Chinese astronauts prepare to head to the International Space Station on June 16, 2012. Image courtesy of Reuters.

China’s Space Program & Its Growing Threat to U.S. Interests

China is actively expanding space capabilities to enhance its strategic security posture and extract economic benefits. The PRC views space as critical to its future economic growth and as a resource to be exploited. The PLA has and will continue to develop counterspace weapons to constrain adversaries and deter direct military action. Should China’s space program continue uncontested, space and its vast potential will not be part of a U.S. led world order.

Key Judgements

  • Chinese space program outlook depends on its own technical developments and political resolve, but also U.S. action or lack thereof.
  • China likely has the means, opportunity, and motives to use cyber and non-kinetic physical counterspace weapons against U.S. space infrastructure.
  • China likely has developed a comparative advantage in space warfare against U.S. satellite infrastructure.
  • China will probably continue to meet its space development goals—including establishment of a manned lunar research outpost by 2036.
  • It is a probable that China will use “first presence rights” to justify lunar territorial claims – similar to the nine-dashed-line doctrine in the South China Sea.

Background

China’s space aspirations can be tracked back to the announcement of its nuclear program (codenamed 02) by Chairman Mao in 1955. Despite initial technical failures, drops in support from the Sino-Soviet split, and budget re-allocation during the Cultural Revolution, China has made great strides in the past 40 years. These efforts can be partially accounted to China’s comprehensive long-term space dominance strategy, a key aspect of its 100-year plan.

China expects to exceed all other nations by 2049 and progresses steadily towards that goal. China was the 3rd state to launch an astronaut into space. China had 38 successful orbital launches in 2018 representing more than a third of world-wide orbital launches. Meanwhile, the U.S. had only 34. The Long March rocket series was responsible for nearly all Chinese launches (37). 11 private Chinese space startups have emerged in the first quarter of 2019 alone. The PRC also operates the second most satellites of any nation.

China hopes to establish a manned lunar research outpost by 2036. The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (Chang’e) lays the ground work for a crewed mission by conducting several robotic Moon missions. Chang’e 4 lander deployed the Yutu 2 rover on the dark side of the moon late last year and contained the Lunar Micro Ecosystem. The Lunar Micro Ecosystem (LME) experiment is a metal cylinder containing cotton, rapeseed, potato, Arabidopsis, yeast, and fruit flies eggs designed to test the effects of lunar gravity on living creatures. The plant seeds did germinate, but did not survive the lunar night which lasts 14 days. Chang’e 5-T1 began testing atmospheric re-entry capabilities in 2014 and is expected to conduct the first lunar sample-return mission since the Soviet probe Luna 24 in 1976.


Chinese Counterspace Capabilities

China has or is in the process of developing counterspace weapon across the spectrum. There are four types of weapon types, each with distinct characteristics. Together, they represent a full range of counterspace threats facing the U.S.

Comparison of Counterspace Weapon Types
  • Kinetic Physical: China retains various systems capable of damaging satellite ground station control centers. China successfully tested its SC-19 direct ascent ASAT system in 2007, and destroyed a Low Earth Orbit satellite – resulting in hazardous debris. China reportedly demonstrated that dual-use technology for inspection and repair can also function as a weapon when the SJ-12 satellite used a robotic arm to seize another satellite in 2013.
  • Non-Kinetic Physical: While China is capable of launching a nuclear-armed ASAT, it is not actively pursuing testing or research on it in accordance with the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. There are unconfirmed reports of China dazzling a satellite in 2005 using a ground-based 50-100kw laser gun in the Xinjiang province. China announced a ship-based HPM weapon in 2017, but the system requires further miniaturization for satellite deployment.
  • Electronic: China acquired its first ground-based satellite jammers in the 1990’s from Ukraine, but has continually improved upon it. China is adept at spoofing Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Satellites and have demonstrated novel systems to do so for less than $300.00.

Substantiation

China invests heavily in space technology in accordance with its strategic goal to generate wealth through a space-based economy. Financial analysts predict that space will be a $2.7 trillion economy by 2040, and China hopes to be involved in it. Officials identified four areas for exploration: lunar exploration, orbital real-estate, space-based solar power, and asteroid mining.

  • Lunar Exploration: Ouyang Ziyuan, China’s chief lunar exploration program scientist, stated that “whoever first conquers the moon will benefit first.” China plans to do just that and will establish a permanent manned lunar based by the mid-2030’s. The PRC hopes to use water and regolith supplies for moon-based construction using 3D-printing technology. This would reduce costs for further exploration and satellite launches.
  • Orbital real-estate: In 2017, global satellite services revenue was approximately $128 billion and is expected to grow dramatically. China will make its Long March-5B rocket available to private companies for satellite launches in Q3, 2019. The rocket is lower cost than competing systems with only a 6-month production window. By 2020, China also expects to expand the BeiDou GNSS to a 24-hour world-wide, all weather system. The PRC is leveraging BeiDou access as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
  • Space-based solar power (SBSP): China hopes to transmit solar energy gathered in outer space to Earth using microwave transmission. The Japan Space Agency completed a proof of concept test in 2015 which wirelessly transmitted 10kw of energy 500m. China has invested in the 1st state-funded SBSP program. China will begin industrial testing in 2020 with predicted commercial systems in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit by 2050.
  • Asteroid Mining: Experts estimate that Near Earth Asteroids (NEA) could contain between $6 to $20 trillion in precious metals. Chinese scientists are developing plans to capture NEA’s, carefully direct it into the Earth’s atmosphere, and control the descent using heat shielding technology. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC) anticipates a NEA capture by 2029 with a return to earth in 2034.

If China gains control of cis-lunar space, there are no guarantees for fair access. China’s history in Antarctica, the South China Sea, Tibet, and other resource rich areas does not bode well for shared access. A Chinese official was quoted as saying “if we regard space as the earth than the moon is the Senkaku Islands and Mars is the Spratly Islands or Reefs.”

  • China’s predatory behavior in territorial disputes threatens freedom of access in space. China conducts military buildup under the guise of coast guard activities on the Spratly features. China has remarked that not exploring space will mark a failure to protect its “space rights and interests.” Historical behavior indicates China’s perception of “ownership” will probably lead to confrontation.
  • China currently opposes commercial claims to space and largely complies with international space norms. With other territorial claims, China simultaneous purports to maintain the status quo in international agreements, while unilaterally pursuing domestic policies to circumvent the process. It is roughly even odds whether China will continue this trend if it dominates space by 2049.

Contrary to China’s public statements on the peaceful use of outer space, the PLA is focused on developing counterspace capabilities. These weapons systems are not just for show and deterrence. The PRC actively asserts its justifications and capability to use cyber and non-kinetic physical counterspace weapons against U.S. space infrastructure.

  • Motivations: The PRC is concerned its conventional military capabilities will not succeed in a direct confrontation against U.S. conventional forces. The PLA identified space-based C4ISR systems as the center of gravity for U.S. military superiority. The PLA believes that disrupting this dependency would cripple U.S. warfighting and deter the U.S. from direct conflict.
  • Opportunities: High-powered laser, High-Powered Microwave, and Cyber-attacks target inherent system vulnerabilities which are difficult to harden. These soft-kill techniques maximize target damage while minimizing collateral effects, such as space debris. Such counterspace methods are difficult to attribute and can damage multiple assets simultaneously.
  • Means: Chinese counterspace systems are specifically tailored to disrupt U.S. satellite infrastructure, degrade C4ISR capabilities, and impede commercial space development. In June 2018, U.S.-based satellite companies, DoD contractors, and a geospatial imaging firm were targeted by sophisticated hacking campaigns originating in mainland China. Previous cyber-attacks have taken control of NASA and U.S. Geological Service satellites.

Outlook

China’s space program outlook depends on its own technical developments and political resolve, but also U.S. action or lack thereof. China demonstrates consistent support for its space program and identifies it as a key step towards Chinese primacy. U.S. engagement, coercion, and deterrence posture are significant variables for China’s space future. Should the U.S. choose inaction, China will probably be the main force for research, exploration, and commerce in space.

China likely has the means, opportunity, and motives to use cyber and non-kinetic physical counterspace weapons against U.S. space infrastructure.  Should the U.S. fail to alter China’s space warfare calculus, attacks on satellites will probably increase. The U.S. can increase the costs of Chinese strikes by improving attacker attribution and enhancing U.S. countermeasures. The U.S. could alternatively proliferate satellite systems to create redundancies, reduce reliance on single installations, and decrease the benefits of action.

China likely has developed a comparative advantage in space warfare against U.S. space infrastructure. China has repeatedly demonstrated the vulnerability to satellite systems by testing a full-range of counterspace capabilities. Should the U.S. not take appropriate steps to harden existing systems, China’s attacks on U.S. systems specifically will nearly certainly continue.

China will probably continue to meet its space development goals. China has invested significant capital into its space program. Over the past 20 years, China has met each of its benchmarks. As such, the U.S. should take the Chinese space goals seriously and consider crafting a long-term space resource guideline of its own for commercial and military development.

It is a probable that China will use “first presence rights” to justify lunar territorial claims. Should China’s investment in multilateral space initiatives fail to meet its goals, China will probably pursue domestic law. It is improbable that international legislation will constrain its willingness to use military assets in space unless coupled with multifaceted civic engagement.


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