Chinese satellites are breaking the US ‘monopoly’ on long-range targeting

Chinese satellites are breaking the US ‘monopoly’ on long-range targeting

The U.S. military has long held a key advantage over China’s: it can hit mobile targets at extremely long distances. But that “monopoly is over,” the Space Force’s intel chief said Thursday. 

China is building a massive architecture of remote-sensing satellites to help target U.S. forces if they move to defend Taiwan in a conflict, said Maj. Gen. Greg Gagnon, deputy chief of space operations for intelligence.  

“It’s to provide indications and warnings of sailors, Marines, airmen, trying to move west, if directed, to defend freedom. They will now—in a way that we’re not comfortable talking about in America—they will be inside a rapidly expanding weapons engagement zone,” Gagnon said Thursday at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.  

China has launched more than 400 satellites over the past two years, more than half of which are designed to track things on Earth, Gagnon said. 

These are “remote-sensing satellites that are purpose-built to survey and do reconnaissance in the Western Pacific and globally. Satellites that are designed with a proliferated architecture, with many numbers, so that they are resilient against attack. An architecture that isn’t designed for efficiency and cost effectiveness, an architecture that’s designed to go to war and sustain in war. And the purpose of reconnaissance and surveillance, from the ultimate high ground, is of course to inform decisions about fire control for militaries,” he said.

Since the inception of China’s military space arm in 2015, the country has seen an 550 percent increase in on-orbit assets, Gagnon said.

“The PLA has rapidly advanced in space in a way that few people can appreciate,” Gagnon said.

Gagnon also discussed Chinese surveillance capability in geosynchronous orbit, an orbit further out in space where satellites generally hover over the same part of Earth. 

China launched the world’s first—and so far only—GEO satellite with a synthetic-aperture radar payload into space last year, called Ludi Tance-4 (Land Exploration-4 in English). The advantage of this kind of radar in GEO is that it provides constant coverage and imagery, even through clouds and during night hours. China has said the satellite is for purely civilian purposes—a claim Gagnon refutes. 

“They recently put a radar imager in GEO in August. It’s designed to look at the Western Pacific, even though they say it’s about agriculture. The Western Pacific that it’s looking at is over the ocean. We kind of know what the purpose is,” Gagnon said. 

Gagnon said the number of satellites the Space Force has to watch has also grown exponentially. When the service first stood up in 2019, it was operating about two to three dozen government-related sensors, he said. 

“Today, we are now orchestrating a collection of about 1,000 priority targets in space, 1,000 out of 9,500 satellites in space…are the priorities, with 600 apertures around the world,” Gagnon said. 

The Space Force collects that data and brings it into a data repository, called the Unified Data Library, so the U.S. government and coalition partners can access the information, he said. 

And more sensors means more data is being transmitted: in 2019, the service was pushing out about six to seven alerts about satellite maneuvers per month, and today, they’re putting out 11,000 a month—just on those 1,000 priority objects, he said, which include U.S. and adversary satellites. 

“That’s the scale. That’s profound. That’s a great advancement because of our partnership with the commercial sector, our ability to manage the data in a reasonable way into [the] United Data Library. Then what I would tell you is, those alerts are being generated by guardians and by 11 other countries, and we’ve created the opportunity here for other people in other countries to help, and we’re training about six people a month to learn how to do this first level analysis,” Gagnon said. “We have 100 people trained now, we’ll have 175 in 12 months. They exist on three continents, and because they exist on three continents, we’re gaining 24/7 coverage.”

However, Gagnon cautioned that China is trying to do the same thing, and is approaching countries in South America and Africa to form partnerships and solve their coverage gaps in space.

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