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US satellites could face threat from Russia and China's 'unfriendly' space behavior, warn defense analysts

Ella Sherman   

US satellites could face threat from Russia and China's 'unfriendly' space behavior, warn defense analysts
  • Russia and China are investigating ways to disable US satellites, raising defense concerns.
  • China is testing satellite grappling technology that can move objects in space without debris.
Russia and China appear to be actively looking into ways to watch and potentially incapacitate US satellites in space, and defense analysts are concerned.

"China and Russia are both operating satellites that attempt to better understand high-value U.S. government satellites" and engaging in other alarming activities, analysts at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said in the think tank's 2024 Space Threat Assessment report. "These developments are concerning and will likely continue in the coming years."

"Both Russia and China routinely maneuver their satellites near Western government and commercial satellites, sometimes remaining close by for months at a time," the report's six expert authors said.

China has been testing technology and mechanisms that allow satellites to grapple onto other satellites. Analysts at CSIS drew this conclusion after it was reported that China successfully used its SJ-21 satellite to grapple and direct an inoperative satellite to a new location in orbit.

The potential grappler satellites China could be testing have an "unfriendly" connotation as they are capable of hijacking and moving objects like satellites in space "without generating any debris."

In a February hearing, US Space Command leader Gen. Stephen Whiting described the pace of China's space expansion as "breathtaking."

Beijing, Whiting said, is "growing its military space and counterspace capabilities at breathtaking pace to deny American and Allied space capabilities when they so choose."

Russia likely has at least two satellites conducting "an espionage mission but may also perform other functions." Experts also believe that at points within the past decade, Russia has tested projectile weapons to be used in Low Earth orbit.

"All of these unfriendly behaviors in space have become commonplace," the analysts wrote.

And earlier this year, the White House sounded alarms about a Russian system that US officials told reporters involved putting some sort of nuclear capability into outer space.

Security experts have often said that China and Russia would take down satellites as their first course of action in the event of war.

The US currently has thousands of satellites in space. Some are capable of tracking ballistic missile threats, some serve commercial endeavors, others provide critical GPS services, and others gather intelligence.

These satellites serve US economic and national security interests, and in a great power conflict, these space assets are critical. But they're at risk as rivals China and Russia advance their respective counterspace capabilities.

A senior Marine Corps officer in information, Lt. Gen. Matthew Glavy, warned last year that the US has to be ready for challenges in space. "I'm telling you right now: We don't win the space domain? Don't even bother," he said. "No space, no chance."

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