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Space and Satellites

Five Kinds of Things the UCS Satellite Database Can Tell You

We’ve been getting a good number of questions about the UCS Satellite Database and have been happy to see it be useful as context in recent discussions about satellite imaging and the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370. Read More

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Reconsidering Chinese Views on Military Space Strategy

Many U.S. observers believe anti-satellite (ASAT) missile attacks are central to Chinese military strategy. They argue China intends to exploit the U.S. military’s reliance on satellites by launching a surprise assault on these valuable but vulnerable space assets, which the U.S. military uses for communication, surveillance, navigation, and other support activities.  This attack, sometimes referred to as a “space Pearl Harbor,” is supposedly a key part of an “asymmetric” military strategy a weaker China intends to use to defeat a stronger United States in a high-tech regional war.

This U.S. belief took root in the late 1990s and early 2000s in a U.S. analytical environment shaped by information and assumptions that now appear to be wrong. A new UCS analysis of the space-related sections of a classified Chinese military source published in 2003 demonstrates that China’s missile forces were not anticipating or preparing for operations that involved attacking U.S. satellites at that time.

The source is a military textbook published by the General Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) titled The Science of Second Artillery Operations. The 406-page book is a product of more than 30 years of research and thinking by the PLA on the strategic value of its missile forces and how those forces should be used in the types of military conflicts the Chinese leadership fears may occur in the future. As a result, it is written both to reflect past experience and to be forward-looking. Unlike most sources cited in U.S. analyses of Chinese military space policy, The Science of Second Artillery Operations is a credible and authoritative source on Chinese military planning. The book was not intended for foreign or even general domestic Chinese audiences. It was classified as jimi (机密)—the third highest classification level among the four types of circulation restrictions placed on Chinese military publications.

An Authoritative View of Chinese Space Operations

The Science of Second Artillery Operations describes China’s view of the military uses of space in some detail.  That description makes it very clear that the PLA, like the U.S. military, places a high priority on maintaining the normal functioning of its satellites in a time of conflict. For this reason, it is unlikely that China would risk the loss of its satellites by using destructive anti-satellite weapons against others. This may explain why, counter to U.S. expectations, this lengthy and detailed PLA publication on the operations of China’s missile forces contains no discussion of space warfare or missile attacks against satellites.

The role of China’s emerging space capabilities, as discussed in the book, is to support the use and increase the effectiveness of China’s missile forces, rather than to serve as a means of attack themselves. Like their counterparts in the United States, China’s leaders appear to view their satellites as valuable military assets. They are investing aggressively in expanding and improving China’s fleet of satellites as rapidly as they can. To the extent it is possible, Chinese investments in space technology and its military applications are designed to narrow the gap between China and the United States. China is not attempting to exploit asymmetry in space, but working to end it.

Of course, the space-related commentary in one PLA textbook, no matter how credible or authoritative it may be, cannot be interpreted as a definitive indication China is not contemplating the use of anti-satellite attacks against the United States. China conducted multiple tests of a missile-launched anti-satellite weapon, and used it to destroy one of its own satellites in January 2007.  It is possible Chinese views about anti-satellite technologies changed after The Science of Second Artillery Operations was published. But it is also possible that, like the United States and the Soviet Union, which both developed and tested anti-satellite weapons at a similar stage in the progress of their military space programs, China may continue to follow in their footsteps and decide not to deploy them.

Reassessing Views

The commentary on the military uses of space in The Science of Second Artillery Operations indicates that as of 2003 when the book was published, China’s missile forces were not anticipating or preparing for operations that involved attacking U.S. satellites, contradicting beliefs that were prevalent in the U.S. at that time and that have shaped U.S. thinking since then.

As a result, U.S. analysts should reassess their views on China’s approach to military space operations. While by no means definitive, the textbook provides ample reason to question the conventional U.S. wisdom on Chinese intentions, particularly the “space Pearl Harbor” hypothesis positing an “asymmetric” Chinese attack on U.S. satellites.

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New Quarterly Update to the UCS Satellite Database

A new version of the UCS Satellite Database, which includes launches through January 31, 2014, has been posted at ucsusa.org/satellites.

There are currently 1167 active satellites in the database. Read More

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Disaggregation: Satellite Navigation More Resilient Than You Think

The Pentagon voiced its concern this week that the U.S. GPS navigation capabilities could be held at risk by increasingly capable Chinese anti-satellite capabilities. But it is worth noting that while individual satellites might be threatened, disabling the system and knocking out navigation services is much harder.  Read More

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On Congressman Wolf

Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) recently announced that he will not seek reelection in 2014.  The congressman was well known for his opposition to cooperation between the U.S. and China in space. UCS criticized his approach to this question on numerous occasions.

The restrictions on U.S.—China cooperation in space are counterproductive. They punish well-meaning Chinese scientists and engineers and abet Chinese hard-liners who oppose cooperation every bit as strongly as Mr. Wolf. Lack of normal contact between the U.S. and Chinese space communities increases mistrust and misunderstanding, forestalls cooperative research that could benefit both and does little to curb China’s technological development. The restrictions are a public policy failure and before he departs Congressman Wolf should remove them. It would be a fitting end to the distinguished career of a public servant who, more often then not, advanced the role of science in the conduct of public policy.

In an age when many of our elected representatives cannot see far past the next election, Congressman Wolf took a principled stand on China and expended considerable personal effort to pursue it.  His ban on cooperation in space was motivated, in part, by legitimate and important concerns about human rights in China. While the ban did little to advance human rights in China, and actually impinged upon the rights of many of the Chinese scientists and engineers caught up in the ban, the retiring congressman from Virginia deserves respect, not ridicule, for trying to make a difference.

Congressman Wolf meets with Gao He, wife of Gao Zhisheng, an imprisoned Chinese lawyer, in February 2012. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Post)

Congressman Wolf meets with Geng He, wife of Gao Zhisheng, an imprisoned Chinese lawyer, in February 2012. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Post)

 

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Strategic Options for Chinese Space Science and Technology

Last spring the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) produced a report that included a lengthy section on the future of Chinese space science and technology. A translation with commentary is now available on the UCS website.

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Wolf Usurps NASA Authority on International Cooperation

Last week NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told an audience at Gettysburg College the U.S. space agency is resuming cooperation with China on space geodesy. Geodesy is the science of measurement of the size, shape, rotation, and gravitational field of the Earth and the study of geodesy incorporates a variety of space-based measurements. NASA and China have a cooperative agreement on space geodesy first signed in 1997 and renewed in 2010. Activities under that agreement were suspended after Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) attached language to a continuing resolution to fund the U.S. government in April 2011. The language forbids NASA “to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China.” Read More

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“Kuaizhou” Challenges U.S. Perceptions of Chinese Military Space Strategy

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Screen capture from recently deleted Chinese news post on the 25 September 2013 launch of China’s Kuaizhou 1

On 25 September 2013 China launched another earth observation satellite into orbit. The spacecraft, identified in Chinese press reports as the Kuaizhou 1, is a small earth observation satellite that will be used for disaster management and will be operated by China’s National Remote Sensing Center. But the launch had a second purpose: to test a new solid-fueled launch vehicle the Chinese military plans to use to provide a rapid ability to replace Chinese satellites that might be damaged or destroyed by an enemy attack. Read More

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New Quarterly Update to the UCS Satellite Database

O3b satellite

O3b constellation (courtesy of O3b Networks)

We’ve released a new version of the UCS satellite database, which includes launches through August 31, 2013. There are currently 1084 active satellites in the database. Read More

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China’s Blue Water Space Port

Next year China will open a new space port on a tropical island in the South China Sea. In addition to supporting a new generation of wider-bodied space launch vehicles that will expand China’s capability to carry larger and heavier spacecraft into Earth orbit and beyond, the opening of the new launch facility on Hainan Island marks a noteworthy shift in the culture of the Chinese space community. Read More

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