As China expands its presence in orbit, the U.S. Space Force continues to express concern about Beijing’s advancing satellite capabilities. The latest cause for alarm is China’s deployment of imaging satellites in geostationary orbit.

China, to be sure, has operated optical imaging satellites in GEO for nearly a decade. Still, the capabilities of these earlier satellites are limited compared to China’s latest additions in 2023.

One that has caught the Space Force’s attention is an advanced optical imaging satellite launched in December, Yaogan-41. With an estimated resolution of 2.5 meters, it brings a significant improvement over previous GEO optical satellites capped at 15-meter resolution. This level of visual fidelity would allow China to spot vehicles, aircraft, and vessels across wide regions.

Another is a GEO-based synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellite, Ludi Tance-4, that can see through clouds and darkness. Paired with the optical resolution of Yaogan-41, China now potentially has persistent visual and radar surveillance over strategically important areas like the Indo-Pacific.

This has defense officials worried. Chief Master Sgt. Ronald Lerch, intelligence specialist at the Space Systems Command, said these new satellites take China’s space-based intelligence gathering to a new level.

Speaking Jan. 30 at an industry conference, Lerch said the U.S. military views Yaogan-41 and Ludi Tance-4 as a qualitative leap in capabilities for tracking and targeting.

Clayton Swope, a former U.S. intelligence official and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, estimates that Yaogan-41 should allow continuous surveillance of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Taiwan, and mainland China.

“Paired with data from other Chinese surveillance satellites, Yaogan-41 could provide China an unprecedented ability to identify and track car-sized objects throughout the entire Indo-Pacific region and put at risk numerous U.S. and allied naval and air assets operating in the region,” he said.

While most remote sensing satellites operate in low Earth orbit for cheaper access and better resolution, it’s notable that China chooses to invest in far more expensive geostationary spacecraft stationed 22,000 miles above Earth, Swope said. It would be difficult to precisely identify small objects from that high orbit, but if there’s a particular item of interest, they would task lower-flying satellites to take a closer look.

Potentially problematic for the U.S. military is that an optical sensor like Yaogan-41, in certain conditions, could spot stealth aircraft designed to be undetected by radar. “If there are no clouds, you could see an aircraft with an optical capability,” Swope said.

The Chinese government said the SAR satellite was designed mostly for civilian use. However, the U.S. military has cast doubts on those claims, given the lack of transparency surrounding Chinese space activities.

“Going forward, the Pentagon should consider that China might be able to detect and track aircraft,” Swope said, “even those designed to evade radar.”

Clouds do obscure optical space sensors, and AI algorithms make mistakes, but “relentless advances in Chinese surveillance capabilities could soon produce an Indo-Pacific region where there is no place to hide,” Swope noted.

It’s no surprise that the U.S. Army’s new guidance on space operations released Jan. 8 recognizes the likelihood that American forces and allies will operate under continuous surveillance. Swope views the Army’s memo as significant, signaling broader awareness of the role of space in all aspects of warfare.

While it may not be possible to conceal activities entirely from satellite observation, U.S. forces on the ground may have to devise techniques to introduce confusion.

Drawing from historical precedents like the Allies’ D-Day deception plan during World War II, the U.S. military could use decoys and diversions to make it more difficult to interpret satellite data and discern genuine from deceptive activities, Swope observed.

Critics may dismiss the Space Force’s warnings about China’s progress in space as alarmist, but it’s important for the Space Force to keep talking about this because all branches of the armed forces would be impacted by what happens in space, Swope said.

“It’s very easy for the space community to talk amongst themselves,” he added. But this is a conversation that needs to extend across the Pentagon and the armed services to better prepare for an era where space dominance correlates with military superiority.

This article first appeared in the “On National Security” commentary feature in the February 2024 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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...