WASHINGTON — China’s continued testing of anti-satellite capabilities has led U.S. military planners to conclude that Beijing intends to deploy these weapons operationally, effectively putting U.S. space systems under constant threat.
“You don’t have a seven-year development plan if you’re not going to make it operational,” Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, told reporters at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida.
Hyten specifically pointed to two incidents, spaced seven years apart, to back his characterization of China’s intent:
- In January 2007, China deliberately destroyed one of its defunct weather satellites known as Fengyun-1C using a ground-based, medium-range ballistic missile. The action, which was widely condemned internationally, left a cloud of hazardous debris in a heavily used belt of Earth orbit that still creates complications for the space operators.
- In July 2014, the U.S. State Department said China conducted a “nondestructive” test of an anti-satellite weapon and called for China to end the development of such capabilities. Chinese officials described the event as a missile defense test.
Other observers believe China conducted similar nondestructive tests in 2010 and 2013.
U.S. defense and intelligence officials have ratcheted up the rhetoric about Chinese and Russian anti-satellite threats in recent years, and those concerns are reflected in a U.S. Defense Department budget request that puts renewed emphasis on space surveillance and even counterspace capabilities.
Yuan Gao, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy, did not immediately return an email asking for comment.
During a Feb. 18 hearing on China’s space and counterspace efforts, several witnesses echoed Hyten’s concerns. The hearing on Capitol Hill was held by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressionally appointed panel of experts that provides annual assessments of Chinese military capabilities.
“This ongoing [anti-satellite] development program does not appear to have ended,” Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a think tank here, said in written testimony commission.
Cheng said research indicates that a missile launched by China in 2013 was actually a system that targets satellites in geosynchronous orbit, home to the Air Force’s missile warning and nuclear command and control satellites. This “constitutes a substantial expansion of the potential threat posed by” the Chinese military, he said.
Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center here, said documents he characterized as “secondary literature” about the Chinese military show the country’s leaders want to enhance the build-up of a ground-based anti-satellite combat force.
In response, the Defense Department should consider measures to make its satellites less attractive targets, said Phillip Saunders, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University. Among the options, he said, were moving to constellations of smaller satellites, a concept known as disaggregation that the Air Force has been studying for years; and developing the ability to rapidly replace satellites.
Not all of the witnesses were in agreement about the meaning of China’s visible activities, however. “We don’t have the ability to decipher someone’s intent,” Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College, told the commission during the hearing.
But Johnson-Freese was outnumbered at the hearing by those who believe Beijing’s aim is clear: to be able to control space in a future conflict.
Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, a think tank here, noted that the Chinese military has also been developing electronic technologies that could degrade satellite communications or navigation signals. China also appears to be investing in ground-based radars that would queue data for targets in space, he said.
Left largely unsaid is the fact that the U.S. military operates the world’s most capable space surveillance network, consisting of sensors on the ground and in space. In addition, the United States has demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities, most recently in 2008 when it used a ship-based missile to shoot down a failed spy satellite that U.S. government officials said was poised to re-enter the atmosphere with a full tank of toxic fuel.