In May 2013 the Chinese government conducted what it called a science space mission from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China. Half a world away, Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force officer, wasn’t buying it. The liftoff took place at night and employed a powerful rocket as well as a truck-based launch vehicle—all quite unusual for a science project, he says.
In a subsequent report for the Secure World Foundation, the space policy think tank where he works, Weeden concluded that the Chinese launch was more likely a test of a mobile rocket booster for an antisatellite (ASAT) weapon that could reach targets in geostationary orbit about 22,236 miles above the equator. That’s the stomping grounds of expensive U.S. spacecraft that monitor battlefield movements, detect heat from the early stages of missile launches, and help orchestrate drone fleets. “This is the stuff the U.S. really cares about,” Weeden says.
The Pentagon never commented in detail on last year’s launch—and the Chinese have stuck to their story. U.S. and Japanese analysts say China has the most aggressive satellite attack program in the world. It has staged at least six ASAT missile tests over the past nine years, including the destruction of a defunct Chinese weather satellite in 2007. “It’s part of a Chinese bid for hegemony, which is not just about controlling the oceans but airspace and, as an extension of that, outer space,” says Minoru Terada, deputy secretary-general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Besides testing missiles that can intercept and destroy satellites, the Chinese have developed jamming techniques to disrupt satellite communications. In addition, says Lance Gatling, president of Nexial Research, an aerospace consultant in Tokyo, the Chinese have studied ground-based lasers that could take down a satellite’s solar panels, and satellites equipped with grappling arms that could co-orbit and then disable expensive U.S. hardware.
To defend themselves against China, the U.S. and Japan are in the early stages of integrating their space programs as part of negotiations to update their defense policy guidelines. In May, Washington and Tokyo discussed ways to coordinate their GPS systems to better track what’s going on in space and on the oceans. A recent Japanese cabinet decision eased long-standing limits on the military forces’ ability to come to the aid of allies under attack.
The U.S. is most vulnerable to a Chinese attack because 43 percent of all satellites in orbit belong to the U.S. military or U.S. companies, according to a Council on Foreign Relations report in May by Micah Zenko. Japan has four spy satellites in service, and a consortium of Japanese companies led by Sky Perfect Jsat Holdings and NEC is building two additional communication satellites that will transmit encrypted data. The U.S. has about 30 spy satellites in orbit.
Both countries have sunk billions of dollars into a sophisticated missile defense system that relies in part on data from U.S. spy satellites. That’s why strategists working for China’s People’s Liberation Army have published numerous articles in defense journals about the strategic value of chipping away at U.S. domination in space. “How many missile defense tests have Americans carried out?” says Yue Gang, a retired PLA colonel who worked on ASAT technologies. “China has only conducted a couple of tests, and that’s enough to make them unable to sit still.”
Weeden says the U.S. is exploring other ways to mitigate the perceived threat from China, including dispatching a fleet of smaller, mobile satellites that would be harder for adversaries to find and destroy. Enabling satellite transmitters to quickly hop between frequencies could address the Chinese jamming threat, Gatling says.
In June the U.S. Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a $914 million contract to build a ground-based radar system that will track objects as small as a baseball, which could help identify a satellite attack as it’s happening. “Destroying someone’s satellite is an act of war,” says Dave Baiocchi, an engineering professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. “You need to know what’s going on up there.”