NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
China is selling to “friendly” countries a military radar to detect and track satellites that analysts say can be used to destroy orbiting U.S. satellites in a future conflict.
The SLC-18, an active electronically scanned array radar, was on display during the recent international air and space exhibition in the southern city of Zhuhai, according to reports from China. The radar is capable of detecting and tracking multiple low-orbiting satellites simultaneously, while also forecasting their space paths, according to the developer, state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corp.
The 30-foot-high radar can spot satellites in all kinds of weather and is said to have a large search range.
“This radar provides relatively economical ground-based monitoring of space targets to serve friendly countries … offering situational awareness capabilities against low-orbiting satellites to balance the battlefield posture,” Sun Rui, CETC deputy manager, told reporters in Zhuhai.
The radar can be used to disrupt reconnaissance and surveillance satellites, a capability that is expected to be a key feature of any future conflict.
According to Mr. Sun, the anti-satellite radar will be useful to nations without robust space monitoring capabilities.
Iran and North Korea are considered among China’s few friendly powers. Both are said by U.S. officials to be engaged in building space warfare capabilities.
Mr. Sun suggested the radar would be useful in attacking groups of satellites such as those that the Pentagon is deploying, including the Starlink constellation that was used to help Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. Similar Starlink satellite capabilities could be used by Taiwan should China carry out an attack on the island.
“Our space surveillance radar can detect satellites from a distance and can identify and categorize them to form a radar database that can help other equipment respond accordingly,” he said. “At the same time, it sends data on the satellites to the command center to assist in decision-making.”
Spread over a large area, a network of SLC-18 radar towers would allow ground commanders to respond to satellite passes.
Michael J. Listner, founder and principal of Space Law and Policy Solutions, said the radar gives China’s People’s Liberation Army greater awareness of and the ability to map U.S. and allied space assets.
“With a better understanding of what is up there, the PLA can probe for weak points,” he said. “This is significant because U.S. space posture and that of allies is dependent on being able to take a punch to the gut (resilience), which is not a winning strategy.”
The radar will enhance Chinese military capabilities, which already include several types of anti-satellite missiles and other weapons.
“Moreover, this system will likely also provide real time targeting data for PLA counterspace hard-kill capabilities,” Mr. Listner said.
By contrast, the U.S. Space Force has very little in the way of space defenses and is currently limited to a single known offensive space weapon — a ground-based electronic jammer.
The radar manufacturer, known as CETC, in 2018 was one of 27 Chinese firms placed on the Commerce Department’s blacklist of companies that are barred from doing business with the United States for allegedly diverting U.S. technology to the Chinese military.
ICE lacks data on foreign student tech threats
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lacks the ability to determine if foreign students and scholars from China and other foreign nations pose risks of stealing American technology, according to a report by Congress’ Government Accountability Office.
The GAO said in a report made public this week that 722,765 Chinese graduate students studied science, technology, engineering and math at U.S. universities from 2016 to 2020. The Chinese are from one of the “countries of concern” from a security perspective, the report said.
“ICE has not established milestones to complete a required assessment of whether it needs to modify its database to collect additional data related to some risk factors, in part because it has focused available resources on other priorities,” the GAO said. “Further, information related to students’ employment in the U.S., which may indicate whether they have access to technology, is incomplete.”
The report said better tracking is needed to boost government efforts to identify and assess technology theft risks.
A White House report in 2018 said China is engaged in massive theft and acquisition of U.S. technology and intellectual property amounting to an estimated losses of between $225 billion and $600 billion annually.
To better protect federally funded university research, the government has stepped up investigations of researchers suspected of fraud and failures to sources of foreign influence, the report said.
“These investigations have resulted in the removal of individuals from research positions because of undisclosed affiliations, such as receiving funding from a [Chinese]-affiliated institution,” the report said. “Officials also noted that the subjects of investigations were more likely to be permanent university employees than visiting foreign students and scholars.”
The report is a public version of a “sensitive” GAO report produced in August.
In addition to problems with ICE data on foreign researchers, the report also identified shortcomings in the Justice Department in tracking potential sources of U.S. technology theft.
“Agency data indicate that investigations have resulted in agency and university actions to address research security risks related to foreign influence,” the report said. “However, little information is available about civil and criminal cases related to potential transfer of university research because [the Justice Department] does not systematically track all cases specific to U.S. universities or federal grant funding.”
The GAO recommended that the ICE director move to fulfill the requirement contained in a presidential order from January to conduct vetting of foreign students and researchers together with the secretary of state and the secretary of homeland security. The vetting is needed to “reflect the changing nature of the risks to United States R&D.”
ICE also should improve employer information about foreign students engaged in sensitive research.
Space Force trains against “aggressor” attacks
The Space Force carried out a training exercise recently against troops called “Aggressors” who pose as enemy space forces engaged in attacks on U.S. satellites, according to a Space Force report.
The Aggressors took part in an exercise from Oct. 31 to Nov. 4 as part of the Space Training and Readiness Command, known as STARCOM. The “Crimson Skies” exercise, made public this week, was the first of its type held by STARCOM. It is part of the Aggressor Red Shade SKIES series of exercises.
The exercise trained military satellite communications operators on what to expect in a future war in space.
According to the Space Force, the Aggressors during the training used electronic equipment to practice jamming GPS receivers and disrupting satellite communications signals. The activities mimicked space warfare tactics that U.S. space troops, known as Guardians, expect to see in a future conflict with China or Russia.
“The Aggressors are the professional, thinking adversaries who bring realism to combat training,” said Col. Kyle Pumroy, commander of Space Force Delta 11, which does enemy force simulations.
“Realistic combat training is essential because it instills credibility to our Guardians’ readiness by providing unscripted, combat-like experiences to learn from, hone skills, and refine tactics,” he said.
Col. Pumroy added: “The Red Shade SKIES series seeks to close the gap of adversary-focused training that the Space Force has identified, normally using live training capacities. They are the answer to the question of, ‘How do we conduct [U.S. Space Force] missions in a contested environment?’”
The exercises trained satellite operators to identify, react to and fix enemy interference in global satellite communications. They included simulated electronic attacks on ground stations that control the military satellites.
Space Force troops during the exercise were tasked with identifying electronic jamming of satellite communications and finding ways to counter the jamming.
“This is a brand-new mission for the Space Force,” said Capt. Kyle Schroeder, 527th Space Aggressors Squadron flight commander for weapons and tactics.
“It is imperative that we provide adversary-focused training for this new aspect of the SATCOM mission. [Our operators] need to practice detecting, reporting, and resolving interference … before the United States is in a near-peer fight.”
— Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.