China building anti-satellite ground-based lasers, US satellite imagery reveals

Large anti-satellite lasers that are around the size of ship-mounted weapons may be seen on satellite images of Korla, along with dome-shaped buildings that are likely holding the gas the lasers need to function Image Courtesy Agencies

According to the joint statement, they emphasised the significance of respecting international law and the rules-based international order and expressed their commitment to supporting these principles.

According to Army Technology, geospatial intelligence firm BlackSky’s satellite imagery of China’s Korla East Test shows two laser gimbals located in hangars with retractable roofs opening at solar noon, when foreign imaging satellites are most active.

Army Technology notes that the Korla location also has electromagnetic pulse and aerostat equipment in addition to ground-based anti-satellite lasers.

According to the article, large anti-satellite lasers that are around the size of ship-mounted weapons may be seen on satellite images of Korla, along with dome-shaped buildings that are likely holding the gas the lasers need to function.

China constructed the Korla facility in 2003, although much of its recent activities is still unrecorded. Unit 63655 of the PLA-SSF, which is in charge of conducting research on very large stratospheric airships, high-powered microwaves, and lasers and optics, is in charge of running Korla.

Eli Hayes discusses China’s Bohu facility in Xinjiang in a December 2022 piece for Arms Control Wonk. According to satellite photos, the facility may have been constructed in 2002 and put into service in 2004, which suggests that China’s anti-satellite laser programme may be more than 20 years old.

Hayes mentions Bohu, which hosts research on lasers and optics, enormous stratospheric airships, and powerful microwaves, and is run by Unit 63655 of the PLA-SSF, like Korla.

Hayes points out that satellite photography reveals the Bohu location includes both stationary truck-mounted lasers for dazzling and mobile lasers for ranging.

According to Hayes, these advances indicate that China has made some progress with directed-energy weaponry for anti-satellite defence. However, he advises that due to a lack of information and the unproven effectiveness of lasers in anti-satellite operations, such assessments should be treated with caution.

China is not the only country creating specialised ground infrastructure for anti-satellite defence. The Kalina laser plant in Russia, which is located in the Caucasus and intends to blind the optical sensors of other countries’ spy satellites by flooding them with laser light, was the subject of an Asia Times investigation from last July.

A major portion of the light produced by the Kalina facility, which operates in infrared pulse mode and generates 1,000 joules per square centimetre, is delivered to low Earth orbits, where spy satellites are deployed.

Kalina can block espionage satellites from reaching a 100,000 square kilometre area by using a telescope with a diameter of several metres that can target an overhead spacecraft for hundreds of kilometres.

Kalina’s operational condition is uncertain, though, as sanctions that date back to 2014 might have made it more difficult to import the necessary delicate equipment. Unprecedented sanctions put in place on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine last February may have made things worse.

In an essay from 2020 that appeared in the Journal of Physics: Conference Series, Zhenhua Liu and other authors point out that a ground-based laser may precisely target particular areas on low-earth orbit satellites to render them inoperable or irreparable through thermal destruction.

Liu and others point out that ground-based lasers can damage or permanently disable a satellite’s optical sensors, destroy its solar arrays, or overheat their delicate electronics.

They further claim that countries with strong space programmes, like China, Russia, and the US, have extensively tested anti-satellite lasers and are currently able to use them. They point out that ground-based lasers have benefits over airborne and satellite-mounted weapons in terms of size, coverage, and power.
The difficulty of distinguishing between carelessly ranging a satellite and a deliberate attack makes it challenging to respond to possible ground-based laser interference against satellites.

While satellite laser ranging is a widely used method to determine the orbits of space objects with high accuracy, Yousaf Butt points out in a 2008 article in the peer-reviewed Science and Global Security journal that there is a small possibility that satellite rangefinding lasers could harm sensitive optical sensors, with such an incident possibly being misconstrued as an attack.

Ground-based anti-satellite lasers can also be used to conceal important military infrastructure, such as nuclear missile silos, according to Chris Zappone, who makes this observation in a piece for The Sydney Morning Herald in August 2021. The author speculates that such laser-defended naval and aviation bases could be utilised as staging grounds for an invasion of Taiwan.

Other benefits of ground-based anti-satellite lasers, such as their capacity to eliminate satellites while having scalability and plausible denial, are also mentioned by Zappone. The temporary outage of a satellite might be due to an accident or covert hostility, he notes, making it difficult to attribute a blinding ground laser attack on a satellite orbiting hundreds of kilometres above Earth at thousands of kilometres per second.

He does issue a warning, though, that tampering with satellites—particularly those used for missile defense—might be perceived as a buildup to a nuclear strike, leading to unintended escalation and potential catastrophe.

According to Zappone, satellites are now the brains of contemporary military operations and perform many civil functions as well, including navigation, weather forecasting, and financial transactions timed in space. As a result, damage from ground-based laser attacks on satellites may have an impact that extends beyond military uses.

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