A new Pentagon report on threats in space warns that China and Russia are both developing capabilities to threaten the US’ preeminent position, including lasers that could target and destroy US satellites.
“China and Russia, in particular, are developing a variety of means to exploit perceived US reliance on space-based systems and challenge the US position in space,” the Defense Intelligence Agency report said.
The report, which was published Monday, is titled “Challenges to Security in Space,” and examines Russian, Chinese, Iranian and North Korean space capabilities.
US satellites play a critical role in everything from navigation, weapons targeting and intelligence gathering, including keeping tabs on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and monitoring Russian and Chinese military activity.
They also house sensors involved in detecting enemy missile launches.
The report comes as the Chinese government has been increasingly stepping up its space program, becoming the first nation to land a probe on the far side of the moon in January.
The growth of China’s space capabilities and the need to help safeguard US satellites have been cited by the Trump administration as a reason why the US needs a Space Force.
The Chinese government said Tuesday that the report is “completely without foundation.”
“What is alarming and concerning is that the US has defined the outer space as combat territory, announcing to build a space troop, frequently conducting outer space military drills,” Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters.
The report details a variety of Russian and Chinese anti-satellite weapons, including electronic warfare systems, directed-energy weapons and “kinetic” anti-satellite missiles.
It says both Beijing and Moscow are “likely” pursuing “laser weapons to disrupt, degrade, or damage satellites and their sensors.”
“China likely will field a ground-based laser weapon that can counter low-orbit space-based sensors by 2020, and by the mid-to-late 2020s, it may field higher power systems that extend the threat to the structures of non-optical satellites,” the report says.
It adds that China “possibly already has a limited capability to employ laser systems against satellite sensors.”
The report says that Russia had delivered a laser weapon to its Aerospace Forces prior to July 2018, which is likely intended for an anti-satellite mission.
“Russia is also developing an airborne (anti-satellite) laser weapon system to use against space-based missile defense sensors,” the report says.
The Trump administration is actively considering placing advanced sensors in space as part of its recent Missile Defense Review, which was unveiled last month.
The report warns that China also has an operational missile capable of hitting satellites in low-Earth orbit while Russia is in the process of developing one.
The Chinese military “has an operational ground-based (anti-satellite) missile intended to target (low-Earth orbit) satellites,” the report said, adding that “China has also formed military units that have begun training with (anti-satellite) missiles.”
The report says Russia is “likely” developing “a ground-based, mobile missile system capable of destroying space targets” in low-Earth orbit in addition to ballistic missiles.
“This weapon system is likely to be operational within the next several years,” the report adds.
The report says Russia and China are also developing “inspection and servicing” satellites that could also be used to conduct attacks on satellites in orbit.
‘The future of war’
US and China have seen relations deteriorate grow across a range of fronts in the past year, from trade tensions with the Trump administration to diplomatic and military disputes.
On his first full day on the job in January, acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told senior leaders at the Pentagon to “remember China, China, China.”
One area of relative cooperation so far has been in space exploration. Despite starting far behind the US, Beijing is rapidly advancing its space program.
China is planning to land its first probe on Mars by the end of 2020 with the aim of sending a manned mission in the following years.
But Rep. Mike Rogers, then-chairman of the US House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, told CNN in 2018 “the future of war will be fought in space.”
“Russia and China are surpassing us in space capabilities, and we need to dedicate a separate force solely with a space mission,” he said.