Securing the Space Domain: The Chinese Challenge to the Liberal Democracies

By Richard Weitz

Dateline: Bejing

The newly released Missile Defense Review (MDR) stresses the imperative of securing and using space to build a “more effective, resilient and adaptable” shield.

In particular, the Review correctly emphasizes the need for a better space sensor architecture to address existing and emerging threats, including ballistic and hypersonic missiles, “for launch detection, missile tracking, threat discrimination, and intercept detection/kill assessment.”

Yet, the United States must make a greater effort to build the space infrastructure needed to sustain U.S. space leadership in coming decades.

Last year, for the first time, China launched more space rockets annually than the United States.

China’s space achievements have come exceptionally rapidly due to the government’s commitment of resources for a successful peace enterprise.

Beijing made its first crewed space mission in 2003 and launched a space station in 2011.

Earlier this month, China landed the first operational spacecraft, the Chang’e 4, on the far side of the moon. In coming years, the Chinese National Space Agency, the PRC equivalent of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), plans to send a lander to retrieve soil samples from the moon and bring them back to earth as well as later land probes on Mars. China is also building the world’s largest telescope.

Further out, Beijing aims to establish a permanent station in space and on the moon—and employ these platforms to undertake a robust program of exploring and mining Mars, other planets, and the asteroids.

Several goals drive China’s space program.

China’s achievements give the PRC government prestige at home and abroad. In 2013, President Xi Jinping declared that, exploring space “is part of the dream to make China stronger.”

Scholars note that “a major component of Xi’s China Dream is China’s Space Dream aimed at turning the country into the most advanced country with space technology by 2045” in line with the roadmap released by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.

After the lunar landing, Hou Xiyun, a professor at Nanjing University’s school of astronomy and space science, reflected Chinese pride in boasting that, “On the whole, China’s space technology still lags behind the West, but with the landing on the far side of the moon, we have raced to the front.”

China is also eager to exploit the economic riches of space research. PRC official visions for space are markedly dedicated to harnessing space-based solar power and mineral resources.

An noted by a recent Washington Post commentary,“The stakes are high: Who will be able to obtain the vast resources in space, for example, water/ice, iron, titanium, platinum and nickel; secure the routes of trade; and write the rules of space commerce such as trade in energy propellant and precious metals.”

And of course, “Who will benefit from the military power that flows from that industrial might?”

Many of the scientific and technical gains China makes through its exploitation of space have both military and commercial applications. China’s space program, like that of the United States, has been led by the military.

A recent report by the Defense Intelligence Agency notes that, “The PLA historically has managed China’s space program and continues to invest in improving China’s capabilities in space-based ISR, satellite communication, satellite navigation, and meteorology, as well as human spaceflight and robotic space exploration.”

The PLA has been rewriting its doctrine and reorganizing its structure to dominate the strategic high ground of space and exploit U.S. military’s dependence on this domain.

For example, Beijing has been building an extensive architecture of space satellites that can provide navigation, communications, and reconnaissance for the PLA as well as other clients. After years of dedicated launches, China will soon complete its upgraded global BeiDou navigation satellite system, allowing the network to cover the earth without relying on U.S. or other foreign satellites.

Of note, the recent Chang’e 4 mission involved an advanced relay arrangement, with the Queqiao satellite positioned beyond the moon’s orbit to communicate with those parts of the lunar surface out-of-contact with the earth. Experts assess that the Queqiao might become “the first piece of a burgeoning ‘lunar exploration communications global infrastructure’.”

Placing satellites in such distant orbits makes them less vulnerable to the kinds of anti-satellite weapons the U.S. government warns China is developing. Furthermore, Beijing’s planned fleet of nuclear-powered space vehicles could serve as advanced hypersonic delivery systems able to attack U.S. targets at any time from any direction.

Recognizing this inherent “dual-use” linkage, the Chinese government has been heavily promoting and developing its commercial space capabilities. They want PRC companies to become a major launcher of foreign commercial satellites, including within the emerging microsatellite market. Chinese capital has been investing in promising U.S. space companies, especially start-ups, presenting a potential security risk.

A major reason for these successes are that successive governments have developed and amply supported a long-term plan to make China a dominant player in space and additional technology sectors.

When releasing the new “National Intelligence Strategy of the United States 2019,” the Director of National Intelligence warned that China was rapidly establishing itself as a leading high-tech player in space and other high-tech areas.

The Chinese will likely continue “generous government funding, indigenous R&D, and industrial espionage” as well as thoughtful long-range planning to become an “aerospace superpower.”

This combination is embarrassingly admirable compared with the often short-term preoccupation of Washington politicians.

Fortunately, the Trump administration and congressional leaders genuinely understand the imperative of reinforcing U.S. military and civilian space leadership, through both public-private sector partnerships and NASA’s independent efforts.

They rightly support U.S. space entrepreneurs as they strive to develop more commercially viable means of space tourism and low-earth transport.

Meanwhile, NASA correctly continues to back the Space Launch System (SLS) as the best means presently available for the United States to match Chinese potential beyond earth orbit.

Besides supporting the planned construction of a moon-orbiting space station and the Commercial Lunar Payload Services with its enormous payload, the SLS enterprise will also help sustain human, scientific, and technological capabilities critical for future U.S. space leadership. Although a civilian program, the SLS can also replace large numbers of satellites damaged in conflict, launch heavier armored shielded satellites more resilient against attacks, and more rapidly build other space-based defenses should that prove necessary.

Although China may now seek to partner with the United States and other countries in pursuing space projects, Beijing’s disregard of cooperative practices regarding the South China Sea, the Antarctic, and the cyber domain suggest this stance may not persist.

The undeveloped international law pertaining to space activities gives Beijing substantial room to maneuver at other countries’ expense. The United States prudently needs to keep this domain safe and sure through maintaining U.S. space superiority.

The Chang’e-4 lunar probe being launched from Xichang, China in December 2018.

Editor’s Note: In addition to boosting and refocusing on US space efforts, two key dynamics need to be addressed as this is done.

The first is recovering, strengthening and perhaps redesigning NASA’s working relationship with core liberal democratic allies.  Space cooperation with Europe and Japan, is important.

The second is focused investment and recognizing that the need to bolster the offensive-defensive enterprise of air and maritime power can deliver a significant near and mid-term capability to correct what is often referred to as space communications and ISR vulnerabilities.

We addressed global space alliances in a 2010 Space News piece:

We addressed redundant capabilities to complement space-based capabilities in a Space News article in 2012.