The third X-37B space plane flight is coming to an end this week, after a record 22 month long mission. We have written pretty extensively on the “space plane” here on ATN, and have a factsheet where we condensed that thinking. Read More
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 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
March 3rd, 2014
One strange effect of the seven Oscar wins yesterday for Alfonso Cuarón’s film Gravity is that many more people will be conversant about something that was mostly the kind of thing specialists talked about—just how damaging space debris from anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons can be. In Gravity, astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney struggle for their lives after debris from a satellite destroyed on-orbit by Russia threatens the space shuttle and space station. 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.
November 8th, 2013
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
August 5th, 2013
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
June 20th, 2013
After traveling the U.S. equivalent of the distance between Philadelphia and Orlando in just under six hours on China’s high speed rail network, I arrived at the National University of Defense Technology in Changsha for a conference on space and cyber security. The university hosts some of China’s most advanced technology, including the world’s fastest supercomputer. The presentations and discussions I attended made it clear that despite all of the talk about the supposed rise of China and the imagined decline of the United States, Chinese security analysts and military officials remain concerned about a scientific and technological arms race they can not win. Read More
April 1st, 2013
Chinese Astronaut Yang Liwei aboard his Shenzhou V spacecraft during China’s first human space flight in October 2003. Image captured from a Chinese Central Television (CCTV) broadcast.
In a March 28 essay in The Diplomat, Scott Pace, a leading U.S. space policy expert, argues the United States should take proactive steps “to shape the international environment for the space activities that our economy and security depend on.” One important step he suggests is to focus on Asia.
His approach appears in part to be aimed at countering Chinese influence:
“If China is able to offer pragmatic opportunities for space cooperation on its own space station or as part of efforts to send humans to the Moon, other countries will likely see it attractive to forge closer relationships with China. A shift in international space influence away from the United States and toward China would have the potential to impact a wide range of U.S. national security and foreign policy interests in space.”
As a result, he recommends the U.S. strengthen ties with allies in the region:
“A primary strategic task for the United States should be to develop and implement a national security space strategy for the Asia-Pacific region. In particular, to build on existing alliance relationship such as with Japan, Australia, and South Korea to include dual-use space technologies.”
A “pivot” in U.S. space policy aimed at countering Chinese influence would be consistent with the Obama administration’s strategic shift of U.S. economic and defense priorities toward Asia. But it also risks extending regional tensions exacerbated by the “unnecessary and counterproductive” aspects of Obama’s pivot to Asia into a vitally important global commons.
Instead of isolating China in space with the aid of a reluctant collection of Asian partners who all wish to maintain constructive relations with the world’s second largest economy, U.S. interests might be better served by an inclusive national space strategy that embraces cooperation with China. Other U.S. space policy experts note that many U.S. partners, including the European Space Agency (ESA) and Canada, are already urging the United States to pursue cooperation and drop its opposition to Chinese to participation in the International Space Station (ISS). They argue a U.S. invitation to China is a low-risk, cost-effective means for the United States “to retain its leadership position in the current HSF [Human Space Flight] program” and establish itself as the leading partner in a follow-on program after the ISS is retired.
“A partnership with China could be developed along the same lines as was done with integrating the Russian space program into the ISS partnership. Using this model, no military-sensitive technology would be transferred. China’s economy would allow for it to fully fund its own efforts. Thus there would be little increased expense to the United States for developing this advantageous relationship.“
More importantly, the image of Chinese astronauts working together with global partners, including the United States, would shift the geostrategic import of Chinese achievements in space away from national ambitions towards the more politically constructive Chinese goal of establishing China as an equal member of the international community of space-faring nations. Organizing a U.S.-led coalition of space-faring Asian nations that excludes China would have the opposite effect, and risks igniting a new and counterproductive space race pitting China against its neighbors.
Dr. Pace appears open to a more inclusive approach that should “serve the full range of U.S. interests is in the Asia-Pacific region, beginning but not limited to our traditional friends and allies such as Japan and Australia.” The U.S. and its allies have a strong interest in constructive relations with China, which would be better served by cooperation than by competition in space.