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A Summary of China’s Counterspace Capabilities

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
April 21, 2020
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China’s 2007 test of its ground-based ASAT missile destroyed one of its own defunct satellites in LEO. The graphic depicts the orbits of trackable debris generated by the test 1 month after the event. The white line represents the International Space Station’s orbit. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Global Counterspace Capabilities:
An Open Source Assessment

Secure World Foundation
April 2020

Full Report

The following excerpt from the report summarizes China’s counterspace capabilities.

The evidence strongly indicates that China has a sustained effort to develop a broad range of counterspace capabilities. China has conducted multiple tests of technologies for rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) in both low earth orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous orbit (GEO) that could lead to a co-orbital ASAT capability.

However, as of yet, the public evidence indicates they have not conducted an actual destructive co-orbital intercept of a target, and there is no public proof that these RPO technologies are definitively being developed for counterspace use as opposed to intelligence gathering or other purposes.

Credit: Secure World Foundation

China has at least one, and possibly as many as three, programs underway to develop direct ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) capabilities, either as dedicated counterspace systems or as midcourse missile defense systems that could provide counterspace capabilities.

China has engaged in multiple, progressive tests of these capabilities since 2005, indicating a serious and sustained organizational effort. Chinese DA-ASAT capability against LEO targets is likely mature and likely operationally fielded on mobile launchers.

Chinese DA-ASAT capability against deep space targets – both medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and GEO – is likely still in the experimental or development phase, and there is not sufficient evidence to conclude whether there is an intent to develop it as an operational capability in the future.

China likely has sophisticated capabilities for jamming or spoofing space-based positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) capabilities. There are multiple open source reports of Chinese military PNT jammers being deployed on islands in the South China Sea as well as reports of sophisticated, widespread spoofing of civil GPS signals near the port of Shanghai.

China is likely to be developing directed energy weapons (DEW) for counterspace use, although public details are scarce. There is strong evidence of dedicated research and development and reports of testing at three different locations, but limited details on the operational status and maturity of any fielded capabilities.

China is developing a sophisticated network of ground-based optical telescopes and radars for detecting, tracking, and characterizing space objects as part of its space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities. Like the United States and Russia, several of the Chinese SSA radars also serve missile warning functions.

While China lacks an extensive network of SSA tracking assets outside its borders, it does have a fleet of tracking ships and is developing relationships with countries that may host future sensors. Since 2010, China has deployed several satellites capable of conducting RPO on orbit, which likely aid in its ability to characterize and collect intelligence on foreign satellites.

Although official Chinese statements on space warfare and weapons have remained consistently aligned to the peaceful purposes of outer space, privately they have become more nuanced. China has recently designated space as a military domain, and military writings state that the goal of space warfare and operations is to achieve space superiority using offensive and defensive means in connection with their broader strategic focus on asymmetric cost imposition, access denial, and information dominance.

China has recently re-organized its space and counterspace forces, as part of a larger military re-organization, and placed them in a new major force structure that also has control over electronic warfare and cyber. That said, it is uncertain whether China would fully utilize its offensive counterspace capabilities in a future conflict or whether the goal is to use them as a deterrent against U.S. aggression. There is no public evidence of China actively using counterspace capabilities in current military operations.