Senior US military officials are making the case for a new generation of space weapons in a sign of their concern about China’s extraterrestrial capabilities, including its recent development of a rival version of GPS.
Brigadier General Shawn Bratton, deputy director of operations at the new US Space Command in Colorado, told the Financial Times the US has no space-based weapons but believes China has been developing them.
At potential risk are the military and civilian satellites that play a crucial role in US defences and the global economy. Military planners are particularly worried that with its own GPS, known as BeiDou, China could seek to disable the US satellite navigation system in the event of a conflict.
“I would like to have more capability than I do today,” Brig Gen Bratton said. “We have so much capability on orbit that we have to be able to defend it.”
He said any spacecraft theoretically could be turned into a weapon by ploughing it into another spaceship, but that it was “very difficult” to do. He said this pointed to a need for weapons built for space, to go alongside existing options including satellite jammers and missiles fired from Earth.
“To give [the secretary of defence and the president] a space option is absolutely where we need to go,” he said.
The Pentagon’s annual China military power report, released on Tuesday, said China was continuing to develop space capabilities including kinetic-kill missiles, ground-based lasers, orbiting space robots and missiles designed to target satellites in low-Earth orbit.
It said China wanted to develop weapons that could destroy spacecraft farther away in geosynchronous orbit, where key communications, weather, missile-launch and nuclear-detection satellites reside.
Bruce McClintock, who heads the Rand Space Enterprise Initiative, said China was developing GPS jammers and incorporating them into major exercises. He said Beijing had continued to test offensive space weapons in secret since it sent a missile to explode a satellite in low-Earth orbit in 2007, a weapons test US officials describe as a “wake-up call”.
In recent years, military analysts have identified a handful of Chinese missile tests performed at high altitudes as likely involving China’s Dongfeng series of anti-satellite missiles.
Mark Milley, America’s top uniformed military official, told the FT the US was working to “build our capacity” in space and in cyber, adding the creation of the US Space Force and US Space Command late last year spoke to the seriousness with which the US military was taking “these vital areas of national security”.
Gen Milley, who is chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, stopped short of calling for weapons in space but said “the first shots of a future war between great powers is likely to be in space and cyber”.
“Any discussion of a future conflict must begin with a conversation of deterrence and what can be done, as a joint force, to prevent our adversaries from open conflict,” he said.
The first 10-year US classified defence space strategy, released publicly only in summary in June, commits the defence department to be capable of winning wars that extend into space, acknowledging it has only “limited operational experience with conflict beginning in or extending into space”.
No generally agreed deterrence theory exists for space, but such approaches have traditionally relied on the threat of deploying overwhelming force to discourage others. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans nuclear weapons in space, leaving the field open to other weapons, such as ground-based jammers and anti-satellite missiles.
US military officials have been alarmed by the number of space launches by China in recent years. Thirty-two successful launches occurred last year and more than 40 are forecast for this year. In June, Beijing completed its constellation of 35 BeiDou third-generation satellites, which run the country’s alternative to GPS.
China has promoted BeiDou as an alternative to GPS to regional partners as part of its “belt and road” initiative, a high-profile investment plan to build up its trade ties and geopolitical clout across Eurasia. Beijing has already approved the military-grade version for use by Pakistan.
Jana Robinson, who leads space security at the Prague Security Studies Institute, said China had assisted 60 countries with 125 space transactions to date. She characterised such assistance, which often involved large-scale financing, as an attempt to expand China’s global space footprint and “capture” the space sector for geopolitical ends by inducing dependency or even control over the space sectors of recipient countries.
Wang Yiwei, an international relations scholar at Renmin University in Beijing, said China’s development of BeiDou was a natural step for a country of its size and should not be seen as part of a space arms race.
“It’s not as if everyone only using GPS would make the world peaceful,” he said. “As for whether China will try to take out GPS, I don’t think China has the ability or the inclination. That’s how America thinks.”
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing