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Sept. 7, 2017
Notes from the Pentagon

Foreign space threats grow
China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are developing weapons and other capabilities to destroy vulnerable U.S. satellites in space, according to a think tank report on foreign space threats.

“U.S. space systems are among the most fragile and vulnerable assets operated by the U.S. military,” says the report by the National Institute for Public Policy. “This vulnerable communications and data-collection, processing and distribution infrastructure is worth billions of dollars and is vital to nearly every activity of the United States and, increasingly, the armed forces of U.S. allies.”

The United States operates more than 500 military and civilian orbiting platforms, while China has more than 140 and Russia over 130.

Any future conflict will also take place in space, often before ground forces are prepared. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to the report, has warned that space conflict “will be intense, highlighted by satellites maneuvering to hinder the operation of other satellites, co-orbital jamming, and the use of ground-based lasers to dazzle or destroy imaging sensors.”

Space attacks will include the use of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons launched from the ground and orbiting weaponized satellites that could create large debris fields and possibly produce a chain reaction that would destroy other orbiting systems. Electronic jammers and dazzlers will be used to disrupt or impede the functioning of key satellites, such as GPS navigation and communications systems.

Satellite ground control stations that transmit and receive data from satellites also are vulnerable to military and cyber attacks.

The most threatening space adversary is China, which, as part of its military modernization, is preparing for space warfare against the United States.

China’s leaders falsely view American satellite capabilities as enabling foreign domination of China, prompting Beijing’s drive for space arms.

“China will increasingly be able to hold at risk U.S. satellites in all orbits and is developing a multi-dimensional ASAT capability supporting its anti-access/area denial strategies, with its most recent ASAT activities appearing to be focused on the refinement of its kinetic space weapons,” the report said.

The Chinese military has deployed two road-mobile ASAT missiles and is building two larger, more advanced systems while planning to use nuclear weapons in space to decimate low-Earth-orbit satellites, the report said. The Chinese also are working on small maneuvering satellites, including one that came close to the International Space Station in 2008, setting off alarm bells at NASA.

“Future ASAT systems could include jammers, robotic arms based on space planes or satellite platforms, kinetic kill vehicles, lasers and explosive satellites,” the report said.

Russia is investing heavily in space weapons as well, including missiles, lasers, jammers and cyberweapons, and Iran is also seeking space weapons.

“If Iran were able to develop nuclear warheads or buy them from North Korea, it would have the capability to generate an electromagnetic pulse in space,” the report said.

North Korea already has conducted successful jamming of GPS satellites to disrupt navigation near North Korea. “The successful jamming of GPS signals would have the effect of disrupting timing of U.S. military operations and impairing the use of precision-guided weapons that rely on the GPS signal,” the report said.

The report calls for building up intelligence and counterattack capabilities, including weapons in space to deal with the challenge, noting that current space warfare capabilities are “very limited.”

“Space-based interceptors for missile defense, if developed and deployed, could also be used in extreme situations as a space control weapon,” the report said. “It may be possible to develop on-orbit disabling or capturing technologies to neutralize a particular satellite.

“For decades, administrations and Congresses have prevented the United States from putting weapons in space or developing ground-based ASAT capabilities,” the report concluded. “Yet there is no similar political constraint on Russia, China, North Korea or Iran, which may result in a situation where the United States, having refrained from looking at ways to exercise force in space, would be at a severe disadvantage in a war.”

The report was written by Steve Lambakis, a military space analyst formerly with the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency.

Amid growing tensions over North Korean missile and nuclear tests, China is using a similar tactic toward rival Taiwan.

This week, a Chinese website posted photographs of four DF-16 missiles — with a range of 500 to 620 miles — deployed in front of Zhejiang Normal University, in Jinhua, a city south of Shanghai and within range of Taiwan.

Jinhua is the home of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force 820 missile brigade, and the missiles photos provided the first public disclosure that DF-16s are deployed in the province.

“From Jinhua, the DF-16 can target both U.S. and Japanese forces on Okinawa and attack many targets in Taiwan,” said Rick Fisher, a China military affairs analyst who uncovered the photos.

The DF-16s are part of more than 1,000 missiles that China has been deploying near Taiwan for the past two decades while increasing the missiles’ capabilities with advanced guidance and warhead packages. The two variants of the DF-16 include a modular warhead, used on shorter-range DF-11s, and a more advanced warhead that uses precision guidance to maneuver to its target.

“Given the pervasive censorship of Chinese webpages, it is significant that images of DF-16s in Jinhua were ‘sanctioned,’ as it is likely that China wants to show that it too can ‘rattle missiles’ in the same vein as North Korea and South Korea have conducted missile demonstrations,” said Mr. Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

“As China was unable to do during the first Korean war, if there is a second Korean war, China wants Washington to know that it has many options to attack U.S. forces before they reach the Korean Peninsula,” he added.

China has a broad defense treaty with North Korea that remains in force despite Beijing’s condemnation of the recent underground nuclear test by Pyongyang.

The regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un continues to threaten defectors who are now living abroad with assassination.

The latest threat list includes eight North Koreans, including Choi Jeong-hun, director of the Free North Korea Radio that beams content into the reclusive communist state. Mr. Choi listed the eight expatriates whom Mr. Kim regards as “thorns” in a recent notice to colleagues.

“The new list of targeted defectors has been declared by Kim Jong-un and broadcast in South Korea as well,” he wrote.

South Korea’s government has accused North Korea of assassinating Mr. Kim’s estranged brother, Kim Jong-nam, using sarin nerve agent during a February attack in Malaysia.

Prominent figures on the assassination list include Kim Seong-min, a broadcaster for Free North Korea Radio, and Park Sang-hak, an activist involved in information operations that send balloons with freedom messages into North Korea.

Others on the hit list include Hong Soon-kyung, who is regarded as the leader of North Korean defectors after the 2010 death of high-ranking defector Hwang Jang-yop, and Choi Joo-hwal, who is known for getting information in and out of North Korea through the China-North Korea border.

“The latest list of defectors Kim has targeted for assassination are the very leaders most involved with getting information into and out of North Korea, and directly calling for the end of the Kim three-generation dictatorship,” said Suzanne Scholte, a human rights activist and president of the Defense Forum Foundation.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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