The Pentagon says that the Chinese military is preparing to deploy an anti-satellite laser weapon that can be used against American satellites and those of Western powers operating in low orbit by 2020.
According to a Defense Intelligence Agency report on emerging space threats, the Chinese “ASAT” weapon will be capable of either damaging or destroying targeted satellites, the Washington Free Beacon reported.
The directed energy weapon is one of several designed for use against space-based targets including ground-based ASAT missiles, cyber attacks, electronic jammers, and small ‘hunter-killer’ satellites that the Chinese plan to use against U.S. satellites in any future conflict, the DIA report says.
“China likely is pursuing laser weapons to disrupt, degrade, or damage satellites and their sensors and possibly already has a limited capability to employ laser systems against satellite sensors,” said the unclassified report.
It added: “China likely will field a ground-based laser weapon that can counter low-orbit space-based sensors by 2020, and by the mid-to-late 2020s, it may field higher power systems that extend the threat to the structures of non-optical satellites.”
The report was the first time the Pentagon’s intelligence agency revealed details of ASAT laser weapons being developed by China.
Beijing’s military has been working to develop ASAT directed energy weapons at least since 2006. That year, the Chinese military used a laser to “dazzle” an orbiting U.S. satellite in what analysts said was a test.
That came about a year before China tested an ASAT missile against an old orbiting weather satellite. The missile destroyed the target, which created an extremely hazardous orbiting field of debris that still threatens existing space-based assets.
While China has also developed additional directed energy weapons, ASAT lasers are considered more advantageous because their effects can be hidden more easily.
The DIA report notes that high energy beams are able to destroy electro-optical detectors used for missile launches, optical systems that track launches, control surfaces, solar panels that power the satellites, and other vital parts as well.
Ground-based laser weapons are estimated to have effective ranges of between 310 and 620 miles and reportedly require 1,000 watts or more of power on average.
Other nations including Russia, Iran, and North Korea are believed to have developed or are developing, ASAT capabilities to knock out American satellites during a conflict.
“China and Russia, in particular, have taken steps to challenge the United States,” the report stated, noting that both countries’ military operating doctrines consider attacks against satellites “as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness.”
Space News reported a year ago that both Russia and China were expected to have operational ASAT capabilities including directed energy weapons by next year.
“We assess that, if a future conflict were to occur involving Russia or China, either country would justify attacks against U.S. and allied satellites as necessary to offset any perceived U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil or commercial space systems,” warned the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, released in February 2018 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Anti-satellite weapons have been a concern since the Cold War. In fact, the U.S. military has been studying “satellite intercept” vehicles since 1957.
In 2016, the U.S. Air Force committed to spending $1.1 billion per year for five years to study ways to defend against ASAT attacks.
“Potential adversaries have taken notice of how we use space and have taken steps to replicate those capabilities for their own use and to devise capabilities to take them away from us if they ever got into a conflict with us,” Winston Beauchamp, Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space, told Scout Warrior at the time.