Written by Kevin Pollpeter.
China has made impressive gains across the broad spectrum of space technologies since 2000. Eschewing its historical strategy of human wave attacks to annihilate an enemy, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is now being trained and equipped to fight “local wars under informationized conditions.” The PLA now views the ability to use information and to deny information to an adversary as the fundamental condition for winning future wars. A primary component of this doctrine is the development of space-based capabilities.
Chinese military researchers view space as a strategic domain on which success on the terrestrial battlefield is based. These analysts often assert that space is the “ultimate high ground” and that “whoever controls space controls the earth.” They argue that China needs to develop a space force that can achieve space supremacy – defined as the ability to freely use space and to deny an adversary the use of space. China’s space program contributes to this goal in two ways.
The first way is through force enhancement activities. Force enhancement activities cover the broad range of C4ISR (command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) measures that space-based assets can provide. The PLA’s development of C4ISR capabilities is heavily influenced by the U.S. military which emphasizes a networked force designed to provide communications and a common battlefield picture across services and throughout a chain of command. Chinese analysts look at the U.S. military and conclude that it relies upon space for 70-80 percent of its intelligence and 80 percent of its communication.
The use of space-based C4ISR has gained more importance as the PLA develops long-range precision strike and power projection capabilities that allow it to better respond to and fight in conflicts, especially those where China cannot rely on its ground-based forces, such as the South China Sea. With the use of space-based C4ISR, China’s military can identify sea and land-based targets across Asia and provide intelligence for PLA aviation and missile forces to adjust fire, restrike targets, or verify that a target was destroyed. These capabilities could also inflict costs on the U.S. military, not only in casualties but also in hindering operations by forcing it to operate farther from a combat zone. Space-based C4ISR capabilities, for example, can be used to support attacks against surface ships using the 1,500 kilometer-range DF-21D antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) or the 4,000 kilometer-range DH-10 cruise missile.
Since 2000 China has launched a wide variety of satellites intended to support these goals. These include more than 60 remote sensing satellites equipped with electro-optical (EO) sensors of varying resolutions for viewing images in the visible and multispectral ranges and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) for viewing images at night or in inclement weather, stereoscopic imaging satellites that produce three-dimensional imagery, meteorological satellites to provide timely weather data, and electronic intelligence satellites to detect the electronic emissions of ships. China is also building a global navigation satellite system called Beidou to rival the GPS. With Beidou, China’s military has an independent system that it can use to guide its precision munitions while at the same time allowing it to interfere with the use of GPS.
The second way that China’s space program contributes to the military’s capabilities is through the use of counterspace capabilities. Although the U.S. military’s use of space is seen as a great strength, it is also viewed as a source of vulnerability. In 2007 China destroyed a retired meteorological satellite with a direct ascent kinetic kill vehicle. Since then China’s testing of counterspace and counterspace associated technologies has only increased and involves tests of technologies that can threaten satellites in nearly all orbits. In 2010, 2013, and 2014, China conducted tests of mid-course ballistic missile defense technologies that could also be used against satellites in low earth orbit. In 2013 China conducted a “high altitude science mission” that many suspect was a test of a direct ascent weapon that could strike communication and GPS satellites in medium and high earth orbits.
Other tests also have counterspace implications due to the inherent dual-use nature of space technologies. In 2010 a Chinese satellite bumped into another satellite in what was most likely a test of docking procedures for an upcoming Shenzhou space capsule docking mission with the Tiangong-1 space station. In 2013, in what was ostensibly a space debris removal test, China tested robotic arm technologies in which one satellite may have grappled another satellite. In both cases these close proximity operations could also be used to test co-orbital antisatellite technologies in which one satellite closes in on another to interfere with, disable, or destroy the target satellite. This can be done by ramming into the target satellite, shooting a weapon at it, or remaining nearby so as to jam its transmissions.
In addition to these, China is also working on directed energy weapons. The U.S. Defense Department has revealed that China has at least one ground-based laser designed to attack satellites and may be developing radio frequency weapons designed to short circuit the electronics of satellites. China may also have been involved in cyber attacks against U.S. satellite ground control computer systems.
In sum, the PLA has embarked on a widespread program to enhance its warfighting and deterrence capabilities through the use of space power. Chinese analysts assess that space will become a deciding factor in future wars and that space will be a dominant battlefield. Whether it is the acquiring of force enhancement capabilities to enable long-range strikes or the use of offensive space control measures against satellites, space plays a prominent role in China’s efforts to establish antiaccess/area denial capabilities against the U.S. military. But China’s military space program does not just have implications for the United States. Countries around China’s periphery, especially those in territorial disputes with China, will face a PLA that can use space as a force multiplier in conflicts against lesser opponents. As a result, space plays an important role in facilitating China’s rise as a military power.
Kevin Pollpeter is Deputy Director of IGCC’s Project on the Study of Innovation and Technology in China (SITC), University of California. Image credit: CC by Tjebbe van Tijen/Flickr