Is the US Underestimating China’s Space and Counterspace Capabilities?

Is the US Underestimating China’s Space and Counterspace Capabilities? 1

In a recent Links reader Michaelmas highlighted a fresh report on China’s space warfare capabilities, which we have embedded at the end of this post.

Yours truly is not a war nerd, much the less a weapons geek. However, it does not take much in the way of powers of observation to notice that the US very much underestimated Russia’s military, despite presumably having it as an object of study. We were confident the Ukraine army, trained and kitted out to NATO standards, and supersized by mercenaries,1 would make quick work of Russia.

One of the striking features of early and still continuing commentary on the war was insisting that if Russia was not prosecuting the war using US doctrine, it must be losing. US doctrine would be the methods we used during counterinsurgency wars: pound infrastructure with air strikes, cut off electricity and communications, and then when you’d flattened an area, move in troops and equipment for what amounted to clearing operations.

Russia instead makes much less use of air forces and fancy high tech weapons than we do (why deploy planes and pilots to blow things up? Just use missiles to fly in the bombs) and vastly greater use of artillery. It’s taken the much-discussed-only-in-alternative-media report from the Royal United Services Institute, The Return of Industrial Warfare, to lay out how overwhelming an advantage Russia has in firepower, and how it will take the West at least a decade of capacity-building to catch up.

The Western press and pundit response (to the extent they’ve noticed that Russia is grinding down the Ukraine military, and so in control of the battlefield that it can rotate its troops when it sees fit) has been to complain that Russia is using primitive weapons, as if wars were fought in accordance with the Marquess of Queensberry rules. But those whinges overlooked that Russia is second to none in missiles and missile defense. The S-400 system is better than anything has. Russia’s S-500 system is starting to be deployed.

This is a long-winded way of saying the US defense-intel complex has come to believe its own PR about the supposed superiority of US equipment and methods. After all, we must be getting a lot for the vast sums we spend on our armed forces.

So what might our blind spots be regarding China? Former Colonel Douglas MacGregor at 16:50 points out that the Chinese are worried about America’s nuclear subs, since they could park themselves off China’s coast and stop all inbound and outbound ships (the neighbors in the region wouldn’t like that). But MacGregor points out the US would be nuts to fight a war on China’s doorstep given the distance.

And could China significantly blind the US navy via counterspace operations? As Michaelmas argued:

The US had a plan in the Ukraine, too, and for most of the last decade prepared the Ukrainian forces to be the largest NATO-supplied army in Europe. How’s that working out?

In a direct military conflict with Taiwan, the US navy and USAF’s plans still depend on the connectivity and battlespace oversight supplied by its satellites remaining operational. In the real world, China can knock all those satellites down in 30-40 minutes.

Sure, the US developed counter-measures during the last fifteen years of low-grade war that’s been secretly ongoing in orbit, and has impressive kit nobody else has, like the Boeing X-37*robot shuttles that have spent years up there–

No. None of that ultimately can prevent China from knocking out US satellites by brute force with ASAT missiles, if that’s what China determines to do.

The Space Review article discusses how China has systematically, since 2010, been seeking space dominance. China has presented many of its tests and maneuvers as having peaceful application, when they could also be used offensively. China has been practicing “proximity operations” as in moving devices close in and then away from satellites and also grappling and moving them, to the degree that it changed a satellite’s altitude by over 100 kilometers. China has also used robotic arms on space vehicles to pick up debris. The Space Review article points out it could also be used to cripple a satellite. China could also simply use a so-called rendezvous and proximity operations to crash one of its satellites into one of ours. Other space tricks:

A further potential offensive use of RPO would be to install a radiofrequency jammer onboard the chaser satellite, increasing its ability to interfere with the satellite’s communications. Chinese academic papers recognized that reducing the distance with a small satellite platform would decrease the power requirements exponentially, identifying susceptible US assets such as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites. This, coupled with the Chinese doctrine that China can defeat the United States “network centric warfare” with “energy-centric warfare,” indicates that China has a significant interest in developing high-frequency and directed energy weapons in space.

China also has anti-satellite missiles and has been practicing by shooting down dead weather satellites. It has also been successful at GPS jamming and includes that capability in military drills:

According to open source data in April 2018, China installed equipment capable of jamming communications and radar systems on two of its fortified outposts on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

The PLA during exercises routinely incorporates jamming and anti-jamming techniques against multiple communication, radar systems, and GPS satellite systems in exercises. A Defense Intelligence Agency report assessed that China is developing jammers to target SATCOM over a range of frequency bands including military protected extremely high frequency communications.

Signal jamming and satellite blinding are likely to be preferred strategies since they don’t destroy equipment and so are less likely to provoke escalation. Some toys China might have:

China is actively pursuing the development of directed energy weapon (DEW) for counterspace use. There is a significant amount of evidence of research and development, and testing but limited details on operational status of any deployed capabilities.[38] The use of lasers as a weapon is characterized in three effects:

  • Dazzling a satellite’s imaging sensor
  • Damage to a satellite’s imaging sensor
  • Damage to the satellite bus or subsystems

The effect of dazzling is temporary, and is considered a countermeasure rather than a weapon. Relative low power levels are required to dazzle. A 10-watt laser could be sufficient to create a dazzling effect and obscure an area from being imaged.[39] The threshold between dazzling and damage is almost impossible to predict, as it would depend on knowledge of a target satellite’s internal design and protective mechanisms. For use as a weapon to cause significant damage to the sensor, a power level in the kilowatt range would be required. A very-high-power laser would be required to cause damage to the satellite bus. The damage would be due to the heating effects of the energy causing the essential components such as the thermal regulation system, the batteries, or attitude control system.[20]

It was reported in 2006 that China used a ground-based laser to dazzle or “blind” a US optical surveillance satellite on at least one occasion.

If China was playing with this capability in 2006, imagine where it might be now.

Contrast this depiction (and more below) with the anodyne overview in the latest Defense Intelligence Agency Worldwide Threat Assessment

China’s rapidly growing space program is second only to the United States in numbers of operational satellites, both civilian and military…China publicly advocates for the peaceful use of space and for agreements at the United Nations on the nonweaponization of space while it continues to improve its counterspace weapons. In addition to improvements in counterspace technology, Beijing has enacted military reforms to integrate cyberspace, space, and EW into joint military operations. China’s 2007 antisatellite (ASAT) missile test destroyed a defunct weather satellite, indicating the PLA’s ability to target low Earth orbit (LEO) and potentially even geosynchronous Earth orbit satellites. China is developing other sophisticated space-based capabilities like the Shijian- 17—a satellite with robotic arm technology that is potentially capable of grappling other satellites—and multiple ground-based laser systems that are capable of blinding or damaging satellites. China very likely is also developing a variety of satellite jammers to disrupt targeted satellites. Since at least 2006, China’s government-affiliated academic community began investigating aspects associated with space-based kinetic weapons—a class of weapon used to attack ground, sea, or air targets from orbit.

Even though this section covers largely similar ground to the Space Review report, it misleads the reader by depicting China as number 2 to the US in number of civilian and military satellites. It is silent on qualitative, let alone quantitative, comparative military assessments. One assumes the US would not admit to Congress that the US is behind in some critical military area unless it was undeniable. But the bland language of that document suggests the military brass won’t even hint at that in private briefings.

In any event, I would very much welcome any reader intel on how the US might stack up in this very real space race.


1 Former Swiss Strategic Intelligence Service member Jacques Baud, who also worked for NATO on small arms control in Ukraine, reported that Ukraine was having difficulty enlisting/conscripting enough men to serve, so it resorted to hiring mercenaries, which constituted 40% of its forces.

00 The Space Review: A review of Chinese counterspace activities

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