Panel Told of Growing Threat To U.S. Satellites from China

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Seven years after it tested an anti-satellite weapon on one of its satellites, China’s military poses an increasing threat to U.S. space assets as it develops new counterspace technologies, witnesses warned members of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee.

“The current and evolving counterspace threat posed by China to U.S. military operations in the Asia-Pacific theater and outside is extremely serious, and the threat ranks on par with the dangers posed by Chinese offensive cyber operations,” said Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in testimony at a joint hearing of two House Armed Services Committee subcommittees Jan. 28.

Since that January 2007 anti-satellite test, Tellis said, China has explored alternative approaches to disabling satellites, including laser “dazzling” of reconnaissance satellites and jamming of communications, that do not create the debris that resulted in strong international criticism of that test. “It allows them to achieve their operational aims without contributing to physical destruction of satellites,” he said.

Tellis and other witnesses offered a variety of approaches the United States could take to deal with this threat, ranging from hardening satellites and disaggregating large space systems into smaller ones to diplomatic approaches, including the development of “rules of the road” and a code of conduct for space activities. Committee members at the sparsely attended hearing gave few hints of what approaches they favored.

Not everyone at the hearing agreed that China represented the greatest threat to U.S. space assets, however. “In my view, the greatest current vulnerability is the debris vulnerability,” said Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center. “The more a nation depends on space, the more vulnerable it becomes just because of the debris problem, not even Chinese counterspace capabilities.”