China ASAT test debris
Debris (in red) from China's January 2007 ASAT test, seen in this visualization with other objects in low Earth orbit nearly one year later. Credit: AGI

WASHINGTON — An unclassified report released Jan. 15 by the Defense Intelligence Agency does not reveal anything new about China’s advances in space technologies and capabilities. But it does highlight one major concern for the Pentagon: China’s military is becoming increasingly adept at militarizing commercial space technologies.

The People’s Republic of China is conducting “sophisticated satellite operations and probably is testing on-orbit dual-use technologies that could be applied to counterspace missions,” said the DIA in its first unclassified report made public on China’s military power.

China’s space advances in support of civil, economic and political goals could provide the nation a significant edge in military operations, the DIA said. Chinese military strategists regard the ability to use space-based systems and deny them to adversaries as central to enabling modern warfare. “As a result, the People’s Republic of China continues to strengthen its military space capabilities despite its public stance against the militarization of space,” said the report.

“Space operations probably will form an integral component of other PLA campaigns,” the DIA said. The report suggests China is building up space capabilities as a way to deter the United States or others from intervening in military conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region.

China has parallel programs for military and commercial communications satellites, and owns and operates about 30 satellites used for civil, commercial and military communications. By 2020 China will complete its global constellation of 27 Beidou navigation satellites while maintaining a separate regional constellation providing redundant coverage over Asia. The first Beidou satellite was launched in 2000.

Independent analysts have revealed considerable details about China’s growing arsenal of counterspace capabilities such as directed-energy anti-satellite weapons and satellite jammers. The DIA report said these developments continue “even though the nation has not publicly acknowledged the existence of any new counterspace programs since it confirmed it used an anti-satellite missile to destroy a weather satellite in 2007.”

The DIA said U.S communications, reconnaissance, navigation and early warning satellites “could be among the targets of attacks.”

Air Force report on space threats

The U.S. Air Force on Jan. 16 released an unclassified report created by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center that takes a broader look at the militarization of space.

It mentions both China and Russia as nations that are developing new space capabilities to achieve military goals and reduce their reliance on U.S. space systems. “These countries continue to develop, test and proliferate sophisticated anti-satellite weapons to hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk,” said the Air Force report.

China has military units that have begun training with anti-satellite missiles, the report noted, and Russia is reportedly developing an airborne laser weapon system intended for use against space-based missile defense sensors.

The Air Force study cautions that while China and Russia are the most capable competitors in space today, others are likely to emerge. “Reduced cost, increased access, and proliferation of space systems will drive more countries to integrate these systems into military capabilities.”

The increasingly frequent application of dual-use space technologies makes it more difficult for the United States to discern between peaceful and potential hostile activity, the Air Force report said. For example, future satellite servicing and recycling incorporate a variety of technologies, such as robotic arms to inspect, repair, or dispose of damaged satellites. The same technologies have “inherent counterspace capabilities that could be used to inspect non-consenting satellites or to cause physical damage.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...