“Occupy the strategic high ground for information supremacy—outer space.”
— Ji Deyuan and Lan Yongming, China’s Strategy for Invigorating the Armed Forces Amid Peaceful Development, 2010
The year is 2025. China has covertly declared war on the United States of America. The war did not begin as Pentagon planners had prepared—a missile fired at a US warship or a military base in Alaska or Hawaii. The war started with a solar flare on the surface of the sun, 93 million miles away. The flare had been detected by China’s Meridian Project, a network of fifteen monitoring stations that saw something unusual—a coronal mass ejection—a large jet of ionized gas and magnetic particles shooting out of the sun’s corona and heading directly for earth.
Technicians at the Beijing space weather monitoring station immediately notified the Central Military Commission that a major solar storm would reach earth in 18 hours and would likely cause a massive disruption of electronic devices, including sensitive military and civilian satellites orbiting earth some 300 miles in space up to the high-flying birds circling 22,300 miles in geosynchronous orbit.
Details of the coming solar storm were sent via unhackable, quantum communications-encrypted, underground fiber optic lines China had installed beginning in the late 2010s. The advanced quantum communications used by the People’s Liberation Army made clandestine interception nearly impossible for the electronic snoopers at the US National Security Agency that for decades had pilfered easily most Chinese military electronic signals.
The year is 2025. China has covertly declared war on the United States of America.
The flash message reached the commander of a special group, Senior Colonel Xie Zhaohui, working under the command of the Joint Staff Department Operations Bureau. The unit was located in the secret Western Hills complex, China’s version of the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center. Western Hills is on the outskirts of Beijing and was built more than a mile below ground to protect against nuclear attacks. The bunker is used for senior leaders and commanders and was built in limestone karst caves underneath a hard rock layer. The complex is only accessible from a network of high-speed rail tunnels used by Chinese Communist Party and PLA leaders to escape in times of crisis or war.
Central Military Commission Chairman General Zhang Shengmin was in the complex. He had been waiting for just such a solar event after being informed by the Meridian Center two days earlier of unusual solar activity that might produce a solar storm. General Zhang, a former strategic missile forces leader, saw the coming solar storm as the perfect opportunity for a surprise anti-satellite attack on critical satellites used by the Americans for intelligence, navigation, and communications—the backbone of the high-technology US military forces that only a few years earlier had perfected, after years of delays, a new attack system called Prompt Global Strike. The new rapid bombing system gave the Americans the power to conduct precision strikes using long-range conventional and nuclear missiles, drone aircraft, and autonomous naval vessels against any location on earth in fifteen minutes or less after orders were given. The system is heavily reliant on the scores of military satellites.
The ultimate target of the planned Chinese satellite attacks was not the United States. It was Taiwan, the vibrant democratic state 100 miles off the coast of southern China that has been a thorn in the side of Communist rulers for decades since Chinese Nationalists under General Chiang Kai-shek took refuge there in the late 1940s during the civil war with the Communists. China waited patiently for decades to take back the island state that is the main obstacle preventing Chinese Communist leaders from achieving their dream of total regional hegemony. American backing for Taiwan, codified in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, was the main impediment to retaking the island. The American law obligates the United States to defend Taiwan from a mainland attack.
The ultimate target of the planned Chinese satellite attacks was not the United States. It was Taiwan.
But now General Zhang was preparing for such a sudden strike. He gambled that a sudden attack would leave the Americans unable to respond in time. The general was gambling that American intelligence satellites would be blinded during the solar storm and would leave electronic spies to marvel at the spectacular green fingers of light in the night sky caused by ionized particles of the aurora borealis stretching from the poles to the equator. Within hours of the strike order, Zhang expected Chinese troops to be marching down Chongqing South Road in Taipei City as they moved to take control of Taiwan’s Presidential Office Building.
Unbeknownst to the Pentagon, China’s military since the late 1990s secretly put in place the most sophisticated space warfare capability ever devised by any military force. It included an array of weapons for disabling and destroying orbiting satellites. For ten years, China had been secretly developing “Assassin’s Mace” weaponry—arms designed to give a weaker, less technologically adept PLA the ability to defeat the stronger United States. The term had been part of a favored strategy since the 1990s and came from Chinese folklore. It included three characters for “kill,” “hand,” and “mace.” In China’s history, a historical hero used a mace to defeat his more powerful enemy suddenly and totally, without fighting by the rules. For the Chinese, Assassin’s Mace would ensure victory in warfare through the use of secret weapons capable of attacking the enemy’s most vulnerable point at precisely the most decisive moment. The term also has been called “trump card” weapons in the West.
The Chinese sped up development of Assassin’s Mace weaponry after the accidental US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. The mistaken bombing was the result of a failure of the CIA to update its maps. China, however, was convinced the bombing was intentional and meant to signal Pentagon’s displeasure with Beijing’s support for the Serbs in the civil conflict raging in the former Yugoslavia.
China was unable to respond to the bombing, and the attack and lack of response capabilities humiliated the seemingly helpless PLA and the Communist Party. The Party vowed to build weapons that could look far, shoot far, and shoot accurately after the 1999 embassy bombing.
Unbeknownst to the Pentagon, China’s military since the late 1990s secretly put in place the most sophisticated space warfare capability ever devised by any military force.
For General Zhang, China’s premier Assassin’s Mace weapons are the secret force of satellite-killing missiles, lasers, electronic jammers, and co-orbiting killer-robot satellites capable of smashing and grabbing US satellites and crushing their communications antennas or optical sensors, or knocking them out of orbit while making it appear to be the result of the satellite running into a piece of space debris.
General Zhang turned to the PLA’s Strategic Support Force, the military service-level entity in charge of space, cyber, and electronic warfare, to develop the anti-satellite battle plan. The plan was then developed by the Support Force’s Space Corps, headed by Lieutenant General Hao Weizhong. The commander had studied the US military system of intelligence gathering, command and control, and precision targeting and navigation—and he knew well their features and vulnerabilities. Hao had read a Chinese translation of the 2005 report of the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, unwittingly posted on the board’s website, revealing how the Global Positioning System (GPS) of satellites used for all advanced weapons systems, from warships to bombers, would remain vulnerable to electronic jamming for fifteen years. Hao believed the Pentagon’s broken system of military procurement would prevent the electronic hardening of the GPS satellites would give PLA anti-satellite forces an advantage to targeting the unprotected navigational satellites with electronic jammers.
General Hao’s staff had carefully selected the navigational satellites targeted for attack as the most advanced versions, called GPS Block IIIA, that circumnavigate the globe around 12,710 miles in altitude. PLA war planners understood that disabling five GPS birds, as the satellites are called, would disrupt positioning and targeting signals for American forces in the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean.
Until the late 2010s, China was reliant on GPS for its own navigation and targeting. But instead the PLA spent billions of yuan building a separate navigation satellite system called Beidou. With plans to target the GPS, China would be able to continue to wage high-tech warfare with its more than twenty Beidou satellites—at least, in the crucial early stage of a conflict, when surprise strikes are the key to victory.
For ten years, China had been secretly developing “Assassin’s Mace” weaponry—arms designed to give a weaker, less technologically adept PLA the ability to defeat the stronger United States.
Next on the PLA target list were US photoreconnaissance satellites—multibillion-dollar systems that provide exquisitely detailed intelligence photographs the PLA knows will be used to conduct counterattacks against Chinese forces in the initial phases of the war. The Space Corps’ operations plan called for putting three of these satellites out of action by frying their optical lenses with high-power lasers.
To disrupt American missile defenses, the PLA targeted several of the ten Space Based Infrared System satellites parked in geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles high. Next would be striking the Pentagon’s Wideband Global SATCOM satellites used to provide critical communications for the US military’s command-and-control systems as well as for those of key allies like Australia and Japan.
The strike plan was designed by PLA war planners to leave untouched several electronic intelligence-gathering satellites known by PLA counterintelligence to be spying on military communications. The satellites for years were part of strategic disinformation operations that fed false and misleading information to the DIA, CIA, and NSA. The disinformation combined a few pieces of real secret information with false data on the PLA’s satellite weapons development program. The campaign was carefully designed to fool DIA analysts into falsely believing PLA lacked technology and thus was struggling to build its anti-satellite forces, and the weapons built were not effective systems and would be unable to deploy competent satellite-killing weapons for eight to ten years. The ploy was straight out of Sun Tzu’s playbook—when strong, pretend to be weak to fool the enemy into complacency.
The extremely vulnerable space architecture of satellites was too old to harden against attack. The best the Americans could do was to increase their intelligence capabilities in space by adding, in effect, counterintelligence sensors and satellites. The goal was to be able to detect an attack and distinguish it from a solar geomagnetic disturbance.
For General Hao, the most important satellites to be taken out of action in the opening phase of the conflict were the US Air Force’s Space Based Space Surveillance satellites that operate in near geosynchronous orbit. These advanced satellites were deployed to provide the military with strategic warning of space attacks and had to be targeted in the opening stages. For knocking out these satellites, the PLA developed follow-up versions of the Shiyan-7 microsatellite—the Shiyan-8 was deployed with a compact high-powered laser and the Shiyan-9 was equipped with an electronic jammer.
With the loss of the surveillance satellites, PLA space forces unleashed the full fury of their anti-satellite war.
The Chinese closely tracked global preparations for the coming solar storm and ordered military forces of the Eastern Theater Command, the region closest to Taiwan, to carry out short-notice, large-scale exercises involving warships, submarines, bombers, and the more than 1,200 missile units located within firing range of the island. The exercises would be cover for the invasion of Taiwan.
Eighteen hours after the solar mass ejection, electronics throughout the world began to falter. Communications were very limited due to disruptive geomagnetic waves that had a similar effect as electromagnetic pulse, the electronics-disrupting pulsed wave created by a nuclear blast. Cable news reports noted the disruptions and blamed the solar storm.
An hour after the effects of the electronic storm were being felt, General Zhang gave the order to launch the anti-satellite attack.
The first phase involved two Shinyan-8 satellites on orbit for two months maneuvering stealthily near two Space Based Space Surveillance satellites amid the cover of the solar storm. The first satellite fired its laser and the heat generated within several minutes had disrupted the electronics inside the satellite. The second Shinyan-8 similarly approached another Space Based Space Surveillance satellite and fired its laser at the navigation satellite. Another kill. The war was on.
US Air Force airmen in charge of controlling the surveillance satellites at the Air Force Space Command center in Colorado did not think anything was amiss after the satellites went silent. They reported the loss of the two satellites as likely the result of the solar storm.
With the loss of the surveillance satellites, PLA space forces unleashed the full fury of their anti-satellite war.
A salvo of five Dong Ning-2 anti-satellite missiles, China’s first-generation direct-ascent satellite-killing weapon for satellites in the middle earth orbit, were launched. The missiles lifted off from road-mobile launchers in areas near space launch centers: Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center, Xian Satellite Monitor and Control Center, and Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.
Within minutes, five GPS satellites were left in a mass of floating space debris. The heart of the American military’s navigation and precision targeting in Asia had been shut down. Aircraft carriers operating in the Pacific along with Aegis battle management-equipped warships based in Japan immediately noticed the loss of GPS signals.
Next, the PLA launched five Dong Ning-3 (DN-3) anti-satellite missiles. The DN-3 is the PLA’s most advanced ASAT and is used for targeting satellites in geosynchronous orbit. The five DN-3s scored direct hits on three Wideband Global SATCOM satellites and two Space Based Infrared System satellites. The loss of the satellites disrupted military communications and missile warning for the entire Pacific Command.
With the satellites gone, General Zhang ordered the invasion of Taiwan to commence. American military forces would be unable to intervene to stop the invasion.
This scenario is fictional. But the description is a very real danger posed by China’s secret program of anti-satellite weaponry.