The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has continued to develop an array of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons designed to overwhelm U.S. assets in space, even as advisers to the Biden administration issued calls for cooperation between the two nations.
The CCP’s growing arsenal of space weapons now includes missiles, cyberweapons, satellite jamming devices, space robots with grabbing arms, and high-powered lasers designed to blind satellites from the ground as they pass overhead.
Development of these capabilities has been ongoing since at least 2007, when the CCP successfully exploded a satellite with a missile in low-earth orbit. And earlier this year, the chief of operations for the U.S. Space Force testified that both Russia and China were continuing the development of electronic warfare packages, signal jammers, and directed energy weapons.
Underscoring the centrality of space in modern military doctrine, the CCP has continued ASAT launches disguised as rocket tests, increased Sino-Russian cooperation in space, and developed new technologies, including so-called inspector satellites capable of grabbing other objects in space, and “nesting doll” systems consisting of seemingly harmless satellites that then release other, smaller satellites of unknown capabilities.
Experts say that China’s emerging ASAT technologies present an immediate threat to U.S. and international security, but disagree on the exact nature of that threat and the United States’ ability to effectively deter and counter it.
A Persistent Threat
Bill Woolf, the president and founder of the Space Force Association, told The Epoch Times that space-based capabilities were vital to contemporary security strategy, but warned that the proliferation of new technologies likely meant that the CCP and other actors had the ability to attack U.S. space infrastructure.
“Space is such a critical capability to all of our military operations in the U.S., and with our allies and partners,” Woolf said. “So, talking about the technology, it’s safe to presume that there’s technology out there that can disrupt, degrade, or deny our space capabilities.”
With that in mind, however, Woolf stressed that the military-centric development of ASAT technologies in space was not novel and presented merely one more layer of complexity to the international security space.
“People get pretty animated when they say that space has become a military domain,” Woolf said. “[But] space has been a military domain since we deployed military capabilities into space.”
The militarization of space has been ongoing from the Cold War up through the present. In the 1970s, for example, the Soviet Union successfully mounted a bomber-defense gun to a satellite and performed the only publicly known test fire of a ballistic weapon in space. Similarly, Russia was caught last year testing a new space-based ASAT weapon.
Likewise, the CCP has repeatedly been observed developing classified ASAT technologies since its explosive demonstration in 2007 and, in 2019, the Pentagon issued a report acknowledging that the CCP’s primary goal was to target the United States and allied satellite capabilities.
Woolf explained that the CCP was specifically pursuing a course of action aimed at undermining the United States and allied space assets, but that this militarization of outer space was a natural evolution of the domain given the technologies there.
“In their doctrine they discuss that they will attempt to degrade or deny all of our space capabilities,” Woolf said of the CCP.
For Woolf, the primary challenge facing the United States and its allies in space is determining which threats present the most immediate danger, and how to deter and counter them.
“Regardless of the threat, because the threat’s out there,” Woolf said, “the key becomes what are the warnings?”
Deterrence Difficult in ‘Most Obscure Battlefield’
The problem of determining what constitutes a reliable warning is something that Paul Szymanski has often thought about. Szymanski is an author and researcher specializing in space strategy, and has spent the last 43 years studying space warfare, during which time he helped to develop intelligence indicators to signal possible enemy actions in space.
According to Szymanski, notable risks facing the United States in space are the relative difficulty of determining who is doing what in space and why.
Particularly in the era of cyberwarfare and false flag attacks, or those designed to look like they are perpetrated by someone other than the actual culprit, Szymanski worries that current technologies simply do not have sufficiently accurate sensors and algorithms to effectively determine what is happening to space infrastructure in real time.
“It’s the most obscure battlefield,” he said.
Further, there is great difficulty in conceptualizing space conflict, Szymanki noted, because assets in orbit can be physically distant but mathematically close for the purposes of carrying out attacks. And once a vital system goes down, it may be too late for a nation to recover.
“That’s the big thing about space,” Szymanski said, “it’s always worldwide.”
“I don’t think you can defend in space,” he added. “It might just be whoever shoots first wins.”
Concerning the CCP’s expanding arsenal of ASAT technologies, Szymanski said that “inspector” satellites equipped with arms likely presented a more serious threat than laser technologies, as the use of ASAT lasers would take time to correctly target satellites on orbit, while human-controlled inspectors could easily be used to knock rival satellites out of orbit.
“I was surprised that [the U.S. is] already admitting that China has these inspector satellites with manipulator arms,” Szymanski said. “If you’ve got something like that, you can do just about anything.”
“I can say that [the CCP is] certainly going for it,” Szymanski said. “Certainly, this manipulator satellite is an ASAT, though they can conveniently call it a ‘maintenance satellite.’”
The CCP has disguised the military applications of such technologies for years by developing dual-purpose technologies that offer an innocuous research function that conceals military functionality. Experts have previously called such dual-use technologies and programs a direct threat to the United States.
Szymanski also noted that there are immense political difficulties concerning decisions about which space systems should be funded first, as most space systems provide information rather than hard assets and it is difficult to define a specific monetary or strategic value to them.
“The trouble with space is it’s all information,” Szymanski said. “How do you measure the value of communications versus imagery?”
Many Threats, Few Ripostes
Ultimately, Woolf and Szymanski offered competing views on the status quo of the new space race, and what it might mean for the future of U.S. strategy.
For Woolf, the answer lies primarily in developing, supporting, and enforcing a rules-based order in outer space that complements the order commonly recognized throughout the international community.
“Just like every other domain, there needs to be identified norms of behavior, clearly articulated, that say this is how folks behave in space,” Woolf said.
Szymanski, meanwhile, expressed weariness with the idea that the United States should continue to seek a rules-based order with a rival apparently set on violating rules-based norms. He felt that the United States’ dedication to deterring the CCP rather than confronting it might only result in buying the CCP more time to prepare a first and, perhaps, fatal blow.
“I get the impression that we’re going to self-deter and the space war is going to be over before we can do anything about it,” Szymanski said.
“The only purpose of the Space Force is to support terrestrial forces,” Szymanski added. “If you lose a war in space, you may as well not even start the war on the ground.”
“They want to say, ‘we have the technologies, we’ll win,’ but we had the technologies in Afghanistan. Why aren’t we winning?”
To that end, Woolf noted that persistent threats have always been a reality of politics and that it is the job of the military and government to uphold the rules by doing the best they can based on knowledge of extant and emerging threats.
“There is a threat,” Woolf said. “We just have to be prepared for that eventuality and have the systems in place to mitigate the impact of that potential threat.”