Is the US Underestimating China’s Space and Counterspace Capabilities?

In a recent Links reader Michaelmas highlighted a fresh report on China’s space warfare capabilities, which we have embedded at the end of this post.

Yours truly is not a war nerd, much the less a weapons geek. However, it does not take much in the way of powers of observation to notice that the US very much underestimated Russia’s military, despite presumably having it as an object of study. We were confident the Ukraine army, trained and kitted out to NATO standards, and supersized by mercenaries,1 would make quick work of Russia.

One of the striking features of early and still continuing commentary on the war was insisting that if Russia was not prosecuting the war using US doctrine, it must be losing. US doctrine would be the methods we used during counterinsurgency wars: pound infrastructure with air strikes, cut off electricity and communications, and then when you’d flattened an area, move in troops and equipment for what amounted to clearing operations.

Russia instead makes much less use of air forces and fancy high tech weapons than we do (why deploy planes and pilots to blow things up? Just use missiles to fly in the bombs) and vastly greater use of artillery. It’s taken the much-discussed-only-in-alternative-media report from the Royal United Services Institute, The Return of Industrial Warfare, to lay out how overwhelming an advantage Russia has in firepower, and how it will take the West at least a decade of capacity-building to catch up.

The Western press and pundit response (to the extent they’ve noticed that Russia is grinding down the Ukraine military, and so in control of the battlefield that it can rotate its troops when it sees fit) has been to complain that Russia is using primitive weapons, as if wars were fought in accordance with the Marquess of Queensberry rules. But those whinges overlooked that Russia is second to none in missiles and missile defense. The S-400 system is better than anything has. Russia’s S-500 system is starting to be deployed.

This is a long-winded way of saying the US defense-intel complex has come to believe its own PR about the supposed superiority of US equipment and methods. After all, we must be getting a lot for the vast sums we spend on our armed forces.

So what might our blind spots be regarding China? Former Colonel Douglas MacGregor at 16:50 points out that the Chinese are worried about America’s nuclear subs, since they could park themselves off China’s coast and stop all inbound and outbound ships (the neighbors in the region wouldn’t like that). But MacGregor points out the US would be nuts to fight a war on China’s doorstep given the distance.

And could China significantly blind the US navy via counterspace operations? As Michaelmas argued:

The US had a plan in the Ukraine, too, and for most of the last decade prepared the Ukrainian forces to be the largest NATO-supplied army in Europe. How’s that working out?

In a direct military conflict with Taiwan, the US navy and USAF’s plans still depend on the connectivity and battlespace oversight supplied by its satellites remaining operational. In the real world, China can knock all those satellites down in 30-40 minutes.

Sure, the US developed counter-measures during the last fifteen years of low-grade war that’s been secretly ongoing in orbit, and has impressive kit nobody else has, like the Boeing X-37*robot shuttles that have spent years up there–

No. None of that ultimately can prevent China from knocking out US satellites by brute force with ASAT missiles, if that’s what China determines to do.

The Space Review article discusses how China has systematically, since 2010, been seeking space dominance. China has presented many of its tests and maneuvers as having peaceful application, when they could also be used offensively. China has been practicing “proximity operations” as in moving devices close in and then away from satellites and also grappling and moving them, to the degree that it changed a satellite’s altitude by over 100 kilometers. China has also used robotic arms on space vehicles to pick up debris. The Space Review article points out it could also be used to cripple a satellite. China could also simply use a so-called rendezvous and proximity operations to crash one of its satellites into one of ours. Other space tricks:

A further potential offensive use of RPO would be to install a radiofrequency jammer onboard the chaser satellite, increasing its ability to interfere with the satellite’s communications. Chinese academic papers recognized that reducing the distance with a small satellite platform would decrease the power requirements exponentially, identifying susceptible US assets such as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites. This, coupled with the Chinese doctrine that China can defeat the United States “network centric warfare” with “energy-centric warfare,” indicates that China has a significant interest in developing high-frequency and directed energy weapons in space.

China also has anti-satellite missiles and has been practicing by shooting down dead weather satellites. It has also been successful at GPS jamming and includes that capability in military drills:

According to open source data in April 2018, China installed equipment capable of jamming communications and radar systems on two of its fortified outposts on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

The PLA during exercises routinely incorporates jamming and anti-jamming techniques against multiple communication, radar systems, and GPS satellite systems in exercises. A Defense Intelligence Agency report assessed that China is developing jammers to target SATCOM over a range of frequency bands including military protected extremely high frequency communications.

Signal jamming and satellite blinding are likely to be preferred strategies since they don’t destroy equipment and so are less likely to provoke escalation. Some toys China might have:

China is actively pursuing the development of directed energy weapon (DEW) for counterspace use. There is a significant amount of evidence of research and development, and testing but limited details on operational status of any deployed capabilities.[38] The use of lasers as a weapon is characterized in three effects:

  • Dazzling a satellite’s imaging sensor
  • Damage to a satellite’s imaging sensor
  • Damage to the satellite bus or subsystems

The effect of dazzling is temporary, and is considered a countermeasure rather than a weapon. Relative low power levels are required to dazzle. A 10-watt laser could be sufficient to create a dazzling effect and obscure an area from being imaged.[39] The threshold between dazzling and damage is almost impossible to predict, as it would depend on knowledge of a target satellite’s internal design and protective mechanisms. For use as a weapon to cause significant damage to the sensor, a power level in the kilowatt range would be required. A very-high-power laser would be required to cause damage to the satellite bus. The damage would be due to the heating effects of the energy causing the essential components such as the thermal regulation system, the batteries, or attitude control system.[20]

It was reported in 2006 that China used a ground-based laser to dazzle or “blind” a US optical surveillance satellite on at least one occasion.

If China was playing with this capability in 2006, imagine where it might be now.

Contrast this depiction (and more below) with the anodyne overview in the latest Defense Intelligence Agency Worldwide Threat Assessment

China’s rapidly growing space program is second only to the United States in numbers of operational satellites, both civilian and military…China publicly advocates for the peaceful use of space and for agreements at the United Nations on the nonweaponization of space while it continues to improve its counterspace weapons. In addition to improvements in counterspace technology, Beijing has enacted military reforms to integrate cyberspace, space, and EW into joint military operations. China’s 2007 antisatellite (ASAT) missile test destroyed a defunct weather satellite, indicating the PLA’s ability to target low Earth orbit (LEO) and potentially even geosynchronous Earth orbit satellites. China is developing other sophisticated space-based capabilities like the Shijian- 17—a satellite with robotic arm technology that is potentially capable of grappling other satellites—and multiple ground-based laser systems that are capable of blinding or damaging satellites. China very likely is also developing a variety of satellite jammers to disrupt targeted satellites. Since at least 2006, China’s government-affiliated academic community began investigating aspects associated with space-based kinetic weapons—a class of weapon used to attack ground, sea, or air targets from orbit.

Even though this section covers largely similar ground to the Space Review report, it misleads the reader by depicting China as number 2 to the US in number of civilian and military satellites. It is silent on qualitative, let alone quantitative, comparative military assessments. One assumes the US would not admit to Congress that the US is behind in some critical military area unless it was undeniable. But the bland language of that document suggests the military brass won’t even hint at that in private briefings.

In any event, I would very much welcome any reader intel on how the US might stack up in this very real space race.


1 Former Swiss Strategic Intelligence Service member Jacques Baud, who also worked for NATO on small arms control in Ukraine, reported that Ukraine was having difficulty enlisting/conscripting enough men to serve, so it resorted to hiring mercenaries, which constituted 40% of its forces.

00 The Space Review: A review of Chinese counterspace activities
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  1. hondje

    I think a bigger problem / story is that the Chinese have leapfrogged us in cryptography, especially wrt quantum comms

  2. timbers

    Looking at a different angle, one might see at least a part of the U.S. has shown a tendency to OVERESTIMATE America’s presence in space. If you watch sci fi movies and TV show’s from the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s….

    2001 A Space Odyssey shows a US with space colonies on the Moon going several levels into Moon earth, and extensive orbiting network of hotels as intermediaries for getting to the Moon. All this happening around 2001 – more than 20 years in our past!

    The sequel 2010 A Space Odyssey has US and others doing manned flights to the outer planets.

    Space: 1999 a TV series shows man with a small town on the Moon called Moon Base Alpha, with several hundred performing various jobs.

    Event Horizon introduces the the present by showing us it’s past: Manned lunar colony 2015, first mining colony on Mars 2032, manned missions to the outer planets 2040.

    There are other examples.

    Most of these dates have come and gone. The movies don’t dwell on the structure of governance in space but you can generally pick up things are organized by a US or government funded agency overseeing things, meaning “the movies” assumed mans progress in Space would be government organized and funded.

    Of course, the actual ideology and practice in the US during the times of these movies, was less government funded and organization with instead more privatization. And that might be one reason the US has fallen so very far short of “Hollywood’s” image of where we would be in Space by now. Or it could just be Hollywood/movie industry doing what it does.

    1. Carolinian

      Movies are about selling tickets and keeping an audience diverted for two hours. I’m not sure we should take their technical predictions too seriously (although Trekkie Jeff Bezos sure does). There are some films like The Martian that go out of their way to introduce actual science but even that is a “pitch”–a grasp at novelty.

      In fact a lot of people have come to question the obsession with “man in space” when robots can do much the same stuff. But then nobody is going to buy a ticket to watch robots.

      At any rate interesting article above. Our military thrives on expensive toys that don’t have to stand up to a peer enemy. Maybe we should stop threatening everybody and thereby flirting with disaster as is happening in Ukraine.

  3. David

    As I always argue, there is no such thing as objective military “capability.” There is only capability to carry out particular missions and attain particular objectives. The issue is really, can the Chinese prevent the US, at least in part, from doing what it wants to do, in peace and war, and can the Chinese achieve their own objectives. This means it’s pointless to compare examples of the same capability equipment, you have to compare the ability to carry out tasks with the ability to frustrate them. It looks like the Chinese are doing OK.

    1. LAS

      Well said, David. The Chinese are really very focused. The US is unfocused, and that may be its biggest vulnerability.

      1. hk

        US is unfocused because of the hubristic and lunatic notion of “full spectrum dominance.”. Being “better than everyone at everything” is an absurd and wasteful idea, but it does, I suppose, absolve the leaders and staffs from coming up with strategies and priorities because “we can do anything we like whenever.”. But, against anyone who is any good at something (ie at least half the world and, depending on how that “something” is defined, everyone really), this is completely infeasible idea doomed to economic ruin.

        1. hk


          I do wonder if this “full spectrum dominance” idea is where most of the wastage in US defense budget comes from…

  4. Godfree Roberts

    China recently launched the first known surveillance satellite with integral AI.

    It’s tuned to automatically detect, identify, and predict the course of every naval vessel afloat, and to relay its information to PLAN shore commands 24×7.

    It is only one of several satellites focused on the West Pacific. There are hyperspectral satellites, one that can detect .01 deg ocean temperature differences such as a submarine’s wake might cause.

  5. HH

    It appears that the Chinese have been able to avoid the kind of racketeering that characterizes the U.S. defense industry. Presumably the Chinese insist on completion of successful testing before production of a weapon, something the U.S. has dispensed with. The rampant corruption in the U.S. arms industry calls into question Pentagon claims of “full spectrum dominance,” but the neocon ideologues press on, stupidly confident in the invincibility of the U.S. armed forces. This will not end well.

  6. The Rev Kev

    The Chinese have the advantage of not having a coupla billionaires appear on the scene, demand all the research from the China National Space Administration, hire away their best people, and then use all that to try to push the China National Space Administration into irrelevancy while these billionaires proceed to seize the commons of space for their own personal profit because they have an inside track into Beijing. Thing like that tend to make a difference over time. Just sayin’.

    1. JTMcPhee

      So, the end-stage corporatist universe according to the “Alien” franchise vision might somehow be avoided in favor of “government-run” development of that new monad, “Space”?

      I’d say that the tenacity with which humans pursue wealth+power makes it much more likely that if we survive the nuclear-capable age, this species will resemble the alien hyperlocust bad guys in “Independence Day.”

    2. John Moffett

      Good point, and I would also suggest that US weapons companies have made many weapons systems (think F-35) excessively complex and practically unworkable because higher cost hardware makes more profit. So if your intent is profit, rather than actual warfighting capability, then you really end up with an expensive pile of junk when the fighting actually starts. Note that all fighting between the major powers now is at the behest of the US. The US has over 750 military bases around the world, Russia and China have one or two.

      Russia and China have spent their much smaller military budgets much more wisely. The US has created a massively complex and expensive system that will crumble quickly under actual WWIII conditions. I just hope that all of Washington’s saber-rattling is just that. Ukraine’s fight isn’t going to last much longer, and in the process vast quantities of US and European weapons will have been destroyed, captured or sold on the black market. Your US Tax dollars at work.

    3. Andrew Watts

      The obsession with the space aspect of combat operations would be settled right away and imo wouldn’t count for much. I imagine that in any Sino-American war that it’d be a race to knock out capabilities as fast as possible. It might be the most destructive war in the shortest amount of time in history.

      The people in Space Force and the beneficiaries of said funding probably want us to believe otherwise.

  7. Beachwalker

    In Stanislaw Lem’s 1986 novel Fiasco, Earth detects signals coming from a far reach of the galaxy and sends a space ship to make contact with the obviously advanced civilization. Upon arriving at the solar system from which the signals come, all they find are robotic space weapon furiously firing away at each other and not a sign of any remaining “intelligent” life. Prophetic, no?

    1. JTMcPhee

      And the bland cheerleaders for everything “defense” get all busy about the irreversible advent of autonomous war machines. Just like the corp-govt cabal that brings about the world of “Terminator.”

      Glad I’ll likely not be around for that terminal idiocy. Though the MICIMAC is going hell-for- leather developing the self-aware devices that could fill out an army of Perfect Soldiers to replace the broke-down mopes that even the Army can’t get enough of despite serial erosions of fit-for-duty “standards.”

      So who know? Maybe Musk’s Gigafactories will soon be converted, like GM and Ford in WW Ii to churn out those metal (or bio synthetic, another research thread that DARPA derps are stringing out) war machines…

  8. amused_in_sf

    Perhaps going back to compass and paper maps will improve the US Navy’s ability to navigate safely!

      1. hk

        They might need to bring back the Norden bombsight, too. If GPS goes, most/much of the “smart” bombs are done for. Aircrew will need to know how to bomb manually.

        1. tom tomson

          The world would be better if we collectively forgot how to bomb each other. Unrealistic, I know.

  9. Andrew Watts

    Did the US military, or the Pentagon, really underestimate Russia’s military though? I keep hearing that assertion without any kind of evidence. I assume that most people wouldn’t discount any scenario involving the Ukrainians suffering a military collapse. How many US-trained forces shared that fate?

    1. Lex

      They did. They underestimated (or wrongly estimated) tactics Russia would use, assuming that Russia would do things as the US/NATO does them. For example, that Kiev and toppling the Ukrainian government would be the prime goal. They assumed that Russia would bomb everything, like the US would, and that would turn the whole world against Russia. They also underestimated what Russia could do with limited troops. And they absolutely underestimated how much material the Russians could put to the fight. Remember the Russia will run out of everything soon, which began in mid-March? That’s because the US would run out of everything in that sort of time frame given the intensity of the conflict. And that underestimation was utilized to develop a plan that was clearly based on if Ukraine could withstand a short, sharp conflict of high intensity, then it would be able to outlast Russia in the medium or long term.

      1. Andrew Watts

        I’m mostly dismissive of that kind of reporting as propaganda. The Pentagon wasn’t shipping artillery and other heavy weapons to Ukraine. Which the Ukrainians desperately needed if they were to maintain anything close to parity with Russia while waging attrition warfare.

        Instead they shipped weapons mostly suitable for light infantry, and you know, insurgents.There could be a lot of reasons why they didn’t foresee Kiev’s need, but I think the most likely explanation is that they didn’t expect Ukraine would hold out beyond three months.

        What I think we’re now seeing is that the Ukrainian armed forces are more than proving themselves to be heirs of the old Soviet Army. They’re trying to slow down the Russians as much as possible. Even if that means allowing themselves to be encircled in certain circumstances. While they furiously try to buy time to mobilize and train their reserves for some future counter-offensive.

        It’s reminiscence of the early days of the Eastern Front during World War II.

        1. SocalJimObjects

          The Pentagon wasn’t shipping artillery? So what the hell is High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS)? Also how about the M777 howitzer?

          1. Andrew Watts

            The M777 howitzers didn’t show up until late April / early May. This was only after the Russians had started pulling their forces away from Kiev.

            1. SocalJimObjects

              And pray why would the Russian want to take control of Kiev? Putting that aside, your statement about the USA not sending artillery was just plain wrong.

  10. Ranger Rick

    The short answer is that they’re not waiting around to guess at what-ifs. China is currently fixated on replicating US capabilities in space. That’s what’s guiding the current US hyperfocus on what the Space Force is calling “rapid response”. If a satellite goes down, they want the ability to replace it quickly, on a timescale of minutes to hours. They’re pursuing several avenues for this strategy: multiple launch providers, multiple launch methods, and finally, SpaceX, which is building a totally reusable rocket that can deliver 100 tons to low earth orbit — for scale, the Shuttle could do 24 — at a time. China won’t have a similar capability for large payloads until late in the 2030s if ever.

    I sincerely hope no conflict happens in space. It is well-known what a significant dispersal of fragments in low earth orbit could do.

    1. Michaelmas

      That’s what’s guiding the current US hyperfocus on what the Space Force is calling “rapid response”. If a satellite goes down, they want the ability to replace it quickly, on a timescale of minutes to hours.

      Sure. Yet as you also say —

      I sincerely hope no conflict happens in space. It is well-known what a significant dispersal of fragments in low earth orbit could do.

      Back in January 2007, China’s ASAT missile test knocked down one of their old Fengyun series weather satellite at an altitude of 865 kilometres (537 mi), with a kinetic kill vehicle traveling at a speed of 8 km/s (18,000 mph) in the opposite direction.

      “Within minutes after the collision, the debris cloud started to spread around the satellite’s original orbit. Ten days after the ASAT test, the debris had spread throughout the entire orbit, resulting in a “ring” of debris around the Earth. Three years after the test, the debris has spread out even more, effectively covering much of LEO. As of mid-September, 2010, the U.S. military’s Space Surveillance Network (SSN) has tracked a total of 3,037 pieces of debris from this event, 97% of which have remained in orbit.6 Scientists estimate more than 32,000 smaller pieces from the event are currently untracked. The debris from the destruction of the FY-1C currently spreads from altitude as low as 175 km and as high as 3,600 km. This is the largest debris cloud ever generated by a single event in orbit.”

      And that’s the point. The US can try and develop all the ‘rapid response’ capabilities it likes, but it can’t change the fact that very basic physics means that (1) it’s a lot easier to knock something down out of orbit than put it up there, and (2) with the same ASAT kinetic kill missiles that it demonstrated back in 2007 China can create enough debris to permanently interdict US satellites — and not incidentally everybody else, because it’ll trigger a Kessler syndrome scenario — from LEO.

  11. Adrian D.

    I’ve been following a number of pro-NATO Western military analysts who have dived deeply into why the Russians are ‘failing’ in Ukraine. Very often it’s stated as a matter of fact that ‘we’ would not find ourselves in their predicament not only due to the quality of their weaponry (not as good as ours) or logistics (a shambles and nothing compared to ours), but due to the quality of the cadres of their junior officer and NCOs. I’m sure if the US & NATO put sufficient West Point & Sandhurst graduates into suits and blasted them into orbit everything would be fine.

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