Red Shift

China building up space warfare capabilities, report says


China’s military is building up space warfare forces with missiles, military satellites, and electronic systems designed to attack U.S. satellites and space-transiting precision strike vehicles, according to a congressional report.

“The [People’s Liberation Army] PLA is rapidly improving its space and counterspace capabilities in order to advance [Chinese Communist Party] interests and defend against perceived challenges to sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission states. The little-noticed report was made public April 26.

Former Air Force officer Mark Stokes, a specialist on China’s strategic forces with the private Project 2049 Institute, wrote the 85-page study, “China’s Evolving Space Capabilities.” Heritage Foundation China affairs specialist Dean Cheng contributed to the report.

Much of the report is focused on how high-technology space systems allow the Chinese military to better conduct war fighting, through such means as improved targeting over long distances and gathering intelligence.

“Greater Chinese competence in leveraging space technologies for military use may complicate U.S. freedom of action in the Asia-Pacific region,” the report said. “Over the next 10-15 years, more advanced precision strike assets, integrated with persistent space-based surveillance, a single integrated air and space picture, and survivable communications architecture, could enable greater confidence in contesting a broader range of sovereignty and territorial claims around China’s periphery.”

One specific goal of space capabilities is to field weapons against “U.S. long-range precision strike capabilities expected to be in place over the next 10-15 years.”

Those U.S. systems include new space planes and high-speed delivery systems for missiles and other weaponry.

Among the Chinese weapons systems for space highlighted in the report are both passive and active space assets including electronic warfare systems to disrupt satellites. Chinese researchers are also “developing the capability for physical destruction of satellites in orbit,” the report said.

China’s military space programs are directly linked to China’s long-range precision strike missiles, the report said.

The report said key elements of what the Pentagon calls “counterspace” weapons include China’s kinetic kill missiles that destroy satellites by ramming into them in orbit, and small, maneuvering satellites that can get close to an orbiting satellite and attack it.

“The PRC has been investing in a range of passive and active counterspace technologies, and has demonstrated a rudimentary capability to track and intercept satellites orbiting around the earth’s poles in the lower reaches of outer space,” the report said.

The Chinese military is developing non-destructive means of denying the use of satellites by adversaries because blowing up satellites, as occurred in a 2007 test, cause dangerous debris that limits everyone’s use of space, the report said.

U.S. intelligence agencies have identified China’s efforts to build systems that attack command and control and communications systems, such as jammers, as among Beijing’s highest military priorities, the report said.

China’s kinetic anti-satellite missile is being developed to shoot down “advanced U.S. long-range precision strike capabilities that would transit space, and are expected to be in place by 2025.”

Those U.S. systems include the FALCON hypersonic vehicle, the Air Force X-37B orbital test vehicle, and the X-51A, a B-52-dropped high-speed scramjet vehicle.

China’s anti-satellite missile was tested in 2007 and 2010 and is believed to be able to intercept polar orbiting satellites and medium-range missiles in mid-course flight, the report said.

The Chinese military organization in charge of the space warfare programs is not known, the report said, noting that Chinese military writings indicate Beijing has considered developing an independent arm of the military devoted to space warfare.

The report concludes that while Chinese space technology does not match that of the United States, “China’s relative advances are significant. Given asymmetries in reliance on space systems, even relative increases in Chinese space capabilities could present challenges for the United States.”

“China also is pressing forward with an ambitious counterspace program, including a ground- and space-based space surveillance system, electronic warfare capabilities, and [kinetic kill vehicles].”

China’s emergence as a new competitor in space and Beijing’s secrecy surrounding its military programs “remain major causes for concern,” the report said.

Richard Fisher, a China military affairs specialist, said the report should have covered China’s manned space program, which is controlled by the military.

“We can be sure that the PLA will make military use of China’s future manned space station, possible space planes in development, and China’s moon program will also have a military dimension,” said Fisher, with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

China’s communist government is using investments in space, both civilian and military, to maintain Communist Party rule, the report said.

“Policymakers view space power as one aspect of a broad international competition in comprehensive national strength and science and technology,” the report said, noting that China integrates civilian and military space programs.

“China’s space ambitions are in part peaceful in nature,” the report said. “Yet technologies can also be used with ill-intent.”

The report said Taiwan is a key factor in the Chinese military buildup of space warfare programs.

“Because Taiwan’s democratic system of government—an alternative to mainland China’s authoritarian model—presents an existential challenge to the CCP, the PLA relies on military coercion to compel concessions on sovereignty,” the report said. “Although other interests divert attention and resources, Taiwan remains the principle illustrative scenario guiding the PLA’s military ambitions in space.”

Because Taiwan is a “core interest of the United States,” Washington “should maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”