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
April 3rd, 2014
March 31st, 2014
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.
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.
March 17th, 2014
March 15th, 2014
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
March 13th, 2014
On May 13, 2013, China launched a rocket on a suborbital trajectory to high altitude. China announced that the launch was part of a project to study space weather and that the probe carried out an experiment at high altitude. A report in China News (translation) stated that the launch reached an altitude of about 10,000 km. Read More
December 6th, 2013
While the world is focusing on negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, where do things stand on the other piece of the puzzle, the Iranian space-launch and missile program? Read More
November 20th, 2013
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.
September 27th, 2013
June 28th, 2013
April 10th, 2013
Every year on April 12, people around the globe gather to celebrate the anniversary of the launch of the first person to orbit the Earth, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
The official coordinating website of the events, yurisnight.net, says:
Yuri’s Night is a global celebration of humanity’s past, present, and future in space. Yuri’s Night parties and events are held around the world every April in commemoration of April 12, 1961, the day of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first manned spaceflight, and April 12, 1981, the inaugural launch of NASA’s Space Shuttle.
This year for the anniversary I thought I would link to my post from last October, Skydiving from a Reentering Spaceship, which describes the death-defying way Gagarin and his fellow astronauts—including the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova—returned to Earth at the end of their flights.
You can’t make this stuff up.