How China plans to disrupt GPS through ASAT in 2020 & beyond

China is likely will field a ground-based laser weapon that can counter low-orbit space-based sensors by 2020, and by the mid-to-late 2020s, it may field higher power systems that extend the threat to the structures of non-optical satellites. 

China to enhance space power by 2020

A declassified Pentagon report last month said that "China is likely will field a ground-based laser weapon that can counter low-orbit space-based sensors by 2020, and by the mid-to-late 2020s, it may field higher power systems that extend the threat to the structures of non-optical satellites." 

China had tested its first anti-satellite (ASAT) missile back in 2007 when it destroyed a defunct weather satellite. 

In recent years there has been speculation that it tested the ASAT a few more times although it couldn't be confirmed as China consistently denied it, however, the Pentagon report stated that "China plans to use high-energy ground-based lasers in a future war to disrupt Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites that provide pinpoint targeting of US missiles." 

After India tested its ASAT on Wednesday, in a cryptic reply China's foreign ministry said it hoped that "each country will uphold peace and tranquillity in outer space". 

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Deployed more than 120 satellites for military

The declassified US intelligence pointed out that China has deployed more than 120 satellites for its military, including the first quantum communications satellite.

"The People's Liberation Army (PLA) routinely incorporates jamming and anti-jamming techniques against multiple commu­nication, radar systems, and GPS satellite systems in exercises," the report said.

"The PLA unit responsible for conducting signals intelligence has supported cyberespionage against US and European satellite and aerospace industries since at least 2007," it added.

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China is major threat to satellites placed in orbit

US Air Force was especially concerned in 2015 after speculation grew that China had tested an ASAT missile in 2014. Reports said the US Congress added $32 million to Air Force's space budget to study future anti-satellite capabilities, including offensive and "active defence" capabilities. 

The International outer space treaty has a major lacuna in that in does not disallow conventional weaponry in orbit and bans only weapons of mass destruction in orbit and outer space, nations including China have taken full advantage of the gap and stepped up its anti-missile hunt. 

India may have entered the ASAT race on Wednesday but China has ramped up its arsenal in the last ten years and is now being seen as a major threat to safety of satellites placed in orbit which include military and communication satellites. 

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China’s space program continues to mature rapidly

A US defence report last year had pointed out that "China is stepping up the militarisation of space despite public statements to the contrary".

China’s space program continues to mature rapidly, the Defense Department report noted. 

"China is developing multiple counter space capabilities to degrade and deny adversary use of space-based assets during a crisis or conflict," it said. 

In 2017, China launched 18 SLVs, of which 16 were successful, orbiting some 31 spacecraft, including communications, navigation, ISR, and test/engineering satellites, the report said. 

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China's new technology applied to counter space mission

"The PLA is acquiring a range of technologies to improve China’s counter space capabilities. In addition to the development of  weapons and satellite jammers, China is also developing direct-ascent and co-orbital kinetic kill capabilities and has probably made progress on the anti-satellite missile system it tested in July 2014," the US Defense Department report said. 

China is employing more sophisticated satellite operations and is probably testing dual-use technologies in space that could be applied to counterspace missions," it said. 

"The PLA in recent years has emphasized the importance of cyberspace as a new domain of national security and an arena for strategic competition," the report pointed out. 

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Cyber capabilities can help understand enemy’s trend

During wartime, cyber capabilities can “help the PLA understand the enemy’s trend, help the troops plan the combat operations, and ensure victory on the battlefield.” 

The establishment of the Special Security Force (SSF) may represent the first step in developing a cyber force that creates efficiencies by combining cyber reconnaissance, attack, and defence capabilities into one organisation, the US Department of Defense report said.  

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India has a lot of catching up to do

Clearly, India has a lot of catching up to do if it has to take on China's ASAT capability in the years to come. DRDO chairman G Satheesh Reddy had announced on Wednesday that the country now possesses the capability to strike satellites in outer space with centimetre-level accuracy and precision.

Reddy, who oversaw the top-secret operation, said the government accorded clearance to the project around two years back with an aim to deter threats to the country's space assets.

Compared to this, China tested its missile way back in 2007 having researched it for several decades earlier. India, however, has developed its capability indigenously, now it will have to ensure that further research and development continues on the project and investment, including government support for the mega-project continues. 

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China targets US GPS system but that's not easy

For China to target the US GPS system would require destroying a constellation of at least 30 satellites which although not likely in the near future but it cannot be said is not possible for the Chinese military. It would also require launching several ASATs simultaneously which at the moment China cannot do as it has several constraints. 

The collateral damage would be tremendous and it will have to brace for a whole scale US counter-attack. 

The effect of debris too will be substantial which will consequently switch-off many satellites operating at present. 

It may sound like a Star Wars movie sequence but the march of technology and China's military and space ambition has left several nations including India to develop its own defense mechanism.

The future is clearly not certain. 

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