The Defence Intelligence Agency of the United States suspects China may have a plan-in-waiting to use space technology to block American radars and jam sophisticated weapons systems if the need arises.

The Agency (DIA), has recently submitted an 80-page report for consideration by the Biden administration and action.

The report gives credence to what was suspected by the international community till now that China has reached a stage of self-reliance in space technology and acquired capabilities to “prevail in a major conflict with the United States and is aggressively launching, acquiring, and obtaining through espionage the counter-space capabilities necessary to do so”

The report says: “As China’s and Russia’s space and counterspace capabilities increase, both nations are integrating space scenarios into their military exercises.” 

The DIA, however, focuses more on the activities of China which if finds are “most worrisome to the United States, not only because of the country’s rapid growth in space—doubling the number of ISR satellites it has in space to 250 since 2018—but also its rapid acquisition and pursuit of counter-space capabilities”.  

The Chinese, it was hitherto known, are acquiring space technology and software by legal or illegal means or even plain stealing. This is used to modernise the People’s Liberation Army through application of counter-space technologies.

“The PLA probably sees counterspace operations as a means to deter and counter a U.S. intervention during a regional military conflict,” the DIA wrote. “China has claimed that ‘destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors’ would make it difficult for the U.S. and allied militaries to use precision-guided weapons,” the DIA report is quoted in an article by DefenseOne, the military analysis website. 

The DIA also found that China “probably is developing jammers dedicated to targeting SAR, including aboard military reconnaissance platforms,” referring to the advanced synthetic aperture radar systems that allow clear imagery even at night or during bad weather, DefenseOne says. Those jammers “would be key to preventing the US and US-affiliated commercial satellite firms from maintaining a clear picture over Taiwan, as they have in Ukraine”.

According to the website, “interfering with SAR satellites very likely protects terrestrial assets by denying imagery and targeting in any potential conflict involving the United States or its allies,” the report says. There appears some evidence that the Chinese jammers could include the “capability to interfere with satellite communications “over a range of frequency bands, including military-protected extremely high frequency communications”. 

While China has embarked on a major space exploration programme, what is of concern is the militarised tilt given to it by the Chinese government. Space planning and directing organizations, and the ground infrastructure supporting its space programs come under the purview of the PLA.

It is worthwhile noting that the China National Space Administration is China’s equivalent to NASA. It is supervised by the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, which handles defense-related science and technology, including China’s state-owned defense conglomerates.

The infrastructure of the country’s space program is similarly militarised. The PLA runs under its command the launch sites, control centers, and even satellites.

Most of the personnel, including the astronauts, working in the space program are military personnel. For instance, the taikonauts – Chinese astronaut – belong to the Astronaut Corps under the PLA-Strategic Support Force’s Space Systems Department’s China Astronaut Research and Training Center. 

The DefenseOne writes of the secrecy of the space program: “China does not always openly advertise the military affiliation of those in its space program. For example, the Chinese language website of the China Manned Space Engineering Office shows program commander Li Shangfu in military uniform, noting his main role as director of the Central Military Commission Equipment Development Department. But Shang Hong, the deputy program commander and PLASSF Space Systems Department Commander, appears in a suit. And on the English version, there are no uniforms (or leadership personnel) to be found.”

The DIA report, analyses of DefenseOne, and western military experts, all say in one voice while there could be a tremendous potential of a Chinese and the Americans working together on space programs, China faces a trust deficit. A couple of years ago, the Americans arrested some Chinese working in the US on the charge of spying, even stealing sophisticated space and military software to be eventually used by the Chinese military. 

The DefenseOne makes it amply clear that “while there are likely areas where the U.S. government or private companies could cooperate for common interest with the Chinese space program, such cooperation should involve a clear understanding of the militarized nature of much of China’s space program”. In its opinion, “this is significant because technologies used for spaceflight and spacecraft can be applied to weapons like intercontinental ballistic missiles, while space situational awareness capabilities can also be used for anti-satellite warfare”.