WASHINGTON ― China is working to weaponize space with an array of capabilities intended to target U.S. and allied satellites as part of its ambitious plans to displace the U.S. in space, the U.S. intelligence community warned in its new Global Risk Assessment report.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s report says that China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, plans to “match or exceed U.S. capabilities in space to gain the military, economic, and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership.” Those counter-space operations will be “integral to potential military campaigns by the PLA.”
The broad-based report also highlights Russia’s space capabilities and overall calls China “the top threat” to U.S. technological competitiveness.
Asked about China’s nascent constellation of 138 commercial Earth observation satellites at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday, ODNI Director Avril Haines affirmed they were part of China’s challenge to American dominance. She declined to publicly discuss U.S. capabilities.
“I think there’s just no question, as a general matter, that China is focused on achieving leadership in space, in fact, as compared to the United States and has been working hard on a variety of different efforts in this area to try to contest what has been presumed our leadership,” Haines said.
Haines told lawmakers the administration is working to help the policy community understand it supports the new Space Force’s work to maintain American leadership in space and space’s benefits economically, in communications, intelligence and national security.
The rare public disclosures come as champions of Space Force in Congress have said the government over-classifies information about the threats from space and that the American public needs to be better informed. House Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., is among them.
The intelligence community projects China will have an operational space station in low-Earth-orbit between 2022 and 2024, and will continue to conduct exploratory missions to the Moon aimed at establishing a robotic research station there and later an “intermittently crewed” base.
The report underscores the increased development and proliferation of counter-space weapons. In 2019, China’s space-focused Strategic Support Force reportedly began training with direct-ascent anti-satellite, or ASAT, missiles capable of targeting satellites in low-Earth orbit.
The report says Beijing has already fielded ground-based anti-satellite missiles meant to destroy satellites in low-earth orbit as well as ground-based anti-satellite lasers, “probably intended to blind or damage sensitive space-based optical sensors on” low-Earth-orbit satellites.
Russia and China are continuing to train their military space elements, and both are fielding new destructive and nondestructive anti-satellite weapons, the report says. Russia’s weapons include “jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, on-orbit capabilities, and ground-based ASAT capabilities—to target US and allied satellites.”
The report projects that Russia, with its large network of reconnaissance, communications, and navigation satellites, “will remain a key space competitor.”
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.