Satellite surveying Earth showing China cyber capabilities

US Intelligence Leak: China Is Focusing Cyber Capabilities on Capturing & Shutting Down Satellites

One of the materials made public by Airman Jack Teixeira, the 21-year old National Guard member accused of leaking troves of sensitive military information to impress members of a Discord server, indicates that China is putting an emphasis on targeting enemy satellites in future conflicts. The country is bending its cyber capabilities toward disrupting and taking over communications and surveillance during whatever clashes might come, according to documents reviewed by reporters with the Financial Times.

China looks to leverage cyber capabilities to directly hack satellites

Current technologies that disrupt satellite communications were developed in the 1980s, and use ground-based mobile systems to match the frequencies of satellite broadcasts and drown them out. Russia is currently making use of this technology in Ukraine, to only mixed success at best.

China’s planned use of cyber capabilities would be a great leap forward in this aspect of war. The country’s intelligence services are researching ways in which satellite signals can be copied. This could allow Chinese hackers to hijack a signal to disrupt communications, to insert fabricated signals to pass along, or potentially even take command of a satellite remotely. The leaked documents do not indicate if the United States has a similar capacity, or if it is developing countermeasures.

Military leaders have previously reported to Congress that China is putting vast resources into becoming the world’s premier space power, and aims to be the dominant force among the stars within the next 20 years. US-owned satellites currently dominate the space with at least 2,800 total of the roughly 5,500 in orbit, but China’s military alone has now launched 347 including 35 since late 2022 (the country is thought to have some 540 in total). While it would still take considerable time to match the current superior capability of the US, China sees the use of cyber capabilities as a way to more quickly level the playing field. Military satellites tend to operate in clusters, meaning that disrupting or hijacking just one could have an impact on many.

Satellites have become indispensable to modern warfare, detecting missile launches, targeting, performing reconnaissance, and providing a resilient means of communication that is very difficult for enemies to disrupt. Russia opened its invasion of Ukraine by using its own cyber capabilities (in a more traditional hack) to attack ViaSat and knock out routers used by the military.

Military has been sounding alarms about the increased capability of US rivals

The leak follows warnings from the military that are not just about rival cyber capabilities, but new technologies as well. Last week, head of the US Space Force General Bradley Chance Saltzman said that both Russia and China have lasers and light tools that are capable of interfering with satellite cameras, and that Russia has been testing anti-satellite missiles since at least 2021. Saltzman also described a sort of “attack satellite” that is capable of grabbing and dragging other satellites, pulling them out of orbit. John Hannah, former national security adviser for Vice President Cheney, added in an interview with Fox Business that China is also thought to have ground-based anti-satellite missile capability.

At the moment, concerns about China’s military and cyber capabilities are centered on Taiwan. There have been assorted rumors about a planned invasion of Taiwan taking place anywhere from 2024 to 2030, usually appearing in the media courtesy of some sort of anonymous intelligence source. One public source, CIA Director William Burns, said that president Xi has instructed the country’s military to be ready to invade by 2027, though there may also be renewed doubts about the actual state of the fighting forces after the Ukraine invasion revealed that Russian capability was more riddled with issues than previously anticipated. It also remains unclear if the US would send forces to assist if Taiwan was invaded.

Physical attacks on satellites are rare, and usually conducted by countries taking down their own “junk” satellites. In early 2023, both the US and Japan indicated that attacks on satellites could bring military retaliation. This followed an October 2022 declaration by Russian officials that Western satellites could be considered legitimate targets as part of the Ukraine invasion. However, the Space Force has previously disclosed that attempts are made on US satellites every day, through a mix of cyber capabilities, lasers, and frequency jamming attacks.

Hacking of satellites is also far from unheard of. In 2008, Chinese hackers were thought to have taken control of two Earth observation satellites by attacking systems at their ground station. Decommissioned satellites are a popular target for these attacks, with invaders often looking to take advantage of their communications capability. While the primary concern with satellite attacks is military capability, satellite takeovers could be leveraged against civilians in a variety of ways: shutting down or intercepting a variety of internet-based services, interfering with air traffic control, loss of ability to monitor food crops, and disruption of vital load balancing operations for power grids are just a few of the most serious possibilities.