Chinese satellites shake up US hegemony in precision targeting

In military circles, the U.S. has traditionally held a decisive advantage over China with the ability to engage mobile targets from great distances. However, according to the intelligence head of the Space Force, this dominion has come to an end. 

China's spy satellite snoops US Navy's Norfolk naval station
Photo credit: CAS

The Deputy Chief of Space Operations for Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Greg Gagnon recently highlighted China’s investment in an expansive network of remote-sensing satellites. The key motivation behind these advancements is to monitor the movements of U.S. forces, particularly in a potential scenario involving the defense of Taiwan. 

The main goal of these systems is to detect any movement from U.S. naval sailors, infantrymen, or the Air Force, typically heading west with the intent to safeguard liberty, explained Gagnon during a discussion at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “What is cause for concern is the ever-increasing scope of China’s weapons engagement zones, something that generates considerable discomfort in the U.S.,” he added.

China has been aggresive

Over the past couple of years, China has been aggressive in its space initiatives, launching over 400 satellites. Remarkably, Gagnon noted, over half of these are specifically engineered to track terrestrial activities. 

These satellites are meticulously designed with the primary goal of conducting global surveys and reconnaissance, particularly in the Western Pacific. They feature a strategically distributed structure that, while not planned with efficiency or cost-effectiveness in mind, is built to withstand attacks and endure warfare scenarios. “The key objective of such high-ground surveillance and reconnaissance is naturally to provide critical data for military fire control decisions,” he explained. 

From the moment China officially introduced its military space division in 2015, there’s been an astonishing 550% surge in on-orbit assets, Gagnon added. “The advancements the PLA has made in space in a notably short amount of time are beyond what most can fathom,” said Gagnon. Additionally, Gagnon touched on China’s observational capacity in geosynchronous orbit, which is a further-out space orbit where satellites often remain above the same section of Earth. 

The launch of a Chinese rocket with an Indonesian satellite failed
Photo credit: CCTV

China took the lead

Last year, China took the lead by launching Ludi Tance-4, the first-ever Geostationary Orbit [GEO] satellite with a synthetic-aperture radar payload. This pioneering technology provides continuous coverage and imagery, uninhibited by cloud coverage or lack of light. Despite China emphasizing the satellite’s civilian applications, Gagnon begs to differ. 

He stated, “Just last August, they installed a radar imager in GEO, intended to surveil the Western Pacific. They might claim it’s for agricultural purposes, but the monitored area happens to be oceanic. So, we pretty much have an idea of its true purpose.” The increase in the number of satellites the Space Force has to monitor has been nothing short of astronomical, says Gagnon. Back in 2019, when the service was newly established, they were in charge of approximately two to three dozen government-related sensors.

“As of today, we are tasked with orchestrating the monitoring of about 1,000 high-priority targets in space. Out of the total 9,500 satellites in space, these 1,000 are the primary focus, utilizing 600 apertures around the world,” revealed Gagnon. The collected data is then transferred to a centralized data repository, known as the Unified Data Library. This provides straightforward access for both the U.S. government and its coalition partners, Gagnon emphasized. 

This tremendous escalation is noteworthy

Regarding the increase in data transmission, the year 2019 saw an average of six to seven alerts each month about satellite maneuvers. However, these numbers have sky-rocketed; they are now producing around 11,000 alerts per month. These alerts pertain merely to those 1,000 high-priority items, which cover both U.S. and adversarial satellites, he pointed out.

This tremendous escalation is noteworthy, thanks to our constructive partnership with the commercial industry and our ability to effectively manage the data through the United Data Library. More importantly, these alerts aren’t just generated by guardians but also by 11 separate nations. We’ve created a platform for other folks from these various countries to lend a hand. In terms of training, we’re teaching half a dozen individuals each month on how to conduct this initial level analysis,” elaborated Gagnon. “Currently, we have 100 people equipped with this knowledge and we aim to have another 75 trained within 12 months. With these individuals dispersed across three different continents, we’re achieving around-the-clock coverage,” he further added. 

China is left alone in space. Will Beijing spy on other countries?
Photo credit: Anadolu Agency

However, be that as it may, Gagnon also sounded a note of caution. He advised that China is attempting to adopt a similar strategy, striving to extend its network by forging partnerships with countries in South America and Africa to bridge its coverage gaps in space.

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