(PopularMechanics)– The U.S. intelligence community’s new worldwide assessment of threats to the United States and its allies issued a stark warning about space warfare: Russia and China will be able to shoot down our satellites within two to three years.
The capability would seriously jeopardize the U.S. fleet, including Global Positioning System satellites, military and civilian communications satellites, and spy satellites. But would either country use them? And if they did, would they risk even greater damage to their own networks?
According to the document, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” U.S. intelligence agencies think Russian and Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons “probably will reach initial operational capability in the next few years.”
The document further claims that China’s People’s Liberation Army has created anti-satellite military units and begun “initial operational training” to use these anti-sat weapons launched from the ground. The document claims Russia has made similar progress.
The Chinese tech in question is the SC-19 anti-satellite weapon. The SC-19 is launched from a mobile missile launcher and lofted into space by a modified DF-21 medium range ballistic missile (see above). It’s a kinetic weapon, meaning it smashes into the target to destroy it on impact.
The weapon weighs 1,200 lbs. and uses an imaging infrared seeker to home in on its target. The SC-19 has been tested at least seven times. In 2007, it intercepted the decaying Fengyun 1C satellite at an altitude of 537 miles as target practice. The collision created a cloud of space debris that earned China worldwide condemnation.
Less is publicly known about Russian anti-satellite weapons. The PL-19 “Nudol” is one such system, last tested in December 2016. Moscow claims Nudol is an anti-missile missile, built for intercepting warheads streaking towards targets in space.
All these anti-satellite weapons and meant to offset America’s advantage in orbit. U.S. military forces, often operating thousands of miles from home, use satellites for navigation (GPS), communications, and collecting information on potential adversaries.
U.S. forces are reliant on satellites for day-to-day operation but train to operate without them in wartime. For example, the U.S. Air Force’s recent Red Flag exercise forced aircrews to operate without the benefit of GPS, and the U.S. Navy is studying how to keep communications up and running if satellites are shot down using seagoing buoys.
Just how much of a danger are these weapons? There’s no doubt America would suffer a serious blow if adversaries used anti-satellite weapons in a surprise, sneak attack. But here’s something else to consider: Russia and China are just as reliant on satellites, if not more so.
Their satellite networks are just as vulnerable, and possibly more difficult to replace than that of the U.S., which is a much more robust space power that is developing strategies to quickly fill holes in satellite networks with replacement satellites.
Either country using anti-satellite weapons in a conflict might end up making things even more difficult for itself in the long run, when retaliatory anti-satellite strikes by the United States could render opposing military forces strategically deaf, dumb, and blind. Meanwhile, U.S. satellite networks, built for resiliency, would heal themselves with replacement launches.
So far, there’s little actual evidence either country is building up space weapons for a space “first strike.” Like any weapon, Russian and Chinese anti-satellite system may be a form of insurance in case war does spread to space. War in space might be disastrous for all countries, but in the event of war it would be most disastrous to Russia and China. And nobody knows it better than Moscow and Beijing.