The new U.S. Space Force needs new offensive weapons and more sophisticated defenses to counter China’s rapid deployment of multiple space arms that would pose major dangers for the U.S. military in a future conflict, according to an extensive new study.
The report published by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies June 26 found that, unlike China, the U.S. military largely shunned the idea of deploying space weapons following the end of the Cold War.
“The United States must take urgent action to respond to this mounting threat or risk losing its ability to deter Chinese aggression and maintain peace in key regions around the globe,” the report states.
Additionally, the report warns that the Biden administration’s renewed emphasis on diplomacy and engagement in seeking norms of space behavior will not be enough to deter conflict with Beijing. China views the vulnerability of U.S. satellites as a key strategic advantage in a future war.
“U.S. combatant commanders should have a wide range of options for offensive counterspace operations to defeat space-enabled attacks in the event of a major conflict with China,” the report states.
The report stops short of directly calling for deployment of ground-based anti-satellite missiles, similar to those fielded by China and Russia. Instead, the Space Force should be equipped with weapons that can “responsibly” attack or disable Chinese satellites without creating major orbiting fields of debris.
Recommended weapons include ground-based and space-based lasers, jammers and other directed energy systems, as well as better defenses for satellites, such as larger fuel tanks that increase the ability to maneuver away from space threats.
The report was written by retired Space Force Col. Charles Galbreath, a former command space operator who until recently was deputy chief technology and innovation officer at Space Force headquarters.
“Russia and China have developed counterspace capabilities specifically to attack U.S. space systems,” Col. Galbreath told The Washington Times. “The U.S. must be prepared to respond in a credible and proportional manner. Ongoing efforts to establish norms of responsible behavior, improve space domain awareness, and increase resilience are all necessary, but insufficient at deterring our potential adversaries from attacking our space capabilities.”
The report warned that additional debris in space could produce a cascading series of collisions of satellites in low-Earth orbit known as the Kessler Syndrome, after astrophysicist Donald J. Kessler. A Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test in 2007 created a huge field of high-speed orbiting debris that threatens spacecraft, as did a more recent Russian ASAT test.
The Biden administration announced last year a unilateral imposition moratorium on ASAT missile tests that can cause space debris. China and Russia have both rejected imposing similar moratoriums.
“China and Russia have a history of rejecting the West’s call for space norms and limits while putting forward their own self-serving versions,” the report said.
Despite growing space arsenals by both China and Russia, currently, the four-year-old U.S. Space Force has just one single known weapon in its arsenal, an electronic jammer called the counter communication system (CCS). The jammer can interrupt some Chinese military systems that could target American and allied forces in the conflict, the report said.
By contrast, China has built an array of offensive space weapons that include ground-launched missiles now capable of hitting U.S. satellites in all orbits; satellites with robotic arms that can maneuver and crush satellites; lasers and jammers that can disrupt or damage satellites; and advanced cyber weapons capable of targeting satellites and their ground links.
The report notes the Space Force jammer “alone will not effectively protect U.S. space capabilities, nor does it have the capacity to hold the increasing number of Chinese space capabilities at risk. Responsible counterspace campaigning will require more.”
A Space Force spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.
“But,” she added, “I’d like to emphasize that weapon systems, for the Space Force and other services, are not inherently offensive or defensive. While the Space Force prefers that space remain free of conflict, we’re committed to protecting U.S. space capabilities and defending the joint force from space-enabled attack.”
Preparing to deploy
Space Force Chief of Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman told Congress in April that the service plans to deploy a “substantial” new military counterspace system by 2026.
The Mitchell Institute report said a single new counterpace weapon will not be enough to address “the scope and magnitude of threats and potential targets that are now confronting the Space Force.”
Space attacks were demonstrated in the opening days of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Russian forces used cyber and radio frequency attacks to block Ukraine from accessing satellite communications and GPS navigation.
China’s kinetic and non-kinetic space weaponry were developed in the years after 2001 — when the Pentagon was focused for nearly two decades on the war on terrorism. During that period, China’s People’s Liberation Army deployed multiple offensive weapons targeting U.S. and allied satellites.
“These fielded weapons include ground-based electronic warfare, directed energy, and kinetic [anti-satellite] missile systems,” the report said. “They also demonstrated technologies related to on-orbit counterspace weapons.”
China also has a different view of space warfare deterrence that includes, at a later stage of a crisis, “an over-awing space strike.” The attack could involve simultaneous attacks on multiple U.S. space systems with several types of weapons.
New space arms for the Chinese military include satellites equipped with powerful lasers or microwave guns that can disrupt satellites. Also a concern is the PLA’s orbiting hypersonic missile, known as a fractional orbital bombardment system, that can destroy ground targets. The system was tested two years ago.
“By attacking critical U.S. space systems, China could reduce the American military’s overall ability to see, communicate, navigate, project power and command and control its forces,” the report said. “The net result would be American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Guardians at increased risk from attack and unable to prevent China from achieving its objectives.”
For example, Chinese space attacks eliminating missile warning satellites and position, navigation and timing satellites would “have devastating, potentially decisive consequences for U.S. military operations,” the report said.
An even more powerful threat would unfold if China attacked the entire GPS constellation, the report said.
Destroying the GPS system would make military operations more difficult and also would damage a global economy that is reliant on GPS for the power grids, global banking networks and communications lines that enable the local, regional, and international transit of goods.
Col. Galbreath, author of the study, said the United States must act quickly to develop and deploy counterspace systems.
“A U.S. failure to field counterspace capabilities will erode our deterrent posture and place our military at increased risk,” he warned. “The United States did not want to be in this position, but the actions of Russia and China have led us to this reality and we must be prepared to respond.”
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