Updated: Dec 27, 2022
Image Courtesy: CNN
Article Courtesy: Hindustan Times
Space has been weaponised for a long time now by all space-faring nations. Space weaponisation refers to using weapons at, to or from space. Space militarisation refers to using space-based assets for military purposes such as for spying or communication by the militaries. The space weapons race well and truly started between the United States (US) and the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1950s, as soon as the first satellite, Sputnik-1, was placed in orbit. A stunned world, just recovering from the devastating World War II was averse to another threat to peace. Thus, was born the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty (OST) in c. 1967. The Fourth Article of the OST specifically bans placing Weapons of Mass Destruction in space and/or celestial bodies. However, it is silent on conventional weapons, and it is this loophole that is being exploited today in weaponizing space. Later agreements like the Moon Treaty or Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) are also either silent or have not found wide acceptance. The Sino-Russian proposal of Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and Threat (PPWT), the European Space Agency’s ‘Code’, as well as the latest US effort, the Artemis Accords, have not progressed much either. China is in a race not only to catch up but also be in a position to set future standards.
The origins of China’s space programme go back to the second artillery regiment of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), now known as the Rocket Forces (PLARF). The space programme was started under it in the 1950s. This is unlike the Indian scenario where civilian (ISRO), and military (DRDO) space activities have been managed entirely separately. The Long-March 1 (LM-1/CZ-1) and LM-2 LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellite launch vehicles were modified versions of their Dong Feng 3 IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) and the DF-5 ICBM.
The space programme of China is deeply embedded into its national objective. Apart from prosperity (or the Chinese dream, fuqiang), the Chinese national objective also emphasises ‘war-fighting and winning.’ Space increasingly plays a pivotal role in its national security strategy. In China’s assessment, the overwhelming space capabilities of the US gives it an undue advantage and that needs to be neutralised before it can re-take lost territories within the First Island Chain and dominate the Second Island Chain and beyond into the Pacific. China also sees space as another area where it must establish its presence and eclipse the US in an all-out competition. The third most important aspect is the exploitation of space resources. All these are to be achieved before the 2049 deadline set by Xi Jinping for the fuqiang.
The establishment in 2015 of the Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) as an independent branch of the PLA has given an impetus to space warfare to fight what China calls ‘informatised’ wars of the future.
It was at the turn of the new millennium that China began to take space very seriously after closely studying the US tactics in Operation Desert Storm. The first task that the Chinese weaponisation project undertook was developing Anti-SATellite (ASAT) weapons in order to disable the preponderant number of US satellites. China conducted cold tests for a Direct Ascent ASAT weapon, Dong Neng-1, which was a modified version of its SC-19 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM), in c. 2005 and 2006 and a real test in 2007 hitting a defunct Chinese weather satellite. An upgraded Dong Neng-2 was tested in 2013 for a non-destructive test of a geostationary satellite. DN-2 is expected to be already operational.
China has also been developing ‘parasitic microsatellites’ which can be released from another satellite in orbit which can then smash into other on-orbit satellites. At such high speeds even a 10 Cm. debris can destroy a satellite, as it happened to our RISAT-1 in c. 2016. Weighing only a few Kilograms, these are relatively inexpensive but effective alternative to ground-based ASAT weapons. They can be built with intelligence to accurately recognise and then destroy an enemy satellite.
Another class of highly effective space weapons, but ground-based, being developed by China is the Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) or lasers. DEWs direct concentrated electromagnetic energy from earth to the satellites affecting their operations, especially their earth-observation sensors. There can also be space-based DEWs. The DEWs can dazzle (that is, temporarily disable), blind (more permanently damage sensors) or even destroy a space asset.
Within a year, China is likely to have space-based chemical laser weapons. Such co-orbital lasers have several advantages to ground-based DEWs as they require far less power and can be far more accurate. China is also working on space-based microwave jammers that would interfere with communication payloads of enemy satellites, and chemical sprays that could damage sensors or solar panels thereby making satellites inoperative. China claims that it has developed a powerful Klystron Amplifier, which generates high-power microwaves, that can be used in co-orbital payloads to jam signals of an adversary’s satellites.
In August 2021, China tested a new class of space-based weapons, the hypersonic Fractional Orbit Bombardment System (FOBS). The FOBS was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s to penetrate the Ballistic Missile Early Warning Systems (BMEWS) of the US at their weakest point. The US, for its own reasons, did not overblow the threat then and it faded away by the 1980s, although the FOBS appeared to be in violation of the then nascent OST. Though the August 2021 test by the Chinese missed the target by some margin, a similar test conducted earlier this year was successful. The FOBS weapon hardly gives a few minutes of window for ABMs to react, unlike in the case of traditional ICBMs.
China’s rapid technological growth in space-related activities poses another problem, namely dual-use of technologies. Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO) are techniques that are used for docking (which is needed, for example, to transfer replacement crew and supplies to International Space Station, ISS), cost-effective satellite refueling (to extend the life of in-operation satellites that have run out of fuel for station-keeping activities), and space debris removal. However, the same technology can also be used to inspect and gather intelligence about enemy space assets, or for co-orbital anti-satellite capability. Robotic arms can be used for mission extension of low-fuel satellites as Intelsat demonstrated in c. 2020 or space debris removal as China’s ShiJian-21 (Roaming Dragon, SJ-21) satellite demonstrated in January 2022 when it grabbed a defunct BeiDou navigation satellite in Geostationary Earth Orbit and placed it in a graveyard orbit far above, thus acting as a ‘space tug’. While this is a useful space-debris cleaning exercise for non-cooperative targets, this can also be employed for offensive space purposes against other nations’ satellites. This makes Space Situational Awareness (SSA) increasingly imperative for major space-faring nations like India to protect their space assets.
The PLASSF is also tasked with conducting electronic warfare (EW) which involves acquiring or interfering with an adversary’s electronic transmission. It comprises of ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) and COMINT/SIGINT (Communication/Signal Intelligence). In its broad scope, the former involves mapping all emissions of electromagnetic energy from enemy land or aircraft carrier or airborne early-warning systems. SIGINT involves capturing electronic communication occurring among various entities of the enemy. Some of the TJS-series (Tongxin Jishu Shiyan) of Chinese satellites are ELINT satellites located in GEO while some others are early-warning systems which can detect missile launches with their Infra-red (IR) seekers.
China also operates other types of intelligence-gathering satellites. The Yaogan satellites, also known by their military nomenclature Jianbing, are a large number of assorted satellites which employ synthetic aperture radars (SARs), and electro-optical (EO) sensors. The SAR Yaogan usually operate in polar orbits and provide better than one metre resolution. The Yaogan-30 Ocean Surveillance Satellites are launched in triplets in close proximity to each other to locate Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) through signal intelligence and triangulation. These satellites, cue the ground-launched DF-21D/DF-26B missiles and ship-launched YJ-21 anti-ship ballistic missiles (AShBM) to their target, and are their backbone to implementing the Area Denial/Access Denial (A2/D2) in the First and Second Island Chains. It is believed that China will eventually operate 18 triplets of these important satellites, which would provide a constant surveillance of the Pacific and the Indo-China Sea in order to defeat the American Nuclear Aircraft Carriers (CVNs).
China has followed the two space superpowers, the US and Russia, in developing its space assets and weapon technologies. What add to the nervousness about the Chinese space developments are its opaque nature and its hegemonic ambitions based on millennia-old Middle Kingdom belief system. As an irredentist China’s neighbour with which we have fought militarily, we have to beware of its space weapon capabilities so that we can defend ourselves. Our 2017 ASAT test came as a result of this assessment. It is well past time for our Defence Space Agency (DSA) to develop offensive space capabilities.
(Subramanyam Sridharan is the Distinguished Member, C3S. The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)