China has a satellite with an arm – and America worries it could be used to snatch other spacecraft

Send more money to help us protect our space toys, military tells Congress


US military leaders have claimed China has a satellite with a grappling arm, and said its existence highlights the needs for increased funding to match the Middle Kingdom and Russia's expanding orbital arsenals.

In the hearing, US Space Command commander General James Dickinson outlined the current state of affairs as follows:

China is building military space capabilities rapidly, including sensing and communication systems and numerous antisatellite weapons. All the while, China continues to maintain their public stance against the weaponization of space.

Similarly concerning, Russia's published military doctrine calls for the employment of weapons to hold us and allied space assets at risk.

Dickinson described China's space services as robust, inclusive of high-tech radar imagery and intelligence data complemented by improved launch vehicles and global navigation. While individual technologies seem benign, collectively they can mask military activities, particularly as Beijing actively seeks space superiority.

Of specific concern is China's ability to destroy other nations' satellites. As Dickinson pointed out in written testimony [PDF], the Middle Kingdom's space programme is second only to the United States in the number of operational satellites.

Dickinson wrote:

One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm. Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites. China also has multiple ground-based laser systems of varying power levels that could blind or damage satellite systems.

China is developing a broad complement of jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, on-orbit capabilities, and ground-based antisatellite missiles that can achieve a range of effects. China will attempt to hold US space assets at risk while using its own space capabilities to support its military objectives and overall national security goals.

China maintains Shijian-17 is an experimental communication and broadcast services satellite with a few other bells and whistles like electric propulsion and space debris verification technology. However, the spacecraft has conducted unusual orbital manoeuvres that bring it closer to satellites.

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Testimony at the hearing also claimed Russia is testing mobile ground-based missile, the "Nudol", to destroy low earth orbit satellites. The Nudol joins satellite prototypes COSMOS 2504 and COSMOS 2536 and other ground-based low power lasers in Russia's arsenal of possible antisatellite weapons.

Earlier this month, a US congressional research report said [PDF] China and Russia prefer "destroying the ability of adversary forces to operate effectively rather than physically eliminating them." These strategies appear to have been deployed through malware cyberattacks like Hafnium and Solarigate.

While China seeks to establish itself as a space superpower, it has already this week declared itself a network and manufacturing superpower. ®


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