing Goes Boldly into Anti-Satellite Weapons Frontier”
  1. The suggestions brought forth here deem treaties a possible solution. History and present practices by Russia and China illuminate however, their severe and disappointing adherence to international and bi/multi-lateral norms supported by the US. To suppose otherwise – especially as the stakes have risen – is without merit, limited at best. Preparation, foresight, and an embrace of disillusionment will separate unfounded hope from realistic expectations.

  2. China and Russia should be informed that an attack on communications or early warning satellites would be considered the preparation of a first strike by them. Losing those satellites would blind us and we would have know way of knowing what is coming next. This is a position no country wants to be in. Furthermore, if communications are cut on either side, it would prevent both countries from agreeing to stand down and prevent escalation of events.