China is building sophisticated cyber weapons to “seize control” of enemy satellites, rendering them useless for data signals or surveillance during wartime, according to a leaked US intelligence report.
The US assesses that China’s push to develop capabilities to “deny, exploit or hijack” enemy satellites is a core part of its goal to control information, which Beijing considers to be a key “war-fighting domain”.
The CIA-marked document, which was issued this year and has not been previously reported, was one of dozens allegedly shared by a 21-year-old US Air Guardsman in the most significant American intelligence disclosures in more than a decade.
A cyber capability of this nature would far exceed anything Russia has deployed in Ukraine, where electronic warfare teams have taken a brute-force approach with little effect.
These attacks, first developed in the 1980s, attempt to drown out signals between low-orbit SpaceX satellites and their on-ground terminals by broadcasting on similar frequencies from truck-borne jamming systems such as the Tirada-2.
China’s more ambitious cyber attacks aim to mimic the signals that enemy satellites receive from their operators, tricking them into either being taken over completely or to malfunction during crucial moments in combat.
The classified US document said this cyber capability would allow China “to seize control of a satellite, rendering it ineffective to support communications, weapons, or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems”. The US has never disclosed whether it has similar capabilities.
Taiwan, which has taken note of how indispensable satellite communications have been to the Ukrainian military, is seeking to build out communications infrastructure that can survive an attack from China.
It is courting investors to establish its own satellite provider, while experimenting with non-geostationary satellite receivers in 700 locations around Taiwan to guarantee bandwidth in the event of war or disasters, the Financial Times reported in January.
In a sign of how crucial satellite communications have become in warfare, a Russian cyber attack succeeded in rendering thousands of Ukrainian military routers from US-based Viasat ineffective in the hours before it launched its full-scale invasion on February 24 last year. A Ukrainian official described the attack at the time as “catastrophic”.
It also knocked out service to thousands of Viasat customers in Poland, Italy and Germany, where several hundred wind turbines were affected.
The Viasat hack, while sophisticated, involved breaking into the company’s computer systems and then sending out instructions to the modems that caused them to malfunction.
China’s goals, according to the leaked assessment, are far more advanced. They would seek to knock out the ability of satellites, which tend to operate in interconnected clusters, to communicate with each other, to relay signals and orders to weapons systems, or to send back visual and intercepted electronic data, according to experts.
US military officials have warned that China has made significant progress in developing military space technology, including in satellite communications.
General B Chance Saltzman, commander of the US Space Force, told Congress last month that Beijing was aggressively pursuing counter-space capabilities in an effort to realise its “space dream” of becoming the foremost power beyond the Earth’s atmosphere by 2045.
“China continues to aggressively invest in technology meant to disrupt, degrade and destroy our space capabilities,” he said.
Saltzman said China’s military has deployed 347 satellites, including 35 launched in the past six months, aimed at monitoring, tracking, targeting and attacking US forces in any future conflict.
The National Security Council, the CIA and the Pentagon declined to comment. The Chinese government had no immediate comment.
Additional reporting from Joe Leahy in Beijing