China Aims to Knock Out U.S. Space Systems in Conflict

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)

Continuing our look at the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2019 Report to Congress, we examine the growing threat from China’s military space systems. [Full Report]

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

China has spent the last 15 years testing kinetic kill, directed energy, electromagnetic, cyber and other systems in an effort to develop methods for crippling American satellites during a conflict.

“China’s development of offensive space capabilities may now be outstripping the United States’ ability to defend against them, increasing the possibility that U.S. vulnerability combined with a lack of a credible deterrence posture could invite Chinese aggression,” according to a new report to Congress by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

The report quotes Todd Harrison, a senior space expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as saying that China is “developing, testing, and operationalizing counterspace weapons at a faster pace than [the United States is] making progress protecting [its] space systems against these threats.”

China used a kinetic kill weapon to destroy a non-functional satellite in 2007. But. the tests didn’t stop then.

“Although China has not shot down a satellite since its 2007 test that destroyed a defunct weather satellite with a direct-ascent missile, which created a great deal of dangerous debris, it has continued to test kinetic counterspace systems nearly every year, sometimes disguised as midcourse ballistic missile intercept tests,” the report stated.

China and Russia have support a draft treaty banning weapons in space and a proposal for a second treaty banning the first placement of such weapons.

“The United States opposes the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space because it does not define what constitutes a space weapon, include a verification mechanism for treaty adherence, or restrict development or stockpiling of ground-based antisatellite (ASAT) weapons, all of which would allow Beijing to continue placing U.S. and other foreign space assets at risk with its growing arsenal of ground-based counterspace weapons,” the report said.

“Then Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said in April 2019 that China would field a new ground-based directed-energy counterspace system by 2020, underlining the main reason for U.S. skepticism of the proposed treaty, which is that terrestrial ASAT capabilities are the most pressing threat to space systems,” the document added.

Cyber Attacks

China has been implicated in a number of cyber attacks, including two involving active U.S. government satellites.

“Landsat-7 experienced 12 or more minutes of interference on two occasions” in 2007 and 2008. “The responsible party did not achieve all steps necessary to issue commands. The attack was consistent with techniques described in authoritative Chinese military writings,” the report said.

In 2008, NASA’s Earth observation satellite AM-1 was hacked two or more times in attacks also consistent with Chinese techniques. “The responsible party achieved all steps necessary to issue commands but did not issue any,” the report added.

China’s Counterspace or Dual-Use Weapons Tests 2005–2019
Type
Year
Description
Comments
Direct Ascent
2005Kinetic kill vehicle (KKV) rocket testRocket test for SC-19 direct ascent missile.
2006KKV testFailed intercept and destruction of an orbital target.
2007KKV testSuccessful intercept and destruction of an orbital target. Created debris.
2010Midcourse ballistic missile defense testSuccessful intercept and destruction of a suborbital target.
2013Midcourse ballistic missile defense testSuccessful intercept and destruction of a suborbital target.
2013KKV testTest of DN-2 rocket. China called it a “high-altitude science mission.” The test indicated an attempt to develop the capability to target satellites in medium-Earth orbit, highly elliptical Earth orbit, and GEO.
2014KKV testChina called it a ballistic missile defense test; United States assessed it was an ASAT test.
2015Unknown test
2017Unknown test
2018Midcourse ballistic missile defense test
Co-orbital
Sept. 2008SZ-7, BX-1Shenzhou-7 spacecraft deployed the BX-1, a miniature imaging satellite, which then positioned itself into an orbit around the spacecraft. BX-1 may have been designed to test in-orbit ejection of “companion” satellites, dual-use on-orbit inspection capabilities, and use of attitude control and propulsion systems for formation flying.
Jan.-Aug. 2010SJ-O6F, SJ-12At 570–600 km and 97.6°, SJ-12 maneuvered to rendezvous with SJ-06F. The satellites may have bumped into each other.
July 2013–May 2016SY-7, CX-3, SJ-15At approximately 670 km and 98°, SY-7 released an additional object with which it performed maneuvers and which may have had a telerobotic arm. CX-3 performed optical surveillance of other in-space objects. SJ-15 demonstrated altitude and inclination changes to approach other satellites.
2016Aolong-1Tested robotic arm to remove space debris.
Nov. 2016–Feb. 2018SJ-17, YZ-2 upper stageAt 35,600 km and 0°, YZ-2 upper stage failed to burn to the graveyard orbit and stayed near GEO. SJ-17 demonstrated maneuverability around the GEO belt and circumnavigated Chinasat 5A.
Jan. 2019TJS-3, TJS-3 AGMAt 35,600 km and 0°, TJS-3 AKM separated from the TJS-3 in the GEO belt and both performed small maneuvers to maintain relatively close orbital slots.
Cyber
Oct. 2007–July 2008NASA and U.S. Geological Service satellite Landsat-7 experienced 12 or more minutes of interference on two occasions.The responsible party did not achieve all steps necessary to issue commands. The attack was consistent with techniques described in authoritative Chinese military writings.
June 2008– Oct. 2008NASA Earth observation satellite AM-1 experienced two or more and then nine or more minutes of interference.The responsible party achieved all steps necessary to issue commands but did not issue any. The attack was consistent with techniques described in authoritative Chinese military writings.
2012Computer network attack against NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
2014Computer network attack against National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
2017Computer network attack against Indian satellite communications.
2018Computer network attack against satellite operators, defense contractors, and telecommunication companies.
Directed Energy
2006China reportedly dazzled U.S. reconnaissance satellites.
Electromagnetic
2005China reportedly conducted satellite jamming tests.

China sees U.S. reliance on space systems as a key military vulnerability. Leaders of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who run the space program view counter space capabilities as a way to deter and defeat the United States.

“Authoritative PLA writings on military operations in the space domain contain a number of principles almost entirely absent from U.S. and other foreign military doctrine that would encourage a highly escalatory approach to space warfare,” the commission reported.

“In particular, these would allow for attacks against an adversary’s space assets early in a conflict to deter an opponent from decisively intervening in or continuing a military confrontation,” the document added.

The commission recommended Congress direct the Defense Department to take steps to safeguard U.S. space assets. The recommendations included:

  • protecting freedom of space navigation and keeping lines of communication open, safe, and secure;
  • strengthening the credibility of U.S. deterrence in space; and,
  • ensuring that military space assets are designed to increase survivability, redundancy, reusability, resilience, rapid replacement, and disaggregation.

The report also recommended that Congress direct the National Space Council to develop a space strategy that would include:

  • a long-term economic space resource policy strategy;
  • an assessment of U.S. strategic interests in cislunar space;
  • an assessment of the U.S. Department of Defense’s ability to protect communications and navigation satellites;
  • a space commodities exchange to ensure the U.S. drive the adaptation of international commercial standards;
  • a plan to streamline and strengthen U.S. cooperation with allies and partners in space; and,
  • an inter-agency strategy to defend space supply chains and critical manufacturing capacity.

The report also recommended the Trump Administration actively participate in international institutions to shape policies and standards that advance the nation’s space interests.

The section of the commission’s report dealing with military space issues is excerpted below.

2019 Report to Congress
U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission

[Full Report]

Space as the “Commanding Heights” of Future Military Conflict

Beijing’s first priority in a modern conflict is to seize dominance in the “information domain,” a combination of space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum, in accordance with China’s identification of the cyber and space domains as “new commanding heights in strategic competition.”

Chinese sources describe space superiority, which they identify as the goal of military space operations, as the means to ensure Beijing’s ability to fully use space while simultaneously constraining and destroying enemy forces in space—a concept not unlike the traditional maritime function of sea control.* An article published by the PLA Academy of Military Science argued the only way for China to achieve parity with the United States is to hold U.S. space assets at risk by increasing its asymmetric capabilities.

The PLA has reorganized its structure, including through the establishment of the new Strategic Support Force, and fielded a broad array of counterspace weapons to be capable of achieving these goals. The formation of the Strategic Support Force in late 2015 is the organizational result of China’s conclusion from observing the Gulf War that it must be able to gain battlefield advantage through attacks in the space, cyber, and electromagnetic domains.†

Although the PLA began applying these foundational concepts to its organization, training, and research and development in the late 1990s, their unification in the new functional command embodied in the Strategic Support Force will significantly improve the PLA’s ability to carry out strategic-level operations in these domains.

According to testimony presented to the Commission by Mark Stokes, Executive Director of the think tank Project 2049 Institute, the new organizational construct represented by the Strategic Support Force is “central to China’s ability to compete in space.”

As a result of the PLA’s reorganization, the Strategic Support Force’s Space Systems Department is now responsible for PLA operations in space, including space attack and defense; space launch, including from operationally-responsive mobile launchers; telemetry, tracking, and control; and information, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations. The Strategic Support Force also took over China’s space-related research programs.

[Independent analyst] Dr. [Namrata] Goswami testified to the Commission that the Strategic Support Force’s establishment represents an innovation in China’s ability “to develop futuristic doctrines, training and capabilities” to suit new mission requirements for space operations and will play a role in establishing China’s presence in cislunar space while helping deny this space to the United States.

In a role complementary to the Space Systems Department’s, the Strategic Support Force Network Systems Department oversees China’s cyberforces in carrying out computer network exploitation, cyber surveillance, computer network attack, and computer network defense missions. The Network Systems Department is also “central” to the counterspace mission, according to Mr. Stokes, since it oversees the PLA’s nonkinetic counterspace mission, comprising electronic countermeasures, space surveillance, technical reconnaissance, and possibly directed energy attacks.

A Destabilizing Approach to Space Warfare

China views space as a critical U.S. military vulnerability, and its counterspace capabilities are designed to threaten space as an enabler of U.S. operations, including nearly every class of U.S. space asset.

According to the 2013 edition of Science of Military Strategy, an authoritative book published by the Academy of Military Science, space systems are “easy to attack and difficult to defend,” and “critical node targets of the enemy space systems” are especially valuable targets. Another Academy of Military Science text, Textbook for the Study of Space Operations, argues command and control systems are “crucial” targets and space information systems are “the crucial of the crucial.”

Moreover, authoritative PLA writings on military operations in the space domain contain a number of principles almost entirely absent from U.S. and other foreign military doctrine that would encourage a highly escalatory approach to space warfare. In particular, these would allow for attacks against an adversary’s space assets early in a conflict to deter an opponent from decisively intervening in or continuing a military confrontation.

William Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, testified to the Commission that Beijing is well aware of the extent to which U.S. sea, air, and land operations rely on space-based assets for communication, navigation, and precision fires and has thus concluded it is much more feasible to threaten these assets in space than the terrestrial capabilities they enable.

China’s development of offensive space capabilities may now be outstripping the United States’ ability to defend against them, increasing the possibility that U.S. vulnerability combined with a lack of a credible deterrence posture could invite Chinese aggression. According to Mr. [Todd] Harrison, [a senior space expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies], China is “developing, testing, and operationalizing counterspace weapons at a faster pace than [the United States is] making progress protecting [its] space systems against these threats.”

China’s counterspace doctrine is intended to deter the United States from entering a conflict and provide options for rapid escalation once conflict has begun, representing an approach to space warfare which risks destabilizing the space environment.

Kevin Pollpeter, senior research scientist at CNA, testified to the Commission that China’s counterspace architecture is intended “to deter the United States at the nation-state level [and] achieve operational goals should deterrence fail.” According to Science of Military Strategy, space deterrence requires “developing space capability, displaying an asymmetric operational posture, and when necessary firmly resolving to conduct space counter-preemption operations . . . to achieve the deterrence goals.”

Beijing views space and cyberspace as domains to dominate and to deny to its adversaries, and it would likely seek to accomplish this in part by deploying cyberattacks or electromagnetic attacks against space-based assets, including commercial or civilian assets, both in steady state** and early in any conflict.

Jonathan Ray, Research Director of the Special Programs Division at SOS International, testified to the Commission that Chinese strategists see the United States as so reliant on satellites for critical military functions that threatening to degrade or destroy these crucial systems may be enough to force the United States to stand down in a conflict.

Science of Military Strategy supports this conclusion, recommending conducting “limited space operational activities with warning and punishment as goals to stop the adversary from willfully escalating the intensity of a space confrontation.”

Mr. Ray noted further that PLA strategists appear to view “soft” cyberattacks as less escalatory than kinetic strikes, which may make them more tempting, especially since the adversary may either not be able to immediately determine what has happened or be willing to retaliate.††

China has been implicated or suspected in cyberattacks against U.S. space systems at least four times since 2007 (see Addendum II of known Chinese counterspace or dual-use weapons tests, including cyberattacks on U.S. space systems, on page 386), though Chinese officials consistently deny Beijing’s involvement.

According to Mr. Pollpeter, Chinese strategists apparently have also not discussed how individual tactical actions in space may unintentionally result in escalation. Moreover, despite extensive discussion of prioritizing attacks on vulnerable U.S. space assets, Chinese strategists have not seemed to openly recognize that Beijing may be developing the same or similar weaknesses as it expands its own reliance on space.

China’s space doctrine suggests it may be difficult to deter the PLA from targeting important U.S. space assets. According to several witnesses at the Commission’s hearing, the near-term emergence of a “mutually assured destruction” doctrine in space is unlikely. Mr. Pollpeter contended that the PLA’s temptation to target U.S. space assets will add “a layer of instability to any conflict with China.”

One problem with such a tacit understanding is the fact that while the United States has many singularly valuable space systems, China does not have comparable individual platforms it values as much. Thus, according to Dr. Brian Weeden, the cost-benefit analysis of “I’ll kill yours if you kill mine” cannot reliably deter China from making a first strike.

China’s Counterspace and Dual-Use Weapons Tests Threaten U.S. Assets

China has made substantial investments for over a decade in developing a full array of direct-ascent, cyber, electromagnetic, and co-orbital counterspace weapons and demonstrated the credibility of these systems. Although China has not shot down a satellite since its 2007 test that destroyed a defunct weather satellite with a direct-ascent missile, which created a great deal of dangerous debris, it has continued to test kinetic counterspace systems nearly every year, sometimes disguised as midcourse ballistic missile intercept tests.

General John Raymond, U.S. Air Force, nominee for Commander of U.S. Space Command, said in 2015 that China’s investment in ASAT research would soon allow it to threaten “every satellite in every orbit.” The new Strategic Support Force has reportedly already carried out training with direct-ascent ASAT weapons capable of striking targets in LEO, according to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center.

In April 2019, then Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan stated the PLA would likely field a ground-based laser system targeting LEO systems by 2020. Taken together, the fielding of these capabilities demonstrates the increasing vulnerability of U.S. space assets, especially in LEO.

China has engaged in dual-use activities such as rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO)—which demonstrate co-orbital capabilities— that, while not prohibited, create problems for U.S. national security. These capabilities can be used for peaceful purposes, such as removing harmful orbital debris and repairing other satellites, but also for counterspace activities, such as disabling other satellites, though there is no evidence China has used co-orbital capabilities for destructive purposes.

According to Dr. Weeden, China’s testing of RPOs has been similar to past U.S. tests, and no country has criticized RPOs carried out by China as illegal or violating any norm. China’s RPO activities have been consistent with the use of technologies for nonmilitary satellite service, inspection, and situational awareness, such as activities the United States has carried out, including U.S. inspections of satellites in LEO in 2005 and 2006 and of satellites in GEO since 2016.

Still, given the PLA’s involvement in China’s space program, there is a distinct possibility that platforms with dual-use capabilities could be used for offensive purposes when needed. For example, the Chinese satellite Aolong-1 has robotic arms for grappling other satellites to inspect or service them, and although these capabilities have peaceful uses, they would be easy to weaponize.

Some analysts have also been especially concerned by the RPO activities in GEO of the Chinese satellite SJ-17, reportedly a testbed for new propulsion, surveillance, and solar panel technology. SJ-17 has transited the geostationary belt, and its movements suggest it has a significant maneuverability, including the ability to change its orbit.

Seeking to Shape Space Governance Norms

In other cases, China has advocated for causes not in line with U.S. interests. Instead of an EU-proposed Code of Conduct in Space, which seeks to enhance safety in space operations through transparency mechanisms and confidence-building measures, China— along with Russia—has supported a draft treaty banning weapons in space and a proposal for a second treaty banning the first placement of such weapons, despite programs in China that appear to be preparations to weaponize space.

The United States opposes the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space because it does not define what constitutes a space weapon, include a verification mechanism for treaty adherence, or restrict development or stockpiling of ground-based antisatellite (ASAT) weapons, all of which would allow Beijing to continue placing U.S. and other foreign space assets at risk with its growing arsenal of ground-based counterspace weapons.

Then Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said in April 2019 that China would field a new ground-based directed-energy counterspace system by 2020, underlining the main reason for U.S. skepticism of the proposed treaty, which is that terrestrial ASAT capabilities are the most pressing threat to space systems.

___________

* The U.S. Department of Defense defines space superiority as “the degree of control in space of one force over any others that permits the conduct of its operations at a given time and place without prohibitive interference from terrestrial or space-based threats.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3–14, Space Operations, April 10, 2018, GL-6.

† For more on the background of the Strategic Support Force, see U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2018 Annual Report to Congress, November 2018, 237–239.

** Multiple witnesses argued China is already in a state of constant competition or seeking to actively undermine the United States, so the juxtaposition of “peace” and “conflict” is not appropriate. Mr. Ray suggested “steady state” to describe a sub-kinetic but persistent state of competition. U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Hearing on China in Space: A Strategic Competition? oral testimony of Mark Stokes, April 25, 2019, 242; U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Hearing on China in Space: A Strategic Competition? oral testimony of Jonathan Ray, April 25, 2019, 242.

†† Cyberattacks can cause lasting damage to space systems, such as by expending propellant, damaging sensors or electronics, or shutting down communications. Todd Harrison et al., “Space Threat Assessment 2019,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 2019, 5.