ORLANDO, Fla. — Concerns are rippling across the U.S. Space Force as China ramps up its constellation of reconnaissance satellites. The latest launches, including optical and radar surveillance spacecraft, have U.S. officials dismissing China’s claims that these satellites serve mostly civilian and commercial purposes.

Speaking Jan. 30 at the Space Mobility Conference, Chief Master Sgt. Ron Lerch, of the Space Systems Command’s intelligence directorate, said China’s rapidly advancing military space-based reconnaissance capabilities are worrisome. 

Lerch said U.S. analysts have been following the recent spate of Chinese remote-sensing satellite missions and piecing together open source intelligence, and warned that these spacecraft are providing the People’s Liberation Army unprecedented eyes in space to track U.S. and allies’ activities in Asia-Pacific and other hotspots. 

He noted that China in recent years has deployed a large number of reconnaissance satellites. But Lerch specifically mentioned China’ launch in December of the classified Yaogan-41 optical satellite to geostationary orbit, a September launch of a trio of Yaogan-39 reconnaissance spacecraft, and the August launch of what is thought to be the world’s first geosynchronous orbit synthetic aperture radar satellite, the Ludi Tance-4. SAR satellites, unlike optical sensors, can see through clouds and at night. 

Chinese officials said Ludi Tance-4 is meant for civilian uses such as forestry and disaster response. 

Lerch painted a different picture, and said the capabilities all point towards military applications, specifically high-resolution reconnaissance across the Asia-Pacific and other strategically vital regions.

Tracking U.S. movements

China to date has launched 15 Yaogan “triplets,” he said. “The PRC has been pretty quiet about what exactly these systems offer them.”

This growing satellite fleet, coupled with China’s advancements in hypersonic weapons and anti-satellite technology, has sparked anxieties within the U.S. defense establishment. Officials have suggested that the ability to track and monitor American movements in the region, from troop deployments to ship movements, could significantly tip the scales in China’s favor during potential conflicts.

Experts also fear China’s satellite network could be used for economic espionage, monitoring critical infrastructure, and even influencing public opinion through targeted satellite-based disinformation campaigns.

U.S. Army leaders in a recent policy guidance document said commanders should take proactive measures aimed at complicating Chinese overhead imaging attempts.    

The United States maintains its own formidable space intelligence apparatus through the National Reconnaissance Office, which develops and operates advanced reconnaissance satellites with capabilities that remain largely unknown to the public. 

Lerch said it’s important for the U.S. military to understand China’s space ambitions and how the PLA could employ satellites in a military conflict. “And that’s why these things are issues that we consider to be very urgent,” he added. “There doesn’t seem to be anything to suggest that Xi Jinping and the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] are slowing down.”

China’s space-based surveillance capabilities have been tracked by U.S. intelligence for many years, noted Clayton Swope, senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He noted that China’s more advanced reconnaissance satellites could “serve a vital role in a first-strike scenario by locating and aiding in targeting of key U.S. and allied platforms.”

“While clouds will still obscure optical space-based systems and AI algorithms make mistakes,” Swope wrote, “relentless advances in Chinese surveillance capabilities could soon produce an Indo-Pacific region where there is no place to hide.”

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...