Information warfare using satellite data looms as a new frontier of “gray zone” conflict between the United States and China.

Last October, China said that it had begun an effort to launch 10,000 satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) in the next decade–a constellation nicknamed China StarNet.

In March, Bao Weimin, a director of the Science and Technology Commission of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), confirmed China’s plan to forge ahead on the Guówang (GW)–Chinese for national grid–LEO satellites.

Filings with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) indicate that China actually plans to field a 12,992 satellite LEO megaconstellation–6,080 in the GW-A59 group and 6,912 in the GW-2 group.

Air Force Lt. Col. Chris Mulder, a fellow with the Atlantic Council and a co-author of The Future of Security in Space: A 30-Year U.S. Strategy, said in a May 26 discussion on the report that the U.S. must counter the goals of China’s GW constellation.

“There are about eight billion people in the world,” he said. “Three to four billion of those people don’t have access to internet. The Chinese are building out a 10,000 [satellite] broadband constellation construct in LEO so you can see where this is going. If they can tap into those three or four billion people and access data that those people can’t necessarily generate right now, they can yield influence and power. Figuring out a way to process and feed in our own data and to tap into the data that the Chinese are seeking will be very, very important.”

The U.S. military is increasingly looking to use the capabilities of commercial satellites, such as Starlink, which now has more than 1,500 orbiting LEO satellites. Billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk owns SpaceX, which builds Starlink. Musk has divulged plans for 42,000 such satellites.

Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, the head of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told Congress last month that he has at his disposal 10 Starlink polar orbit satellites to enhance military communications in the Arctic and that he hopes to have 100 such satellites (Defense Daily, Apr. 15).

China’s so-called Digital Silk Road (DSR) projects are part of the nation’s Belt and Road initiative that has undertaken infrastructure projects in dozens of nations in Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Megaconstellations of LEO satellites, such as GW and Starlink, may help drive down the prices that residents in developing nations are paying for geosynchronous (GEO) satellite service.

The Pentagon’s Space Development Agency (SDA) wants to harness commercial satellite advances to create the National Defense Space Architecture (NDSA), an optically-connected Internet in space to provide tactical data–low latency communications and targeting information–to military forces in the field (Defense Daily, Apr. 21).

Tranche 0–the so-called “warfighter immersion” tranche–will consist of 28 demonstration satellites, 20 in the Transport Layer and eight in the Tracking Layer, for military forces to use in exercises and to develop tactics. Tranche 1, by contrast, will be an operational constellation.

The backbone of NDSA, the Transport Layer, is to provide the targeting of ground and maritime targets, while the Tracking Layer–the Lockheed Martin [LMT] Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Reconnaissance (Next-Gen OPIR) constellation–is to establish effective targeting of advanced missiles. In addition, SDA is working  to aid future intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites in the Custody Layer to fuse ISR tracking with the Transport Layer to devise the best targeting solution.

SDA is to field 150 small size, weight and power laser communications satellites in Tranche 1 of the Transport Layer by September 2024 and is to field additional tranches every two years. Such mesh network satellites are to provide the rapid targeting of ground and maritime targets to military forces over Link 16. The optically-connected satellites will also supply position, navigation and timing to U.S. and allied forces in GPS-denied environments.

SDA believes that the projected hundreds of low-cost Transport Layer satellites–each less than $14 million–will help deter direct ascent-antisatellite (DA-ASAT) attacks, while the 1,000-kilometer polar orbit of the satellites will help protect them against ground-based directed energy attacks.

During the May 26 Atlantic Council forum, retired Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. James Cartwright, a member of the Atlantic Council board of directors, suggested that the military services must take advantage of commercial communications capabilities to speed tactical decision making.

“The key thing that we will do wrong, and we are doing wrong right now, is [that] we only have two repositories of data right now–NRO’s data and NSA’s data,” Cartwright said, referring to the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Security Agency. “After that, it’s just kind of, ‘What did I write down?’ ‘What did I see?’ ‘What did I feel?’ That’s just not going to cut it, and number two, the access to that data is so privileged and so guarded that it’s not useful for the common Airman, Marine, or [U.S. Space Force] Guardian, and we’ve got to find a way to fix that because data is at the root of solving a lot of these problems.”

One significant issue that faces military and commercial satellite users is space traffic management in an increasingly congested dimension.

“The rapid development of mega-constellations risks multiple tragedies of the commons, including tragedies to ground-based astronomy, Earth orbit, and Earth’s upper atmosphere,” according to a new scientific report for the journal, Nature. “Moreover, the connections between the Earth and space environments are inadequately taken into account by the adoption of a consumer electronic model applied to space assets. For example, we point out that satellite re-entries from the Starlink mega-constellation alone could deposit more aluminum into Earth’s upper atmosphere than what is done through meteoroids; they could thus become the dominant source of high-altitude alumina. Using simple models, we also show that untracked debris will lead to potentially dangerous on-orbit collisions on a regular basis due to the large number of satellites within mega-constellation orbital shells.”

“The current governance system for LEO, while slowly changing, is ill-equipped to handle large satellite systems,” the study said.