DIA: China Has Ground-based ASAT Missile, Likely Working on Laser Weapon

China’s 2007 test of its ground-based ASAT missile destroyed one of its own defunct satellites in LEO. The graphic depicts the orbits of trackable debris generated by the test 1 month after the event. The white line represents the International Space Station’s orbit. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Challenges to Security in Space
Defense Intelligence Agency
February 2019

Full Report (PDF)

Excerpt on China

China’s Military Strategy

In 2015, Beijing directed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to be able to win “informatized local wars” with an emphasis on “maritime military struggle.” Chinese military strategy documents also emphasize the growing importance of offensive air, long-distance mobility, and space and cyberspace operations. China expects that its future wars mostly will be fought outside its borders and will involve conflict in the maritime domain. China promulgated this through its most recent update to its “military strategic guidelines,” the top-level directives that Beijing uses to define concepts, assess threats, and set priorities for planning, force posture, and modernization. The PLA uses “informatized” warfare to describe the process of acquiring, transmitting, processing, and using information to conduct joint military operations across the domains of land, sea, air, space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum during a conflict. PLA writings highlight the benefit of near-real-time shared awareness of the battlefield in enabling quick, unified effort to seize tactical opportunities.

Strategy, Doctrine and Intent

Beijing now has a goal of “[building] China into a space power in all respects.” Its rapidly growing space program—China is second only to the United States in the number of operational satellites—is a source of national pride and part of President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” to establish a powerful and prosperous China. The space program supports both civil and military interests, including strengthening its science and technology sector, international relationships, and military modernization efforts. China seeks to achieve these goals rapidly through advances in the research and development of space systems and space-related technology.

China officially advocates for peaceful use of space, and it is pursuing agreements at the United Nations on the non weaponization of space. Nonetheless, China continues to improve its counterspace weapons capabilities and has enacted military reforms to better integrate cyberspace, space, and EW into joint military operations.

The PLA views space superiority, the ability to control the information sphere, and denying adversaries the same as key components of conducting modern “informatized” wars. Since observing the U.S. military’s performance during the 1991 Gulf War, the PLA embarked on an effort
to modernize weapon systems and update doctrine to place the focus on using and countering adversary information-enabled warfare.

Space and counterspace operations will form integral components of PLA campaigns, given China’s
perceptions of the importance of space-enabled operations to U.S. and allied forces and the growing importance of space to enable beyond-line-of-sight operations for deployed Chinese forces. The  PLA  also sees counterspace operations as a means to deter and counter a possible U.S. intervention during a regional military conflict. PLA analysis of U.S. and allied military operations states that “destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors” would make it difficult to use precision guided weapons. Moreover, PLA writings suggest that reconnaissance, communications, navigation, and early warning satellites could be among the targets of attacks designed to “blind and deafen the enemy.”

The launch vehicles depicted are representative of China’s launch capabilities. Additional light-, medium-, and heavy-lift vehicles are in development. China uses its light-lift vehicles to place small payloads into LEO and its medium lift to  place larger satellites in MEO and smaller satellites in GEO. The LM-5 heavy-lift SLV supports launching crewed space station components to LEO and heavy payloads to GEO. The developmental LM-9 primarily will support missions to the Moon and Mars. (Visualization: DIA, D3 Design)

China has developed a “quick response” SLV to increase its attractiveness as a commercial small satellite launch provider and to rapidly reconstitute LEO space capabilities, which could support military operations during a conflict or civilian response to disasters. Compared to medium- and heavy-lift SLVs, these quick response SLVs are capable of expedited launch campaigns because they are transportable via road or rail and can be stored launch-ready for longer periods. Currently, due to their limited size, quick response SLVs such as the KZ-1, LM-6, and LM-11 are only capable of launching relatively small payloads into LEO.

Counterspace Capabilities

Space Situational Awareness. China has a robust network of space surveillance sensors capable of searching, tracking, and characterizing satellites in all Earth orbits. This network includes a variety of telescopes, radars, and other sensors that allow China to support missions including intelligence collection, counterspace targeting, ballistic missile early warning, spaceflight safety, satellite anomaly resolution, and space debris monitoring.

Electronic Warfare. The PLA considers EW capabilities key assets for modern warfare and its doctrine emphasizes using EW weapons to suppress or deceive enemy equipment. The PLA routinely incorporates jamming and anti-jamming techniques against multiple communication, radar systems, and GPS satellite systems in exercises. China continues to develop jammers dedicated to targeting SAR aboard military reconnaissance platforms, including LEO satellites. Additionally, China is developing jammers to target SATCOM over a range of frequency bands, including military protected extremely high frequency communications.

Directed Energy Weapons. 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. 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.

Cyberspace Threats. China emphasizes offensive cyberspace capabilities as key assets for integrated warfare and could use its cyberwarfare capabilities to support military operations against space-based assets. For example, the PLA could employ its cyberattack capabilities to establish information dominance in the early stages of a conflict to constrain an adversary’s actions, or slow its mobilization and deployment by targeting network-based command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR), logistics, and commercial activities.

The PLA also plays a role in cyberespionage targeting foreign space entities, consistent with broader state-sponsored industrial and technical espionage to increase the level of technologies and expertise available to support military research and development and acquisition. The PLA unit responsible for conducting signals intelligence has supported cyberespionage against U.S. and European satellite and aerospace industries since at least 2007.

Orbital Threats. China is developing sophisticated on-orbit capabilities, such as satellite inspection and repair, at least some of which could also function as a weapon. China has launched multiple satellites to conduct scientific experiments on space maintenance technologies and it is conducting space debris cleanup research.

Kinetic Energy Threats. The PLA has an operational ground-based ASAT missile intended to target LEO satellites. China has also formed military units that have begun training with ASAT missiles.

Other Counterspace Technology Development. China probably intends to pursue additional ASAT weapons capable of destroying satellites up to GEO. In 2013, China launched an object into space on a ballistic trajectory with a peak altitude above 30,000 km. No new satellites were released from the object, and the launch profile was inconsistent with traditional SLVs, ballistic missiles, or sounding rocket launches for scientific research.