China’s space weapons include missiles and killer satellites, but Beijing’s most worrying arms are lasers and electronic jammers capable of destroying or disrupting Global Positioning System navigation satellites used by the U.S. military, the general in charge of space says.
Air Force Gen. John W. Raymond, chief of space operations for the Pentagon’s new Space Force, and other Air Force officials told Congress that the U.S. military needs to move quickly to counter increasingly aggressive Chinese and Russian moves in space.
Both are building weapons designed to engage in “robust jamming of GPS and communications satellites,” as well as “directed energy systems that can blind, disrupt or damage our satellites,” Gen. Raymond testified to the House Appropriations defense subcommittee on Friday.
When asked of Pentagon and intelligence community reports that China is deploying ground-based lasers that can destroy satellites circling the globe in low-earth orbit, the general told lawmakers the “threat is real today and concerning.”
In prepared testimony, Gen. Raymond, acting Air Force Secretary John Roth and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown, warned that China’s military buildup is the major challenge for the new Space Force that requires a rapid development of new U.S. capabilities.
“Given China’s exponential pace of weapons development and extensive marshaling of government and industry, we do not have the leeway to simply maintain our current approach,” they said. “China is on track to exceed our capacity, so it is our obligation to act with a sense of urgency. China poses challenges unlike any other in our nation’s history. We must be clear-eyed about these threats and our response to them.”
Mr. Roth testified that the Air Force needs more advanced technology or risks falling behind adversaries. Gen. Brown told lawmakers that he has urged the Air Force to “accelerate, change or lose” the next conflict.
The major worry involves vulnerability of GPS satellites. “The threat we’re most concerned about is jamming,” said Gen. Brown.
GPS satellites are in medium-earth orbit — 12,550 miles high — and the current fleet of 31 satellites that provide pinpoint navigation are vulnerable. Electronic jamming could disrupt military operations as well as a wide array of civilian applications, such as banking and automobile navigation.
The military is also concerned China could spoof GPS signals in ways that would cause high-tech U.S. precision guided weapons to miss targets. “GPS is absolutely critical not just to our military but it’s critical to our society,” Gen. Raymond said, noting that signals from GPS satellites “underpin the information age.”
To harden the GPS system, the Air Force is developing an advanced constellation called GPS-3 that will have increased broadcast power and a security system called “m-code” to provide better protection against jamming, Gen. Raymond said.
The military is also deploying a new GPS command and control capability to provide better protection from cyberattacks.
A report on space weapons made public in April by the private Secure World Foundation identified Chinese electronic warfare as a threat to satellites. “China is assessed to be proficient in [global satellite navigation signals] jamming capabilities, having developed both fixed and mobile systems,” the report said.
However, China’s ability to jam ground-satellite uplink signals is not known. Beijing has deployed military jammers on the disputed Mischief Reef in the South China, according to satellite photos published in April 2018. The Secure World Foundation report said “the imagery shows what appears to be mobile military jamming trucks.”
China also conducted satellite jamming and spoofing near Shanghai in 2018 to 2019 against the automatic identification system used to track commercial ships. The electronic spoofing producing false locations of over 300 ships in Shanghai or the Huangpu River on a single day.
The spoofing allowed the Chinese to disguise the position of the ships by showing their location changing every few minutes.
Separately, China’s anti-satellite lasers and other directed energy weapons are designed to “dazzle” satellites. Beijing was first caught by the U.S. military lasing an American spy satellite in 2006. A 2013 report by the Chinese’ military then disclosed Beijing’s plans to develop space-based laser weapons.
During Friday’s hearing, Gen. Raymond was also asked about Air Force tracking of a Chinese Long March rocket booster that entered the atmosphere over the weekend in the Indian Ocean.
Space Command is in charge of what the military calls “domain awareness” and was tracking the booster very closely, the general said, adding near-earth orbit — around 300 miles high — has become the “wild, wild west” of space debris.