Pakistan is set to import one of China’s newest radar systems to boost its capacity to track and detect spying satellites, an edge its rival India has upheld for years.
The most-awaited aviation and aerospace exhibition of China in Zhuhai, also known as the Zhuhai Air Show, wrapped up last Sunday, where a long list of buzzworthy Chinese technologies was introduced to the international community. Among the interested clients of some of its latest sophisticated tech is Pakistan, particularly having to set its eyes on the ten-meter-tall SLC-18 radar.
The new radar system dubbed a “satellite killer,” is said to be “particularly successful in detecting and tracking multiple Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites in all conditions, including all-weather, all-time, multi-target, immense power, and extensive search areas,” according to Eurasian Times.
LEO satellites, typically placed 500 to 2,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, collect surveillance data frequently used for military intelligence. The technology has advanced steadily in recent years, becoming critical equipment for superpowers remotely spying on each other. One of the advantageous features of an LEO satellite is its ability to carry out 360-degree, all-factor reconnaissance hotspots, which China reportedly can monitor through its SLC-18. Emphasis on space target monitoring, with claims of high measurement accuracy.
Information on SLC-18 stated that this radar system, developed by Chinese state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), provides situational awareness against space targets. It is a P-band solid-state active phased array radar capable of identifying and measuring multiple objects while actively looking for and retrieving LEO satellite locations and other space targets from a distance and relaying data to the command center to help in decision-making.
Moreover, the system is also identified as “potentially the world’s first active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar,” meaning it can operate at such a wide range.
According to some analysts, if Islamabad will indeed acquire such a cutting-edge system from Beijing, “the threat to the Indian security apparatus will be multi-faceted.” Among the challenges that New Delhi will face are issues with satellite- and missile-tracking and fortifying its communication. Not to mention that it would boost the capability of Pakistan in terms of tracking Indian and West-owned LEO satellites, to which Beijing will likely have access, as it will possibly also receive all the data collected by allied countries that operate SLC-18 radars.
Moment when India created history. First video of the anti-satellite missile that shot down a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite in space, 300 km above the earth's surface. Watch the Mission Shakti of India! India fourth country to set this benchmark successfully. pic.twitter.com/t0M0LwVTgq
— Aditya Raj Kaul (@AdityaRajKaul) March 27, 2019
CETC deputy general manager, Sun Lei, told The Global Times that every component of the SLC-18 is designed and produced domestically down to its chip technology, which also features a modular design that can be extended by its operator as needed.
“In the past, only a strong military power that had technical strength and economic and industrial foundations could conduct space target surveillance. For developing countries, it was difficult to have such capability,” Sun said. “The SLC-18 radar uses relatively cost-effective ground-based space target surveillance, and it can serve countries along the Belt and Road Initiative, and provide situational awareness against LEO satellites.”
Referring to Pakistan as its iron brothers, China has kept close relations with the former as it plays a vital role in the latter’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (formerly known as One Belt One Road). Beijing launched the project in 2013 that would build a “unified large market” to maximize the growth of international and domestic markets. The project would also mean expanding China’s influence internationally and increasing its economic and geopolitical power.
Expressing interest in acquiring technology from Beijing is nothing new, as Islamabad has long been a patron, particularly when importing military equipment. Data published by Sweden’s Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in March showed that between 2017 and 2021, Pakistan bought about 72 percent of its weapons from China, simultaneously attributing around 47 percent of the latter’s major arms exports.
One of the most recent arms transactions between Pakistan and China was the procurement of the Chinese HQ 9/P HIMADS (High to Medium Air Defense System), which is known as a long-range semi-active radar-homing surface-to-air missile with a high single-shot kill probability that has been inducted into the former’s Army Air Defense.
Pakistan has inducted state of the art HQ-9/P HIMADS (High to Medium Air Defence System) into Pakistan Army Air Defence Corps. The HQ-9 HIMADS has an operational range of more than 200 kms.
Time for Indians to keep their Rafaels away now, else!
— Shah 🏴☠️ (@WARW0UNDED) October 14, 2021
Should the US be Worried About SLC-18?
While this “satellite killer” boasts a complex air defense system capable of tracking and detecting LEO satellites from multiple locations, Beijing is set to export the SLC-18 to “friendly countries” that would then boost its allies’ situational awareness capabilities.
The US has faced many threats concerning space systems, especially with the emergence of sophisticated technology from its superpower counterparts in recent years, and along these is the most frequently asked question of whether Washington should be worried.
Space Force General David Thompson addressed this concern earlier this month following its report on a detected Chinese reusable spaceplane releasing an unidentified object in orbit. Thompson recognized the “growing and expanding threat” against US satellites, “and it’s really an evolution of activity that’s been happening for a long time.”
There is, however, no immediate threat, and any attacks on US space-based assets are still “reversible.” Nonetheless, adversaries could continue to grow and improve, potentially developing powerful technologies that could pose a serious threat in the near future if left unguarded.
“We’re really at a point now where there’s a whole host of ways that our space systems can be threatened,” Thompson said.