Hong Kong, Apr 1 (ANI): India’s conduct of an anti-satellite (ASAT) test on 27 March showed that Delhi is taking seriously neighbouring China’s own space capabilities. While India was preening itself over its technological prowess, the fact is that India is at least twelve years behind China in this “space race”, and that gulf is only going to widen given the vast resources China is pouring in.
Indeed, China performed its own direct-ascent ASAT test against a weather satellite in January 2007, employing an SC-19 interceptor. However, that mission resulted in a large and hazardous field of space debris that drew the ire of the world.
Even China’s so-called civil space program, which has put a research lab in space and plans to put a man on the moon, is subservient to the military. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is undoubtedly using the manned space program for military purposes. For instance, all Shenzhou space capsule missiles carried military payloads or performed military missions.
An example is Shenzhou-7, which intercepted the International Space Station and launched a microsatellite simulating a combat payload. Under the guise of a civil program, the PLA has seized the opportunity to duplicitously gain technologies from foreign civil space agencies.
Last year, China completed 36 space launches from its two major launch centers of Jiuquan in Inner Mongolia, and Xichang in Sichuan Province. Of course, Beijing’s bold space program reflects national pride and the authorities’ attempt to create the veneer of China being a global power. China has more than 120 military satellites in orbit, including a test quantum communications satellite that offers highly secure data transfer.
China’s military space programs
But how are we to assess the state of China’s military space capabilities? The USA keeps a close eye on Chinese developments, and some of the most authoritative assessments come from the annual report to Congress entitled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China”.
The most recent report, issued last year, summarized: “China’s space program continues to mature rapidly. The PLA, which has historically managed the effort, continues to invest in improving its capabilities in space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), satellite communication, satellite navigation and meteorology, as well as human spaceflight and robotic space exploration.”
By its own admission, the PLA views space as critical to the conduct of warfare. The Pentagon noted: “PLA strategists regard the ability to use space-based systems – and to deny them to adversaries – as central to modern warfare. The PLA continues to strengthen its military space capabilities despite its public stance against the militarization of space. Space operations are viewed as a key enabler of PLA campaigns aimed at countering third-party intervention, although PLA doctrine has not elevated them to the level of a separate ‘campaign’.”
The 2018 report also gave this overall description: “Additionally, China is developing multiple counter-space capabilities to degrade and deny adversary use of space-based assets during a crisis or conflict. The PLA is acquiring a range of technologies to improve China’s counter-space capabilities. In addition to the development of directed-energy weapons and satellite jammers, China is also developing direct-ascent and co-orbital kinetic kill capabilities and has probably made progress on the anti-satellite missile system it tested in July 2014. China is employing more sophisticated satellite operations and is probably testing dual-use technologies in space that could be applied to counter-space missions.”
Of course, it is not easy to discern the veracity of what China is attempting in space, for its programs are cloaked in paranoid levels of secrecy. Nevertheless, Chinese scholars often publish articles about the need for “destroying, damaging and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance…and communications satellites”.
It is obvious that China, should it enter a conflict with a country such as the USA, would target enemy navigation and early-warning satellites to render them inoperable and so blind and deafen the enemy. This threat to orbiting satellites is now being treated very seriously by the USA.
Indeed, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) published its “China Military Power” report earlier this year, delineating how China can use directed-energy weapons, direct-ascent ASAT missiles, electronic jammers, cyber attacks and small satellites to target the satellites of foreign nations.
Of interest in the 2019 report was a section on a laser weapon able to damage US military satellites in low-earth orbits, the first time the DIA has disclosed details of such a weapon.
The report stated, “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.”
It added, giving actual dates: “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.”
China first used a ground-based laser to “dazzle” an orbiting American satellite in 2006, a year earlier than its infamous ASAT missile test. A laser strike of 300W per cm² could melt the optical glass on a satellite, or electro-optical (EO) detectors, control surfaces or solar panels could be damaged. Lasers could also disrupt GPS satellites that the USA military needs for pinpoint missile guidance.
Beijing stated in its 2015 White Paper: “China has all along advocated the peaceful use of outer space, opposed the weaponization of and arms race in outer space, and taken an active part in international space cooperation. China will keep abreast of the dynamics of outer space, deal with security threats and challenges in that domain, and secure its space assets to serve its national economic and social development, and maintain outer space security.”
Yet hypocrisy abounds. China warmly applauds the non-weaponization of space in venues like the United Nations, and it uses “lawfare” to hide its own offensive developments in space.
Statements such as the PLA spokesman’s response to India’s ASAT test, “We hope all countries can take real actions to protect lasting peace and stability in the outer space,” are therefore mere empty rhetoric.
India has just demonstrated to Beijing that it can create a viable force multiplier that places Chinese satellites at risk, despite the fact that this capability will remain nascent for the foreseeable future. No wonder, then, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was pleased with India’s first ASAT missile test. (ANI)