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Reconsidering Chinese Views on Military Space Strategy

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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.

Posted in: Space and Satellites, Space Security Tags: , ,

About the author: Gregory has lived and worked in China for the better part of the last twenty-five years facilitating exchanges between academic, governmental, and professional organizations in both countries. Since joining the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2002, he has focused on promoting and conducting dialog between Chinese and American experts on nuclear arms control and space security. His areas of expertise are Chinese foreign and security policy, Chinese space program, international arms control, cross-cultural communication. He received his Ph.D. in Political Theory from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1994.

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  • krepon

    Greg:
    You’re on weak ground relying on an eleven year-old document.
    The number of tests that have ASAT implications since this was published can only be characterized as worrisome — particularly the last one. What’s your rebuttal to Brian Weeden’s assessment?
    Michael

    • Gregory Kulacki

      Thanks Michael. We point out in the paper that this is one text and that it is dated. But it does show US thinking was off the mark when this idea of a “space Pearl Harbor” took root. And it also shows that the PLA, and particularly its missile forces, not only values but depends on the normal operation of its satellites in a time of conflict, just as the U.S. does. This dependence most likely increased with the number of Chinese satellites launched since the book was published. You can’t look at the ASAT research, development and testing programs in isolation. The existence of those programs does not prove an intent to use, as we learned through the U.S. and Soviet experience with these weapons during the Cold War.

  • Allen Thomson

    “China may continue to follow in their footsteps and decide not to deploy them.”

    And therefore accept the consequences of the opponent’s use of space for supporting military operations. Maybe at lower levels of conflict they would do that, but I’d question if they’d hold off indefinitely. Remember, just to be specific, reconnaissance satellites of various sorts are used as high-tech artillery spotters.

    The same logic applies, of course, to the US. If, as rumored, China is building an ELINT system similar to the US NOSS in support of antiship missles, how willing would the US be to refrain from taking out a direct threat to its aircraft carriers if it had that capability? Again, maybe for a while, but not, I suspect, indefinitely.

    • Gregory Kulacki

      Thanks Allen. That is a reasonable question. But the report should, hopefully, cause US analysts to reexamine assessments of Chinese intentions that posit a massive “asymmetric” Chinese missile strike against US sats; the oft-discussed “space Pearl Harbor.”

  • Allen Thomson

    Serendipitously, a new FRUS volume has appeared and has a number of interesting ASAT-related documents in it. The context was Soviet, but much of it is generally applicable and would certainly apply to present-day China.

    http://static.history.state.gov/frus/frus1969-76v35/pdf/frus1969-76v35.pdf