China and Russia have launched satellites that are meant to inspect and repair other spacecraft but could be used to attack US assets, according to a new report from the US Space Force.
The dual-use nature of some spacecraft, such as the Chinese satellites Shijian 17 and 21, “makes counterspace tests or hostile activity difficult to detect, attribute or mitigate,” the Space Force said in its first public assessment of threats since the service began operation in December 2019.
The report said Russia and China are designing and testing counter-space weapons to “deny, disrupt or destroy satellites and space services. China is also developing — and may be close to deploying — ground-based lasers capable of damaging and not just temporarily blinding US satellite sensors, it said. “They often mask or conceal these activities to avoid international condemnation,” according to the report, titled “Competing in Space” and set to be released Thursday.
The report makes no mention of similar, largely classified, US offensive capabilities such as the portable Meadowlands systems designed to temporarily jam Chinese and Russian satellites. The first of a potential 30 of the systems produced by L3 Harris Technologies Inc. was originally to be delivered in 2022 but now is expected by October, according to US Space Force officials.
The new report provides an account of increasingly crowded traffic in space. As of 2022, it says 7,096 satellites were in orbit, up from 806 in 2002. The US leads with 4,723. China has 647, Russia has 199 and the rest of world has 1,527.
Although it’s partly a compilation of previously disclosed US warnings, the report provides a useful summary of the progress that China and Russia have made since they began significant modernization of space and counterspace assets in 2015.
China is developing “satellite inspection and repair systems that could function as weapons and it has launched multiple satellites to test orbital maintenance and debris mitigation,” according to the Space Force report. In January 2022, China’s Shijian-21 towed a defunct Chinese geostationary satellite to an orbit where it would pose no threat to other craft.
It said China’s Shijian 17 has a robotic arm to grapple other satellites, while Russia “has deployed multiple prototype orbital anti-satellites in Low Earth Orbit,” including the Cosmos 2504, 2519 and 2536 models to “test kinetic kill capabilities.”
One of the Cosmos models tested its anti-satellite weapons capability in 2019 “by ejecting an object near a Russian satellite,” it said.
China is probably developing jammers to target a wide range of satellite communications supporting government and military operations, as its military exercises regularly incorporate jammers against satellite communications, space-based radars and satellite navigation systems such as GPS, the Space Force said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said his nation was “committed to using outer space in a peaceful manner.”
“The US has been hyping up the China threat in outer space and smearing China,” he said at the regular press briefing in Beijing on Friday.
To counter these threats, the Space Force in September conducted the first launch of a new constellation of early warning satellites, dubbed “Silent Barker,” that’s designed to track Chinese or Russian spacecraft that could potentially disable or damage orbiting American systems.
China now operates more than 300 remote sensing satellites with diverse sensors, “improving the Chinese military’s ability to observe US aircraft carriers, expeditionary strike groups and deployed air wings,” according to the report. Although Russia operates some of the world’s most capable individual remote-sensing satellites, it has a limited number compared with the US and China, the Space Force said.