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Russia, China developing missiles to destroy US satellites

Satellites (Thegreenj/WikiCommons)
April 12, 2022

Russia and China have both been actively developing space weapons capabilities in recent years, including new anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles that could destroy U.S. satellites in orbit, a new U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report revealed on Tuesday.

The DIA’s “Challenges to Security in Space — 2022” report provided to American Military News on Tuesday said, “As China’s and Russia’s space and counterspace capabilities increase, both nations are integrating space scenarios into their military exercises. They continue to develop, test, and proliferate sophisticated antisatellite (ASAT) weapons to hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk.”

“Adversary ASAT missiles can be used to attack satellites in [low Earth orbit] and would produce massive amounts of debris that can remain in orbit for decades or even centuries,” the report added.

Russia and China’s ASAT missiles could effectively weaponize space and severely hinder U.S. military operations if U.S. satellites are targeted.

“The loss of space-based communication and navigation services could have a devastating impact on warfighters during a conflict — that’s one of the most serious scenarios anticipated,” DIA Director Lt. Gen. Scott
Berrier said Tuesday. “A secure, stable and accessible space domain is crucial as China and Russia’s space-based capabilities and electronic-warfare activities continue to grow.”

The report noted China tested an ASAT missile against one of its own defunct weather satellites in 2007. The missile created a debris cloud consisting of “more than 3,000 pieces of trackable space debris, of which
more than 2,700 remain in orbit.” The DIA said the debris generated by China’s 2007 ASAT missile test will continue to orbit the Earth for decades to come.

The DIA report also noted a Russian ASAT missile test in November of last year, which created a similar debris field around Earth. The Russian missile test forced astronauts aboard the International Space Station to take emergency sheltering precautions.

Russia is developing multiple ASAT missile systems for its military including a ground-based mobile missile system called Nudol. The Nudol missile system was reportedly used in Russia’s November satellite shoot-down and can destroy ballistic missiles and low-orbiting satellites.

The DIA also noted a Russian air-launched ASAT missile system called Burevestnik, which could be carried by a Russian military aircraft, such as a MiG-31 fighter jet, and deployed against satellites in low earth orbit.

Russia has also been developing ASAT weapons that are intended to be employed by other space-based systems. The DIA report noted multiple instances in which systems Russia has described as “inspector satellites” deployed from other Russian space-based satellites and began to follow U.S. satellites. These so-called “inspector satellites” could “kinetically kill satellites” operating in low-earth orbit.

The report noted other ways Russia and China could interfere with U.S. satellites.

China’s Shijian-17 satellite is one particular system the DIA said has a robotic arm that “could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.”

The DIA said China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is expanding its abilities in electronic warfare (EW) including practicing “jamming and antijamming techniques that probably are intended to deny multiple types
of space-based communications, radar systems, and GPS navigation support to military movement and precision-guided munitions employment.” The PLA is also reportedly developing methods to specifically jam satellite-based synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) systems, which are used for both satellite mapping and weapons targeting. China could use these anti-SAR jamming systems to prevent U.S. reconnaissance satellites from being able to effectively map various areas in peacetime, or deny weapons targeting abilities during a conflict with the U.S. or its allies.

The DIA reported Russia has already “fielded a wide range of ground-based EW systems to counter GPS, tactical communications, [satellite communicatins], and radars.” The DIA noted instances of Russian forces using EW systems to jam GPS-enabled capabilities on drones in Syria.

The DIA assessed China’s military is also working on cyberspace capabilities to help target space-based systems.

Russia also has already developed directed energy weapons (DEWs), such as lasers that can “blind satellite sensors.” The DIA report noted Russia began fielding its Peresvet laser system in 2018 and noted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s public statements about the weapon, including that it could be used for “fighting satellites in orbit.”

China is also developing DEW systems that could either temporarily dazzle satellite electro-optical sensors or outright destroy satellite components.

In its report, the DIA also assessed Russia and China’s combined fleets of in-orbit space satellites had grown by about 70 percent between 2019 and 2021.

China oversaw the largest expansion in its satellite fleet, doubling the number of active satellites from about 250 in 2019 to about 500 by 2021. Russia exhibited more modest growth in its number of active satellites during the same time period.