The biggest strategic and tactical advantages we have over our adversaries are probably the enormous capabilities that our hundreds of military and intelligence satellites provide. Among those capabilities are to communicate over secure channels, to navigate and target weapons with great precision, to give near-instant warning of missile launches and to spy on other nations’ communications and military movements.
Were we to lose even a substantial number of these satellites in any conflict, we’d also lose those advantages. Other nations have satellite capabilities, but none are equal to ours.
Logically, then, any enemy planning to fight a war against us would invest heavily in capabilities to destroy or cripple our critical satellites. According to the Nov. 29 Pentagon report “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China in 2022,” that is precisely what China is doing.
The report says, in part: “The PRC continues to develop a variety of counterspace capabilities designed to limit or prevent an adversary’s use of space-based assets during crisis or conflict. In addition to the development of directed-energy weapons and satellite jammers, the [People’s Liberation Army] has an operational ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) missile intended to target low-Earth orbit satellites, and the PRC probably intends to pursue additional ASAT weapons capable of destroying satellites up to geosynchronous Earth orbit.”
The report goes on to say: “The PLA probably views counterspace operations as a means to deter and counter a U.S. intervention during a regional military conflict. Moreover, PRC defense academics suggest that reconnaissance, communication, navigation, and early warning satellites could be among the targets of attacks designed to “blind and deafen the enemy.”
China’s “counterspace” capabilities have been in development for decades and are improving rapidly. We are far behind China in counter-space systems and in protecting our satellites.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula is dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He told The Washington Times: “The Chinese threat to our space systems is now, not in the future. For example, they are attacking our civil and military systems on a daily basis with cyber intrusions and probing our space systems as well with a variety of means.”
Fifteen years ago — which is ancient history in technological terms — China destroyed one of its own weather satellites by ramming it with another orbiting object. Now, it aims to attack our satellites with cyberweapons and to “kill” them with other weapons, including directed-energy weapons (lasers, etc.), killer satellites and ground-based missiles.
Every satellite has communications channels to receive and transmit information. That means the communications channel can be jammed, or it can be used for a cyberwar attack on the satellite.
Think about the effect those cyber interferences could have. One effect would be for GPS satellites to be thrown off a few degrees, making it harder for combat aircraft and missiles to find the places they’re supposed to attack.
The worst effects — in war or in leading up to an open conflict — could see many or most of our mission-essential satellites destroyed or jammed, which would literally leave us deaf, dumb and blind.
In any open war, China would launch several kinds of attacks against our satellites. Some would be destroyed by directed-energy weapons, others by hunter-killer satellites and ground-launched missiles. When — not if — the Chinese try to take over Taiwan, we can expect them to use any and all of those weapons to knock out our satellites.
The effects on our intelligence-gathering capabilities would be immense. Adm. Stansfield Turner, Jimmy Carter’s CIA director, decided that we would rely on satellites instead of human spies on the ground. The CIA has tried to regrow its “Humint” capability, but in the case of closed societies such as Iran, China and Russia, it is probably close to nil.
That brings us to the question of whether our defensive capabilities can be effective against what the Chinese are planning for our satellites. The answer is that we have few or none of the satellite defenses we need.
As Gen. Deptula told us, “Almost all current on-orbit satellites were designed and launched with a benign space environment in mind. They are examples of what the former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. John Hyten, referred to as ‘big juicy targets.’ They are far too vulnerable, a situation we need to remedy quickly.” That’s a tall order.
Our satellite builders must be trying to make our satellites secure from cyberattacks, but nothing can be totally safe against such attacks. It’s conceivable that a U.S. satellite could be interfered with or taken over to be used against us.
To protect satellites from kinetic attack would require us to replace those in orbit with others that are hardened against laser attack and resistant to the detonation of nearby enemy satellites. Protection from ground-based weapons will require constant monitoring and maneuverability.
Protecting our satellites will take years and cost tens of billions of dollars. It must be done because space is no longer a benign environment. If, as many of us expect, China will try to conquer Taiwan by 2025, our time to act has already run out. If only President Biden weren’t oblivious to this critical need.
• Jed Babbin is a national security and foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Times and contributing editor for The American Spectator.
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