The US is concerned about China’s expanding ability to disrupt the most sensitive US military and intelligence satellites, as Beijing pursues its expanded ambitions in space, according to multiple sources in the US government and outside space experts.
A classified US intelligence assessment completed late last year analyzed China’s increasing activities in space and mapped out the growing vulnerability of US satellites that provide secure military communications, warn about enemy missile launches and provide precise targeting coordinates, said the sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
“It was a very credible and sobering assessment that is now provoking a lot of activities in different quarters,” said one former government official who is familiar with US national security satellite programs.
The intelligence report raised red flags about Beijing’s ability to disrupt satellites in higher orbits, which could put the most sensitive US spacecraft at risk, according to the sources. China has already conducted several anti-satellite tests at lower orbital levels in recent years.
Given the heightened concerns, Washington is keeping a watchful eye on Chinese activities that could be used to disrupt US satellites. It is also urging Beijing to avoid a repeat of its January 2007 test that created an enormous amount of “space junk,” one senior defense official said.
Details of the latest Chinese moves that have raised US concerns remain classified.
US officials charge that China’s anti-satellite activities are part of a major military modernization that has seen Beijing test two new stealth fighters, step up cyber attacks on foreign computer networks and launch more commercial and military satellites last year than the US.
China still lags behind the US in most military fields.
“What we’re seeing is a heightened sense in the United States that China is a potential threat and that it has the technology to be a threat if it wishes to,” said Jonathan McDowell, with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“As China becomes a space superpower, and given that it does have a significant military component to its space program, it is inevitable that the US will be concerned about threats to its most valued satellite systems, whether or not China actually intends to deploy such aggressive systems,” he said.
Six years ago, on Jan. 11, 2007, China destroyed one of its own defunct weather satellites in low-earth orbit, which created over 10,000 pieces of debris that pose a threat to other spacecraft. A less-destructive test followed on Jan. 11, 2010.
Space experts and US officials say they expect China to continue testing anti-satellite technologies, although they doubt it would repeat the 2007 test, given the massive international outcry it triggered.
Gregory Kulacki, a respected researcher with the Union of Concerned Scientists, reported earlier this month on the group’s Web site that there was “a strong possibility” of a new anti-satellite test by China within the next few weeks.
He said Chinese sources had told him in November last year that an announcement about an upcoming anti-satellite test had been circulated within the Chinese government, and a high-ranking US defense official confirmed last month that Washington was “very concerned” about an imminent Chinese anti-satellite test.
The Pentagon said it was aware of reports predicting another test, but declined comment on what it called “intelligence matters.”