China’s military recently launched three small satellites into orbit as part of Beijing’s covert anti-satellite warfare program, according to a U.S. official.
The three satellites, launched July 20 by a Long March-4C launcher, were later detected conducting unusual maneuvers in space indicating the Chinese are preparing to conduct space warfare against satellites, said the official who is familiar with intelligence reports about the satellites.
One of the satellites was equipped with an extension arm capable of attacking orbiting satellites that currently are vulnerable to both kinetic and electronic disruption.
“This is a real concern for U.S. national defense,” the official said. “The three are working in tandem and the one with the arm poses the most concern. This is part of a Chinese ‘Star Wars’ program.”
China’s 2007 test of an anti-satellite missile shocked U.S. military and intelligence leaders who realized the U.S. satellites, a key to conducting high-performance warfare, are vulnerable to attack. Officials have said China could cripple U.S. war-fighting efforts by knocking out a dozen satellites. Satellites are used for military command and control, precision weapons guidance, communications and intelligence-gathering.
The official discussed some aspects of the Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) program on condition of anonymity after some details were disclosed in online posts by space researchers.
“The retractable arm can be used for a number of things – to gouge, knock off course, or grab passing satellites,” the official said.
The three satellites also could perform maintenance or repairs on orbiting satellites, the official said.
Details of the small satellite activity were first reported last week in the blog “War is Boring.”
The posting stated that one of the satellites was monitored “moving all over the place” and appeared to make close-in passes with other orbiting satellites.
“It was so strange, space analysts wondered whether China was testing a new kind of space weapon — one that could intercept other satellites and more or less claw them to death,” the report said.
The U.S. official said: “It is exactly what was reported: An ASAT test.”
According to space researchers who tracked the satellites movements, one of the satellites on Aug. 16 lowered its orbit by about 93 miles. It then changed course and rendezvoused with a different satellite. The two satellites reportedly passed within 100 meters of each other.
One space researcher was quoted in the online report as saying one satellite was equipped with a “robot-manipulator arm developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.”
The Chinese appear to be testing their capability for intercepting and either damaging or destroying orbiting satellites by testing how close they can maneuver to a satellite, the U.S. official said.
“They are learning the tactics, techniques and processes needed for anti-satellite operations,” the official said.
The Chinese have given a code name to the satellites and numbered the satellites differently. The code name could not be learned. The official said the designation used in the blog, SY-7 was not correct.
A Pentagon spokesman had no immediate comment about the Chinese satellites.
The official said the Obama administration is keeping details of the Chinese anti-satellite warfare program secret as part of its policies designed to play down threats to U.S. national security.
“There is a Star Wars threat to our satellites,” the official. “But the official said the administration does not want the American people to know about it because it would require plusing up defense budgets.”
The use of satellites for space warfare appears to be a departure from past Chinese ASAT efforts. China faced international condemnation in 2007 for firing a missile that blasted a Chinese weather satellite in space, leaving tens of thousands of debris pieces.
A recently translated Chinese defense paper on the use of a kinetic energy anti-satellite missile revealed that China is making progress with its anti-satellite warfare program. The report reveals that a U.S. software program called Satellite Tool Kit is being used by the Chinese military for its ASAT program.
“Kinetic energy antisatellite warfare is a revolutionary new concept and a deterrent mode of operation,” the 2012 translation of the report stated. “The construction of the corresponding information flow is certainly important to the effectiveness of the kinetic energy antisatellite operation. The STK package, being a powerful professional space simulation platform, will play an active supporting role in research on information flow in kinetic energy antisatellite warfare.”