China claims to have space-based system developed to dupe US military into launching limited interceptors and thereby weaken its missile defenses.
Chinese engineers have developed and unveiled a new space-based spoofing system designed to deceive missile defense systems into launching limited interceptors against fake target signatures in space, according to a South China Morning Post report.
The report, which refers to the system as phantom space strike, says that a team from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Unit 63891 has conducted a computer simulation of a ballistic missile fired against a state-of-the-art missile defense system that carried three small satellites instead of a lethal warhead.
Upon reaching space, the ballistic missile released its satellite payload, which then generated spoofing signals to deceive the target’s missile defense radar, making the unarmed missile appear as a more serious threat than it is.
The spoofing attack resulted in the missile defense system firing an interceptor missile at a non-existent target.
According to Zhao Yanli, a senior engineer with PLA Unit 63891, which develops and tests new technologies and equipment, his team exploited the weakness of missile defense radar and the advantages of satellite-based decoys.
Zhao’s team exploited the tolerable margin of error for missile defense satellites by keeping the positioning error between spoofing sources to less than half a meter.
The team also cited the cost advantages of using satellites, whose costs are lower than traditional electronic warfare aircraft and whose flight paths and speeds could be set according to intelligence about fixed missile defense sites.
They also noted that the attack could be intensified by using more spoofing satellites.
However, a Beijing-based scientist not affiliated with Zhao’s team cautioned that phantom strike technology may lead to unintended nuclear retaliation and will most likely never be used against a nuclear-armed opponent.
With the unlikeliness of phantom strike technology being used against a nuclear-armed opponent such as the USA, it may instead be used as a counter anti-satellite weapon system aimed at the secondary anti-satellite capabilities.
The US Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), is the only missile defense system defending the US homeland against missile attacks.
Some Chinese observers view the GMD as a space weaponry system, as the concept of space weapons in China includes not only space-based weapons but also any weapons that target objects in outer space, regardless of where they are based.
In a 2008 paper by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Pavel Podvig and Hui Zhang note that some Chinese observers view the GMD as a space weaponry system, as the concept of space weapons in China includes not only space-based weapons but also any weapons that target objects in outer space, regardless of where they are based.
Podvig and Zhang note that China perceives that the USA uses missile defense for space control, as it is easier to target satellites than missiles. According to them, any mid-course missile defense system, such as the GMD, can attack satellites in low and high Earth orbit.
They also note that tests have shown that the GMD’s anti-satellite capability may be more relevant than its ability to intercept missiles, making improvements to the system motivated by a push to acquire anti-satellite capabilities.
In line with that, Asia Times reported in August 2022 about the US Long-Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR), a significant upgrade of the GMD’s sensor component.
The LRDR is a two-in-one system combining low and high-frequency radars.
Low-frequency radars have a wide field of view and can track multiple space objects but cannot discriminate threats from non-threats. High-frequency radars have a narrow field of view but can identify specific targets.
Such capability is crucial in defeating evolving ballistic, cruise and hyper-sonic missile threats, which may be volley-fired and equipped with penetration aids to defeat US missile defenses. The LRDR may also be used to identify military from civilian satellites.
Asia Times has previously reported on China’s increasing arsenal of satellite-based military capabilities, such as satellite-mounted microwaves, AI-upgraded spy satellites and AI deception tactics for hunter satellites.
China’s improving space-based, AI-powered satellite military capabilities can spur US anti-satellite measures to become more precise, destructive and harder to trace, increasing the chances of a US preemptive anti-satellite strike.
In July 2020, Business Insider reported that Russia tested a possible nesting doll space-based anti-satellite weapon.
The report notes that the Russian satellite involved in the July 2020 test birthed a smaller satellite and that the smaller satellite ejected a projectile that Russia describes as an inspector satellite.
Moreover, Asia Times noted in August 2022 that Russia’s nesting doll satellites could hide within space debris fields while collecting intelligence or even send out jamming and spoofing signals to confuse satellite navigation and missile guidance systems.
The fragility of missile defense systems is their greatest vulnerability, as a barrage of several missiles can overwhelm the system. Doubling the number of interceptor missiles would mean doubling the size of the system, which may have unfeasible costs.
The same weaknesses can carry over to their secondary anti-satellite capabilities.
Limited US space target discrimination capabilities and interceptor missile stocks mean that decoys, spoofing signals and military satellites concealed among space debris and civilian satellites pose a severe challenge to its anti-satellite operations.
This situation may force the US to increasingly allocate the GMD for anti-satellite missions, which can detract from its original missile defense mission or impose unfeasible costs for system upgrades.
Thus, the strategic aim of China’s phantom strike tactics may be to detract US missile defense capabilities to anti-satellite missions or impose huge and unsustainable upgrade costs, thereby increasing US strategic vulnerability in an era of rising bilateral tensions.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2023.