Space has always been part of China’s strategy for future conflict. Since 2003, when it became only the third country to undertake manned spaceflight, the Dragon has aggressively surged ahead in several critical areas, including space-based espionage, telecommunications, intelligence and anti-satellite (ASAT) capability. The 2007 shooting down of one its defunct satellites – moving at a blistering 7.2 km per second at an altitude of 800 km – amply demonstrated the sophistication of the country’s space kill capabilities. And by the end of this year, the Chinese space agency will complete the construction of a permanent space station, giving the country’s military a powerful platform with potential offensive capabilities.
According to a report by the Delhi-based Centre for Land Warfare Studies, China’s space programme poses a credible threat to the existing space-based architecture. The 2021 report titled ‘China’s Counter Space Capabilities’ says: “The Chinese vision of space warfare is not just about preventing the use of space-based critical infrastructure to its adversaries, but using space-based combat platforms for interception of ballistic and cruise missiles, striking by space-based systems on terrestrial targets as also targeting space assets such as the platforms and command and control assets of its adversaries.”
China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is developing the above capabilities primarily to counter the United States, but the impact will be felt in the Indo-Pacific region where countries like India and Taiwan cannot hope to match the Dragon’s financial heft. With China having grown from a developing country to the second largest economy in the world, it has sufficient resources to create its own substantial space presence.
The advent of the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) represents an organisational innovation that places all major components of China’s space program under a unified command structure, thereby increasing efficiency and efficacy. Employing an estimated 110,000 engineers and support staff, the SSF operates a vast bureaucratic apparatus that manages operations and allocates a sizable R&D budget to various aspects of its space programme, all of which move China closer toward achieving its stated goal of becoming a major space power. (In comparison India’s ISRO has 17,099 employees.)
New arena of competition
The PLA has made it abundantly clear that militarisation of space is one of its key objectives. In 2015, a Chinese white paper on military strategy represented China’s formal designation of space as a war fighting domain for the first time. According to the paper, “outer space and cyber space have become new commanding heights in strategic competition among all parties”.
In 2021, the US intelligence community warned in its Global Risk Assessment report that China is working to weaponise space with an array of capabilities. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence says the PLA plans to “match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership.” Those counter-space operations will be “integral to potential military campaigns by the PLA”.
The intelligence community projects China will have an operational space station in low Earth orbit between 2022 and 2024, and will continue to conduct exploratory missions to the Moon aimed at establishing a robotic research station there and later an “intermittently crewed” base.
Gulf War: Wakeup call
Unlike the US and Russia, which were engaged in a competitive and highly publicised space race from the 1950s to the 1980s, the Chinese had a low key space programme, and were concentrating on modernising their economy. It was the US-led wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 that served as a wake-up call for the PLA.
The PLA engaged in extensive analysis of coalition operations and sought to incorporate the resulting lessons into its own approach to war. The result was a thorough revision of almost every aspect of PLA thinking about future conflict. In 1993, the PLA produced a new set of “Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Period”, which constitute the highest level of national guidance and direction to the Chinese armed forces.
A report by the US-based Air University says the PLA’s assessment of the first Gulf War highlighted the role of joint operations – operations involving two or more services at the operational level, according to a single plan, under a single command structure. An instructor at China’s National Defense University noted that the Gulf War’s “characteristics of a joint operation of all branches of the military displayed in that war gave us a glimpse of things to come in the early 21st century”.
PLA analyses concluded that the ability to coordinate the operations of different services would produce synergies that no single service could hope to match. Joint operations were seen as the fundamental expression of “local wars under modern, high-tech conditions”. Space capabilities were recognised as playing an essential role in any effort to wage such wars.
According to PLA estimates, the 70 satellites that were ultimately brought to bear against Iraq provided the United States with 90 percent of its strategic intelligence and carried 70 percent of all transmitted data for coalition forces. Indeed, these assets were the first to be employed, since they were essential for the success of subsequent campaign activities. As one Chinese analysis observed, “Before the troops and horses move, the satellites are already moving.”
DRAGON IN SPACE
1970: China launches its first satellite Dongfanghong-1
2000: Launches first military communications satellite Zhong Xing-22
2003: China becomes the third country to undertake manned spaceflight. Lt Colonel Yang Liwei, aboard the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft, becomes the first taikonaut
2008: Lt Colonel Zhai Zhigang becomes the first taikonaut to spacewalk
2013: Chang’e-4 probe touches down on the far side of the moon, the first space probe from any nation to do so
2019: Chang’e 5 successfully lands on moon to retrieve lunar rocks
2020: Launch and recovery of Tengyun space plane that may be able to take off and land at airports
2021: Tianwen-1, China’s first Mars rover, enters Martian orbit.
The ‘Science of Second Artillery Operations’, an educational textbook published in 2003, reflects decades of Chinese thinking about the most effective use of China’s missile forces. It makes clear that China’s acquisition of comprehensive military space capabilities is now considered essential to Second Artillery (strategic rocket force) operations.
The most explicit description of the Second Artillery’s perspective on outer space and the operations of China’s missile forces is articulated in the third chapter, where the authors of the textbook emphasise that “the Second Artillery’s reliance on military space systems will necessarily increase, not decrease”.
The chapter notes that space offers unique capabilities that are increasingly important for Second Artillery operations: “…owing to the fact that missiles are extremely complicated weapons systems whose use in warfare cannot be separated from intelligence, communication, surveying, weather, damage assessment and similar types of support. Moreover, for all of these, simply relying on ground equipment is already useless, and reliance on the support of military space systems such as intelligence satellites, communication satellites, surveying satellites, and weather satellites is necessary”.
The primary objective is to establish space dominance or space superiority – the ability to exploit space for one’s purposes, at the times and places of one’s choosing, while denying an opponent that same freedom of action. To achieve this, one needs to sustain the uninterrupted operation of space information collection and transmission systems.
The Air University report says the foremost task for PLA space forces is to provide information from space-based sensors and platforms. Key tasks within this mission area of space information support to the ground, air, and naval forces include:
*Space reconnaissance and surveillance
*Communications and data relay
*Navigation and positioning
*Early warning of missile launches
*Earth observation, including geodesy, hydrographics, and meteorology.
Counter space capabilities
The takeaway for Chinese analysts from US military operations in the Persian Gulf wars, Kosovo and Afghanistan is that the United States is overly dependent on its surveillance and reconnaissance systems primarily located in space.Therefore, while American military power derives its disproportionate efficacy from its ability to leverage critical space assets, these very resources are also its Achilles Heel.
In an article titled ‘Deterrence Revisited: Outer Space’ Chinese military scholar Bao Shixiu describes his country’s calculus: “An effective active defence against a formidable power in space may require China to have an asymmetric capability against the powerful United States. Some have wondered whether a defensive policy applied to space suggests that China’s possession of a robust reconnaissance, tracking, and monitoring space system would be sufficient for China to prevent an attack in space and would be in line with China’s ‘doctrinal’ position of ‘defensive’ capabilities. An effective active defense strategy would include the development of these systems but would also include anti-satellite capabilities and space attack weapon systems, if necessary. In essence, China will follow the same principles for space militarisation and space weapons as it did with nuclear weapons. That is, it will develop anti-satellite and space weapons capable of effectively taking out an enemy’s space system, in order to constitute a reliable and credible defense strategy.”
Another Chinese analyst Wang Hucheng writes in ‘Liaowang’ magazine: “American dependence on space constitutes the US military’s ‘soft ribs and strategic weaknesses’.Consequently, ’for countries that can never win a war with the United States by using the method of tanks and planes, attacking the US space system may be an irresistible and most tempting choice. Part of the reason is that the Pentagon is greatly dependent on space for its military action.”
The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission says Beijing has an operational counterspace capability that will evolve through 2020 and out to 2035.These capabilities include anti-satellite kinetic kill vehicles (KKVs) and space electronic countermeasures, with the most spectacular demonstration being the 2007 satellite intercept.
US intelligence reports China has military units that have begun training with anti-satellite missiles. While speculative, one possibilityis that the PLA Rocket Force, given its synergistic relationship with the PLASSF, has been assigned space intercept as a secondary mission.
On the non-kinetic side, the PLA has an operational ground-based satellite electronic countermeasures (ECM) capability designed to disrupt adversary’s use of satellite communications, navigation, search-and-rescue, missile early warning, and other satellites through use of jamming.
According to the Commission, “The PLA initially acquired ground-based satellite jammers from Ukraine in the late 1990s and has indigenously developed satellite ECM since then. The PLA is capable of carrying out ECM to disrupt, deny, deceive or degrade space services. Jamming prevents users from receiving intended signals and can be accomplished by attacking uplinks and downlinks. The PLA and defence industry are developing and deploying jammers capable of targeting satellite communications over a large range of frequencies, including dedicated military communication bands. The PLASSF also has advanced cyber capabilities that could be applied in parallel with counterspace operations.
As the Centre for Land Warfare Studies concludes, “The breadth and depth of Chinese counter space capabilities could, in future, degrade the effectiveness of any space deterrence posture. Moreover, the PLA could be expected to form a specialised brigade / unit weapons and operations under the PLA Rocket Force and SSF respectively.”
The key point to take away about China’s growing space capabilities is that currently the role of space assets is to increase the effectiveness of China’s missile forces, rather than to serve as a means of attack themselves. However, as the country’s space programme expands in step with the growth in space technology globally, there is every possibility that space-based weapons could become the primary mode of waging war.
In 2013, when a Chinese spacecraft landed on the far side of the Moon, Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in the US, called the moon mission “an enormous scientific achievement”. Still, he cautioned, “The Chinese have always viewed their space programme as a political message.Developing an advanced space capability will be exploited for political as well as military purposes.”
–The writer is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by leading think tanks, and quoted extensively in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare and economic development. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda