Space has already become the scene of an ongoing "shadow war" in which China and Russia conduct attacks against U.S. satellites with lasers, radiofrequency jammers, and cyber-attacks every day, according to General David Thompson, the U.S. Space Force's first vice chief of space operations. Pictured: A Long March 3B rocket, carrying the Beidou-3GEO3 satellite, lifts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China's Sichuan province on June 23, 2020. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Space-based threats from China and Russia have grown exponentially in recent years, according to a new report on the issue by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), published April 12.
"Evidence of both nations' intent to undercut the United States and allied leadership in the space domain can be seen in the growth of combined in-orbit assets of China and Russia, which grew approximately 70% in just two years," noted Kevin Ryder, DIA senior analyst for space and counterspace. "This recent and continuing expansion follows a more than 200% increase between 2015 and 2018."
"Space is a warfighting domain now," said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall in April.
"China's long-standing and extensive modernization program is the greatest challenge... Although China is the Department's pacing challenge, we also regard Russia as an acute threat."
Space has already become the scene of an ongoing "shadow war" in which China and Russia conduct attacks against U.S. satellites with lasers, radio frequency jammers, and cyber-attacks every day, according to General David Thompson, the U.S. Space Force's first vice chief of space operations. The attacks are "reversible" for now, which means that the damage to the attacked satellites is not permanent, but they amply demonstrate the intentions and abilities of the two main competitors of the United States in space.
"The threats are really growing and expanding every single day. And it's really an evolution of activity that's been happening for a long time," Thompson said in November 2021. "We're really at a point now where there's a whole host of ways that our space systems can be threatened."
China leads by far over Russia. "The Chinese are actually well ahead [of Russia]," according to Thompson. "They're fielding operational systems at an incredible rate." Some of those systems are ground-based, such as anti-satellite missiles (ASAT) and lasers intended to blind, damage, or destroy satellites. Others are space-based, such as orbiting "killer" satellites programmed to attack other satellites at a certain point in time, whether with blinding lasers, robotic arms or other means meant to destroy or incapacitate. According to the Pentagon's 2021 report to Congress on China's military capabilities:
"The PLA continues to acquire and develop a range of counterspace capabilities and related technologies, including kinetic-kill missiles, ground-based lasers, and orbiting space robots, as well as expanding space surveillance capabilities, which can monitor objects in space within their field of view and enable counterspace actions."
In January 2007, China tested its first successful ASAT, destroying one of its own inactive weather satellites and creating one of the world's largest space debris incidents. According to the Pentagon's 2021 report:
"The PRC has an operational ground-based Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile intended to target low-Earth orbit satellites, and China probably intends to pursue additional ASAT weapons capable of destroying satellites up to geosynchronous Earth orbit".
Russia tested another ASAT in November 2021, during which it successfully destroyed one of its inactive Soviet-era satellites, creating 1,500 pieces of debris in what General Thompson has called an "incredibly dangerous and irresponsible act." The ASAT was part of Russia's mobile missile defense complex known as Nudol, which, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency's new report, is "capable of destroying ballistic missiles and low-orbiting satellites." Russia is reportedly also developing an air-launched ASAT weapon that could be launched from aircraft, such as the Russian MiG-31, to target spacecraft in low earth orbit.
What is concerning is that the US appears to be at a grave disadvantage countering such attacks. "Fifteen years after China's ASAT strike, we still lack the ability to defeat an attack on our space systems or launch an offensive strike if circumstances warrant," Retired US Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, former commander of U.S. Strategic Command and Air Force Space Command, noted.
"Hostile action toward our space-based assets is not a question of 'if,' but instead, 'when.' Attacks are regularly occurring at lower thresholds. Our adversaries fully understand the U.S. military's reliance upon these systems and will seek to compromise or destroy them to gain a decisive advantage in any terrestrial conflict... The goal is to develop resilient, defendable capabilities that can withstand an attack, while also developing offensive options that will deter strikes against our systems in orbit."
While China has made it a goal to become the world's leading space power by 2045, China could overtake the United States by the end of the decade, according to General Thompson -- especially because China is putting up satellites at twice the rate of the United States.
"We are still the best in the world, clearly in terms of capability. They're catching up quickly... We should be concerned by the end of this decade if we don't adapt."
In addition, China's space station, Tinangong, is expected to become fully operational between 2022 and 2024. Three Chinese astronauts, one of them a former fighter pilot and another a People's Liberation Army (PLA) pilot, just landed back in China after spending six months in space working on the space station. China plans to continue conducting explorations on the moon, including establishing a robotic research station, and in March 2021 signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia on a joint lunar research station.
The latest threat assessment report of the US intelligence community, published in February, also makes it clear that while both Russia and China "increasingly see space as a warfighting domain", the greater threat comes from China. According to the report:
"The PLA 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 U.S. military's information advantage.
"Counterspace operations will be integral to potential military campaigns by the PLA, and China has counterspace-weapons capabilities intended to target U.S. and allied satellites. The PLA is fielding new destructive and nondestructive ground- and space-based antisatellite (ASAT) weapons."
In a recent speech, U.S. Chief of Space Operations General John W. Raymond described just how crucial space is to warfare and why it is paramount that the United States remain the preeminent space power:
"If deterrence were to fail, we would face an adversary that has integrated space into all aspects of their military operations. They use space to detect, track, and target our forces with long-range precision weapons. Space provides the foundation of everything we do as a joint force, from delivering humanitarian assistance to combat on the ground, in the air, and at sea. Our joint operational plans assume assured access to space. ... We cannot afford to lose space; without it we will fail."
Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.