China, Russia Building Attack Satellites and Space Lasers: Pentagon Report

By Patrick Tucker

February 12, 2019

China and Russia are developing lasers and a host of other anti-satellite weapons, according to a new Defense Intelligence Agency report that fleshes out concerns that Pentagon leaders have been highlighting for years.

Both states are developing jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, on-orbit capabilities, and ground-based anti satellite missiles that can achieve a range of reversible to nonreversible effects,” the report said.

Both also maintain networks of telescopes, radars, and satellites to track, characterize — and perhaps even target — U.S. satellites that watch enemy movements and missile launches, the report said.

It also includes a helpful graphic of various anti-satellite satellites that may one day exist.

An illustration of potential satellite threats, from the Defense Intelligence Agency

China is “likely” building anti-satellite laser weapons and may already have a “limited capability to employ laser systems against satellite sensors,” says the report. DIA estimates that China will deploy a terrestrial laser that can shoot down satellites in low Earth orbit by 2020 and may be able to hit targets in geostationary orbit “by the mid-2020s.”

Related: Pentagon to Study Putting Anti-Missile Laser Weapons in Space

Related: Pentagon: We’re Closer Than Ever to Lasers That Can Stop Iranian, North Korean Missiles

Related: Russia Claims It Now Has Lasers To Shoot Satellites

China is also developing satellites that can perform on-orbit inspection — basically satellites that can repair other satellites, which is cheaper than replacing them.  The United States is also developing on-orbit repair capabilities. But the report notes that “at least some [repair satellites] could also function as a weapon. China has launched multiple satellites to conduct scientific experiments on space maintenance technologies and it is conducting space debris cleanup research.”

Russia is also developing laser weapons to target adversary satellites. The DIA report said, “Russia began delivering a laser weapon system to the Aerospace Forces that likely is intended for an [anti-satellite] mission.”

Russia, too, is heavily invested in space-based attack satellites, the report said. “In 2017, Russia deployed what it described as an ‘inspector satellite capable of diagnosing the technical condition of a Russian satellite from the closest possible distance’; however, its behavior is inconsistent with on-orbit inspection activities or space situational awareness capabilities.”

In many ways, Russia’s space prowess has been overhyped, according to Mikhail Kokorich, a Russian ex-patriot and space entrepreneur who lives in California. But the threat from Russian space weapons is very real, he says.

For sure, they are developing” space-based attack satellites Kokorich told congressional staffers at a lunch on Capitol Hill on Monday. He said that while Russia can afford to spend only a fraction of what the United States spends on space research, attack satellites are well within their current capabilities, as Russia has deep, technical knowledge on space-based propulsion.

Technically, Russia has all it needs,” he said.

Kokorich speculated that Russian and Chinese might join forces to build space weaponry, bringing complementary assets and deficiencies. Russia, for instance, inherited from the Soviet Union a deep expertise in life support systems for manned space flight, staged combustion rocket engines, and even nuclear fission power systems. However, it has largely lost any ability to produce space avionics or electronic systems, which China could help with.

Kokorich said this is unlikely, as Russia regards China even more warily than it does the United States.

By Patrick Tucker // Patrick Tucker is technology editor for Defense One. He’s also the author of The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? (Current, 2014). Previously, Tucker was deputy editor for The Futurist for nine years. Tucker has written about emerging technology in Slate, The Sun, MIT Technology Review, Wilson Quarterly, The American Legion Magazine, BBC News Magazine, Utne Reader, and elsewhere.

February 12, 2019