China and Russia are building up the ability to blind and destroy the world’s satellites. Such a war in space would create large clouds of space debris and make near-Earth orbit unusable for decades to come.
Top military officials from the U.S., Canada and Australia are currently meeting in Sydney for a conference on how to counter the growing threats created by China and Russia’s increasing deployment of anti-space weapons.
China and Russia have shown increasing cooperation after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Both countries have been developing large numbers of ground-based anti-satellite missiles. Russia tested such a missile last year, using it to destroy one of its own dead satellites. The test caused a large cloud of space debris made up of thousands of pieces of metal flying at very high speeds. Each one of these pieces can severely damage or even destroy any of the world’s thousands of active satellites and space stations that are increasingly crowding the limited space around Earth.
China also tested one of its own ground-based anti-satellite missiles in 2007, creating a similar debris cloud that is still endangering space vehicles. Just last year, the U.S. tracked a Chinese satellite and observed that it used something like a grappling arm to move a dead Chinese satellite out of orbit. This caused great concern among the U.S.’ military officials, as such a satellite would be able to grab U.S. military satellites and push them into a graveyard orbit, effectively making them useless.
Apart from missiles and China’s grappling satellites, both China and Russia are also fielding ground-based lasers that can blind, degrade or damage the lenses of U.S. surveillance satellites. Analysts predict China will have ground-based lasers powerful enough to damage the actual structures of satellites by 2025, with Russia gaining that capability by 2030. These two nations plus Iran and North Korea are also fielding increasing numbers of electronic warfare systems that can jam enemy satellites, thereby degrading or denying communications with such satellites.
All these developments are of serious concern for the U.S. and its allies, as U.S. forces in particular are highly dependent on friendly satellites to track enemy forces, to give early warning of enemy missile strikes, and to guide long-range precision weapons to their targets. Russia and especially China have also been launching multiple Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) satellites, enabling both sides to track U.S. aircraft carriers, strike forces, and air wings as they move around. China has specifically built up this ISR capability over the Indo-Pacific. Used in conjunction with China’s new long-range ballistic ship-killer missiles, these satellites pose a grave threat to U.S. aircraft carriers, ships and ground forces in the Indo-Pacific theater.
By building up their counter-space capabilities, each of these countries could severely cripple the Pentagon’s ability to use its long-range missiles and drones with precision. It would also degrade the ability of U.S. forces to communicate and integrate over long distances, as most of these capabilities depend on shared communication with GPS and communications satellites.
All indications are that any theoretical future conflict between the U.S. and China or Russia would reach up into space. The people of Earth might soon have to look on helplessly as large numbers of satellites are destroyed above them, resulting in huge debris clouds that would make it almost impossible to field satellites in near and mid Earth orbit for decades to come. Such an event would not only severely impact military operations but also cripple vital global satellite-dependent services like GPS, banking systems, and communication systems.
Image: ESO – G. Hüdepohl