Since the days of Jiang Zemin, Chinese military-strategic guidelines have emphasised the requirement for the People’s Liberation Army to focus on ‘informatisation’ as a key component of its modernisation efforts. The essential requirement for informatisation is not lost on Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is making a determined effort to ensure that PLA modernisation is complete by 2035 and that it results in a ‘world-class’ force capable of fighting and winning wars anywhere by 2050. Space capability and ‘space power’ are central components of PLA informatisation and China is developing sophisticated thinking and capability for waging war in space.
The key document driving the modernisation agenda is China’s 2015 defence white paper, which notes that: ‘Outer space has become a commanding height in international strategic competition. Countries concerned are developing their space forces and instruments, and the first signs of weaponisation of outer space have appeared.’
The 2015 white paper also resulted in the formation of the PLA Strategic Support Force, which was created as part of a major reorganisation of the PLA. The PLASSF focuses on the roles of space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum in Chinese military operations, and highlights doing more in space as a priority for the PLA. It is the PLASSF that leads development of Chinese military space doctrine, including PLA counterspace doctrine, while the PLA Rocket Force controls operationally deployed anti-satellite weapons (ASATs).
China’s testing of ASATs—including, notably, the January 2007 test that destroyed a defunct Chinese satellite in low-earth orbit (LEO)—has transformed the nature of the space domain. No longer a peaceful sanctuary that sits above terrestrial geopolitical rivalries, space is fast becoming a contested warfighting domain. China has conducted numerous tests of counterspace capabilities over the past few years, including both direct-ascent delivery systems for kinetic-kill ASATs, potentially out to geostationary orbit, and more sophisticated co-orbital capabilities suitable for ‘soft kill’ systems and intelligence gathering.
Other nations are responding to China’s actions. The 2008 US ‘Burnt Frost’ demonstration of an ASAT capability and, more recently, the Trump administration’s decision to establish a US space force are driven by Chinese (and Russian) counterspace capabilities. Indiatested its own ASAT last month, primarily as a response to the threat posed by Chinese capabilities.
China hasn’t formally released a space warfighting doctrine and instead repeats boilerplate foreign affairs rhetoric claiming that it ‘always adheres to the principle of use of outer space for peaceful purposes and opposes the weaponisation of or an arms race in outer space’. This bland statement contrasts with the thinking on space warfare coming out of Chinese military institutions and academies.
A recent assessment of global counterspace capabilities by the Secure World Foundation cites primary sources inside China’s space policy community that consistently emphasise the need for the PLA to control space and deny access to adversaries. The report suggests that China has a requirement to achieve space superiority, defined as ‘ensuring one’s ability to fully use space while at the same time limiting, weakening, and destroying an adversary’s space forces’. They note that Chinese thinkers argue that ‘whoever controls space will control the Earth’.
The analysis gives us an insight into what Chinese military analysts thinks space warfare might be like. China would ‘strive to attack first at the campaign and tactical levels in order to maintain the space battlefield initiative’. The military’s intent should be to ‘conceal the concentration of its forces and make a decisive large-scale first strike’. That sounds like the classical concept of a ‘space Pearl Harbor’ that’s designed to eliminate US and allied space-based C4ISR (command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) satellites, leaving their terrestrial forces deaf, dumb and blind, and unable to undertake joint and integrated information-based operations.
China pursues a dual-track approach of building successive generations of more capable satellites to support the PLA in achieving informatisation and developing a suite of counterspace capabilities to shut out its opponents. Space is vital to the PLA’s ability to conduct anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) operations at long range against US and allied forces. Without Chinese satellites for long-range communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and precision navigation and timing, its A2/AD capabilities simply won’t be effective. At the same time, counterspace capabilities can function as part of A2/AD by threatening vital Western C4ISR capabilities prior to, or at the outset of, a major military conflict.
China’s 2007 ASAT test generated a massive cloud of space debris that drew international opprobrium. Since then, Beijing has focused on exploring the potential of more sophisticated co-orbital and soft-kill technologies. A report prepared in 2015 for the US–China Economic and Security Review Commission points to an increased emphasis in China’s ASAT and counterspace efforts on directed-energy weapons, electronic warfare, jamming and dazzling, as well as cyberattack methods such as spoofing, rather than physical destruction.
That assessment is reinforced by both the Secure World Foundation analysis and the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ 2019 space threat assessment. China continues to develop co-orbital systems that could fulfil an on-orbit servicing or space-based space situational awareness role. They could also potentially be applied to an ASAT role using soft-kill mechanisms such as jamming.
The PLA’s military space capability is likely to be supported by increasingly sophisticated and capable satellite networks—including, notably, the broader application of the Beidouglobal navigation system, which China is rapidly completing. This will offer the PLA an alternative to US GPS in support of joint warfare and precision strike, and better support power projection by the PLA Navy and PLA Air Force in far-flung operations, such as in the Indian Ocean region.
China’s space access will continue to rest on a government-run space program led by the PLA and the China National Space Administration. However, a Chinese commercial space sector seems to be on the horizon, which could see China emulate the ‘Space 2.0’ approach that has led to the likes of SpaceX. That could mean the development of spaceplane technology and, potentially, reusable rocket systems which would make it easier for China to access and use space more quickly. Chinese counterspace capabilities would benefit from the dual-role application of ballistic missile defence and the potential for co-orbital systems capable of rendezvous and proximity operations.
The Chinese Ambition
China’s human activities in space have been underway since the flight of Shenzhou 5carrying Yang Liewei on 15 October 2003, and have made steady progress since. Successive Shenzhou missions have demonstrated capabilities and procedures needed to deploy two small Tiangong space labs. These have given China practical experience and the infrastructure to take its ‘next great leap’—deployment of a small space station in the early 2020s. The Chinese Space Station (CSS) will weigh 60 tons and last 10 years, and the first module may fly on the new Long March 5B booster this year. With the International Space Station’s funding and operational lifetime nearing an end, perhaps by 2028, China’s CSS may, within a decade, be the only space station in low-earth orbit. Beijing is strongly promoting its station internationally as a logical successor to the ISS.
China has also considered crewed missions to the lunar surface by the 2030s, including the establishment of a base, and has ambitions for missions to Mars.
With those longer term goals in mind, China’s 2017 space white paper makes clear a vision ‘to build China into a space power in all respects’. It emphasises that China strives to ‘acquire key technologies and conduct experiments on such technologies to raise our manned spaceflight capacity, laying a foundation for exploring and developing cislunar space’. That lays claim to significant influence in an enormous sphere with boundaries marked out by the moon’s orbit around the earth. The CSS is one step along a path that will see Chinese taikonauts on the lunar surface in the 2030s. China’s ambition to be a comprehensive space power dovetails into the ‘China Dream’ of a rejuvenated nation that’s once again a middle kingdom and global leader.
China’s ‘space dream’ has been identified by US Vice President Mike Pence as a factor in accelerating NASA’s plans for a return to the moon by 2024. This has important astrostrategic implications, and Pence’s talk of a new space race shouldn’t be dismissed as lazy thinking driven by what Bleddyn Bowen refers to as ‘astronationalism’.
The Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2019 space threat assessment, Challenges to security in space, highlights the strong military character of all of China’s space activities. The requirement for ‘civil–military fusion’ requires nominally civilian science activities to contribute to PLA advancement. Even what seem to be civil space activities must be seen to be contributing to Chinese military advancement. Whether this involves operating the CSS in low-earth orbit, or potentially in cislunar space or on the moon’s surface, the PLA will be playing an important role in furthering China’s space power ambitions.
While it’s important not to be overly alarmist about Chinese space activities, neither should Western observers be naive. China’s approach to space is not that of NASA, or of the European Space Agency. International engagement with China on space needs to be approached cautiously, with a recognition that the PLA has an inherent role in exploiting access to Western technology at the expense of its foreign partners.
The US and China are not yet in a space race but the impact of US domestic politics could see China take the lead.
NASA’s proposed launch vehicle for its planned 2024 lunar return—the Space Launch System (SLS)—is well behind schedule and over budget. It was to fly in 2020, but that’s likely to slip. US cutbacks mean a more powerful version, the Block 1B, which could lift 130 tons, has been cancelled, leaving the less capable Block 1, intended to lift 95 tons. At a cost of US$1 billion per launch for a fully expendable Block 1 craft, and a launch rate of once per year, it’s simply not competitive with commercial launch vehicles such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which costs US$90 million per launch for a partly reusable rocket. The Falcon lifts 64 tons and its second flight occurred last week.
Strong interests within Congress are protecting the SLS—nicknamed the ‘Senate Launch System’ for the jobs it generates in key congressional districts—from cancellation and may prevent NASA from turning to commercial launch providers to achieve its 2024 moon landing goal.
In the meantime, China is pursuing its own heavy launch vehicle, the Long March 9, which is set to be able to lift 140 tons and is designed for crewed lunar missions. It’s suggested that its first flight will take place around 2028. As China finishes deployment of the CSS, perhaps by 2022, it can begin concentrating on the Long March 9 and its lunar plans, and, if the US is serious about a return to the moon by 2024, China may well accelerate its development of the Long March 9.
The CSS will be a prestigious accomplishment for Beijing, particularly if it can entice foreign partners away from the US. If Washington’s focus on a 2024 lunar goal weakens, and progress stalls, then Beijing may see an opportunity. What better way to erode the primacy of the US in space and to demonstrate China’s return to global leadership than by being first in this new journey to the moon?
To respond to such a challenge would require leadership from the Oval Office to overturn congressional resistance to a commercial launch solution that would effectively ring the death knell of the SLS, with severe political costs for some in Congress.
Will such leadership be provided by a second-term Trump administration or a post-Trump Democrat leadership that may not be that interested in going back to the moon despite the astrostrategic importance of controlling the ‘high ground’ of cislunar space?
From the moon, China, with a strong PLA presence, would have a vantage point that could allow it to control access to vital lunar resources that could generate prosperity for a 21st-century superpower. As the Chinese defence white paper of 2015 notes, ‘whoever controls space will control the earth’.
Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst at ASPI. Edited image courtesy of Cristóbal Alvarado Minic on Flickr.