Battlespace Tech

US-China counterspace tensions mount

The annual Pentagon report to Congress on the status of China's military reinforces earlier warnings about a concerted "counterspace" effort that along with electronic warfare and cyber operations could be used to overcome U.S. advantages in "information technology-driven warfare."

While much of the recent focus of China’s military strategy focuses on frictions in the South China Sea, the report submitted to Congress this spring highlights Beijing's growing focus on countering U.S space assets. "In parallel with its space program, China continues to develop a variety of counterspace capabilities designed to limit or to prevent the use of space-based assets by the [Peoples' Liberation Army’s] adversaries during a crisis or conflict," Defense Department analysts asserted.

Congress added more than $32 million to the Air Force's space budget in fiscal 2015 to study future antisatellite capabilities, including offensive and "active defense" capabilities. It also instructed the Pentagon to "conduct a study of potential alternative defense and deterrent strategies in response to the existing and projected counterspace capabilities of China and Russia."

Concerns have grown in the aftermath of Chinese antisatellite tests that demonstrated the capability to destroy military communications satellites, perhaps even those in geostationary orbits. The report states that a 2013 launch with a peak altitude of 18,641 miles may have been designed to test technologies for use during a counterspace mission in geosynchronous orbit. Satellites in geostationary orbit orbit at about 22,000 miles.*

Analysts also suspect that earlier Chinese tests involved a prototype kinetic kill weapon. That possibility has U.S. military officials especially nervous, given the debris fields that could be generated in a space conflict.

This year's assessment of its military power also warned "China is employing more sophisticated satellite operations and is probably testing dual-use technologies in space that could be applied to counterspace missions."

The report to Congress goes on to note advances in China's satellite launch capabilities, including two new versions of its mainstay Long March booster. The number of payloads being orbited ranges from the September 2015 inaugural launch of a Long March-6, which carried China's largest payload of 20 satellites.

At the other end of the payload spectrum, the Chinese military also launched four "femtosatellites," weighing just 100 grams each. Femtosatellites illustrate the scaling down of satellite payloads that began with cubesats and may eventually lead to cheap and disposable space sensors, dubbed chipsats.

As China's space technology continues to advance, Chinese President Xi Jinping has launched a series of ambitious military reforms designed to break up old PLA units. The goal is to create more agile regional commands patterned after the U.S. military structure. Such reforms could help China project power in the Pacific as the United States continues its "pivot" to the region.

Along with counterspace capabilities, Beijing also is attempting to counter U.S. assertions that its moves in the South China Sea threaten "freedom of navigation." In a lengthy rebuttal to an arbitration case before an international tribunal filed by the Philippines, state-controlled China Daily fired back: "The U.S. is portraying China's growing military strength as a major threat to freedom of navigation and over flight in the South China Sea and ratcheting up the bogus 'China threat'."

Added the government publication, "Politically, the U.S. wants to create and hype up tensions in the South China Sea."

*An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that GPS satellites are among those in geostationary orbit. GPS satellites orbit at about 12,500 miles.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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