Home / Space / China’s Escalating Space Militarization: Assessing Destructive ‘Counter-Space’ Capabilities and Weapons Advancements

China’s Escalating Space Militarization: Assessing Destructive ‘Counter-Space’ Capabilities and Weapons Advancements

Introduction

Space, once regarded as the final frontier for exploration, scientific research, and international cooperation, is undergoing a transformative change. Space has become a critical domain for global security, communication, and scientific exploration.

Recent years have witnessed mounting concerns over the militarization of space by various nations, with China’s rapid advancement in developing destructive ‘counter-space’ capabilities and weapons drawing particular attention. In this blog article, we delve into the escalating space militarization by China, assessing its development of counter-space capabilities and advancements in space weapons technology and the implications it holds for global security and the future of space exploration.

 

The Space Race 2.0: China’s Ascent

The 21st century has witnessed the resurgence of the space race, this time with more complex implications. China, often seen as a latecomer in space exploration, has made remarkable strides in this arena. Its rapid advancements have sparked both admiration and apprehension on the global stage.

China is rapidly emerging as a major space power. In 2021 alone, China launched an impressive 55 satellites, outpacing all other countries globally. Since 1970, China has launched a total of 500 satellites, a figure second only to the United States. These numbers underscore China’s commitment to space research and development, a trend expected to persist in the years to come.

China has not limited itself to satellite launches; it has cultivated a broad spectrum of space-based capabilities. These include a fully operational space station, a successful lunar lander, a deep-space probe, a sophisticated navigation satellite system, and a comprehensive communications satellite system. The nation continues to channel substantial investments into space exploration and technology, solidifying its position as a rising space power.

The Quest for Space Dominance

The USA currently holds the dominant position in space, but China has set its sights on surpassing its American counterpart by 2030. This ambition drives China’s unrelenting pursuit of space militarization. The RAND Corporation report states that “China’s space program is a key part of its grand strategy.” The report also notes that “China is using its space capabilities to project power, assert its sovereignty, and protect its interests.”

China’s Space Program

China’s space program has seen remarkable growth in recent years, characterized by the launch of various satellites, including military intelligence, communication, and navigation satellites. Their ambitious plan aims to place approximately 100 satellites into space by 2025, supplementing the existing 200-plus satellites already in orbit. This expansion further underscores China’s commitment to space militarization.

China is fast becoming a major space power. In 2021, China launched 55 satellites, more than any other country in the world. China has launched a total of 500 satellites since 1970, more than any country other than the United States. China has developed a wide range of space-based capabilities, including a space station, a lunar lander, a deep-space probe, a navigation satellite system, and a communications satellite system. China is investing heavily in space research and development, and it is expected to continue to do so in the coming years.

China achieved a significant milestone in space exploration with the successful landing of its Chang’e-4 probe on the far side of the Moon in January 2020. The Chang’e-4 probe is equipped with a diverse array of cutting-edge scientific instruments, including a rover, a lander, and a spectrograph, making it a pioneering mission in lunar exploration. Notably, the rover, named Yutu-2, stands as the first of its kind to navigate and explore the uncharted territory of the Moon’s far side. The Chang’e-4 lander continues to transmit data, providing insights into the lunar environment.

In December 2020, China made headlines again as its Chang’e-5 moon lander returned to Earth, carrying precious rock and soil samples collected from the Moon’s surface. This achievement marked the first lunar sample return mission in over four decades, echoing the feats of the American Apollo and Soviet Luna missions.

In November 2022, it sent three taikonauts to its recently completed Tiangong space station and, as mentioned, it plans to build a lunar research station in partnership with Russia by 2035.

China is also actively pursuing missions to Mars and is focusing on developing reusable spaceplanes, further exemplifying its dedication to space exploration and utilization. Among Beijing’s priorities is the development of space technologies that will enable it to exploit space-based mineral resources. Included among its technological goals toward this end
is developing fully reusable launch vehicles, nuclear-powered space shuttles, and solar power
stations to enable mining operations and manufacturing in space

China also has its eye on interplanetary human travel, with plans to send a crewed mission to Mars in 2033. China’s development of space infrastructure, such as constructing new launchpads and growing space-based telemetry, tracking, and command communications that will have an interplanetary reach, reflect its commitment to developing space capabilities.

The Emergence of Space as a Domain of Conflict

The escalating space militarization signifies the increasing utilization of space systems by defense forces to support military operations. This trend is coupled with the proliferation of counter-space weapons, marking the onset of potential conflict in this domain. Militaries worldwide are developing offensive space capabilities to gain supremacy in space operations.

Space as a Strategic Frontier

China’s vision for space extends far beyond scientific exploration and peaceful cooperation. It views space as a strategic frontier, and its investments reflect this perspective.

Reports confirm that China’s space program has rapidly matured, positioning it among the world’s most advanced. The program serves multiple facets of Chinese national interests, including civil, economic, political, and military objectives. Analysts emphasize China’s use of space capabilities to advance national security goals, including military modernization.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has a dedicated branch for space operations, highlighting the nation’s military ambitions in this domain.

Space Bases and Military Presence

China is not solely relying on satellites; it is also bolstering its military presence in space through strategic investments in space bases. Among the most significant endeavors is the construction of a space station, complemented by the establishment of a lunar base. These bases extend China’s military reach into space, potentially leading to heightened tensions with other nations, particularly the United States.

Additionally, China has successfully completed the network of satellites for its BeiDou navigation system, offering an alternative to the US GPS system. This dual-use framework demonstrates the integration of civil and military space capabilities.

China’s Space Doctrine and Strategy

China’s 2019 Defense White Paper acknowledged space as “a critical domain of international strategic competition.” It recognized space’s increasing importance and outlined China’s commitment to bolstering its space capabilities to safeguard its national security and interests. China emphasizes cooperation with other nations in space activities while safeguarding its own space interests, embracing a dual-use framework.

China’s military writings underline the significance of space as a strategic domain for military operations. Their approach involves achieving space superiority through offensive and defensive means, complementing broader strategic focuses on asymmetric cost imposition, access denial, and information dominance.

PLA writings emphasize the necessity of “destroying, damaging, and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance … and communications satellites,” suggesting that such systems, as well as navigation and early warning satellites, could be among the targets of attacks designed to “blind and deafen the enemy.”  PLA analysis of U.S. and coalition military operations also states that “destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors … will deprive an opponent of initiative on the battlefield and [make it difficult] for them to bring their precision guided weapons into full play.”

The Dual-Use Nature: China’s space program operates under a dual-use framework, meaning it serves both civilian and military purposes. This integration allows for the advancement of military capabilities while leveraging advancements in space technology for civilian applications.

The State Council’s 2017 document laying out its “opinions” on the development of MCF highlighted space as a key area for accelerated development. The document calls for strengthening coordination in space, including accelerating the construction of “space infrastructure” to meet military and civilian needs. Among the specific programs the document lays out are heavy-lift launch vehicles, nuclear-powered space equipment, deepspace exploration, and in-orbit service and maintenance systems for space vehicles.

Space as a Strategic Frontier: China views space as a critical domain for military operations, considering it an essential component of their national security strategy. The 2019 White Paper also identified the important role that space will play in “improving the capabilities of joint operations command to exercise reliable and efficient command over emergency responses, and to effectively accomplish urgent, tough and dangerous tasks.”

The PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF)

The People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) plays a pivotal role in China’s space militarization efforts. Established in 2015 as part of comprehensive military reforms, the PLASSF operates under the direct purview of the Central Military Commission. Its mission is to provide centralized support to the PLA, facilitating integrated development and enhancing combat capabilities.

At its core, the reform aimed to improve the PLA’s ability to fight informationized conflicts (xinxihua zhanzheng, 信息化战争), and enhance joint operations and power projection capabilities in support of China’s strategic aims (Xinhua, January 1, 2016). The aim as given in the ibid White paper was “seeking to achieve big development strides in key areas and accelerate the integrated development of new-type combat forces, so as to build a strong and modernized strategic support force.”

The PLASSF comprises three main departments:

  1. Space Systems Department (SSD): Responsible for space warfare operations.
  2. Network Systems Department: Focuses on cyber warfare operations.
  3. Psychological Warfare and Information Operations Department: Manages psychological warfare and information operations.

Indian Strategic Studies: The People's Liberation Army Strategic Support Force: Update 2019

 

The SSF, as the new information warfare force of the PLA, has two primary missions. First, it is to provide the PLA with strategic information support through space and network-based capabilities, including communications, navigation and positioning, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and the protection of military information infrastructure. Second, the SSF is to conduct information operations, including space and counterspace, cyber, electromagnetic warfare, and psychological operations.

The PLASSF has a large number of personnel, and it is equipped with a wide range of weapons and systems. The PLASSF is considered to be one of the most technologically advanced branches of the PLA.

Space Systems Department (SSD)

The Space Systems Department (SSD) plays a pivotal role within the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) of China, overseeing the execution of China’s military space operations. This department has emerged as a central hub, consolidating various critical components of China’s space endeavors, including space launches, telemetry, tracking, and control (TT&C), satellite communications, space intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), and space-related research, development, and support. Additionally, the SSD appears to hold administrative responsibilities for China’s astronaut corps.

Headquartered in Beijing and led by a lieutenant general, the SSD operates through distinct bureaus, each tasked with specific facets of China’s military space activities:

  1. Space Launch Bureau: This bureau is responsible for planning and executing China’s space launch initiatives, ensuring the successful deployment of satellites and payloads into orbit.
  2. Telemetry, Tracking, and Control Bureau: Focused on the critical task of tracking and maintaining control over China’s satellites in space, this bureau ensures the precise positioning and functionality of these assets.
  3. Satellite Communications Bureau: Operating China’s military satellite communications network, this bureau facilitates secure and reliable communication capabilities for defense and strategic purposes.
  4. Space Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Bureau: Tasked with the collection and analysis of intelligence data acquired from space-based assets, this bureau enhances China’s situational awareness and decision-making capabilities.
  5. Space-Related Research, Development, and Support Bureau: This bureau is dedicated to advancing and supporting China’s space-related technologies, fostering innovation and growth in this critical domain.

The establishment of the SSD marks a significant development in China’s military space program. By consolidating various aspects of space operations, it provides the PLASSF with a unified command structure for its space forces. This streamlines planning and execution, reinforcing China’s capabilities in space.

The PLASSF’s growing prominence and capabilities have raised concerns among the United States and other nations. Given its potential to disrupt or destroy foreign satellites, the PLASSF represents a national security challenge. Consequently, the United States is actively investing in the development of its space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities to deter and counter the PLASSF’s activities in the evolving landscape of space warfare.

Space-Based Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR)

China is actively engaged in enhancing its space-based Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. This initiative aims to elevate China’s military prowess and establish an integrated space-based network for data collection and dissemination.

Satellite Constellations and Systems: China has developed communication satellites like Tianlian and Shen Tong, providing secure communication capabilities. Earth observation satellites such as the Yaogan series support intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). These satellites facilitate real-time data transfer, command and control operations, and information exchange among widely dispersed military units.

Space-Based Sensors and Reconnaissance: China invests in advanced sensors and reconnaissance capabilities, including Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites and electro-optical satellites crucial for bolstering situational awareness and intelligence collection

Electro-Optical Satellites: China has deployed electro-optical satellites, exemplified by the Yaogan-30 series, featuring high-resolution optical sensors. These satellites capture visual imagery, detect objects, and collect intelligence pertaining to military activities, infrastructure, and potential threats.

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) Satellites: China has launched SAR satellites like the Gaofen-3, equipped for all-weather and day-and-night imaging at high resolutions. SAR satellites offer detailed imagery vital for target identification, mapping, and monitoring of land, maritime, and aerial activities.

Navigation Satellites:  In 2020, it completed its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (北斗卫星导航系统), giving China global navigational autonomy, essential in a global conflict. China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) delivers precise positioning, navigation, and timing services. It empowers military operations with accurate and autonomous navigation capabilities, enabling the deployment of precision-guided munitions, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and other platforms.

Command and Control Infrastructure: China is actively investing in ground-based command and control infrastructure to manage its space-based assets and facilitate C4ISR operations

  • Ground Control Stations: These stations serve as hubs for satellite operations, encompassing tracking, telemetry, and control functions for China’s satellite constellations. They enable real-time command and control, data reception, and mission planning.
  • Data Processing and Analysis Centers: China has established centers dedicated to processing and analyzing the extensive information harvested from its space-based assets. These facilities are instrumental in extracting actionable intelligence and supporting decision-making processes.

Integrated Network Architecture: China envisions an integrated network architecture, connecting space assets, ground stations, and command centers, ensuring efficient data transmission, real-time situational awareness, and rapid decision-making.

China’s robust space-based C4ISR modernization initiatives underscore its commitment to enhancing military capabilities and achieving information dominance. Leveraging satellite constellations, advanced sensors, and ground infrastructure, China aims to fortify its command, control, and intelligence-gathering capabilities. These developments carry significant implications for regional and global security dynamics, highlighting the importance of monitoring and comprehending China’s progress in space-based C4ISR.

China’s Destructive ‘Counter-Space’ Capabilities

One of the most concerning aspects of China’s space militarization is its growing ‘counter-space’ capabilities. These capabilities are designed to disrupt or destroy an adversary’s space assets, which could have severe consequences for global security and communication systems.

Space situational awareness (SSA)

China is actively advancing its space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities through the development of a comprehensive system consisting of ground-based optical telescopes and radars. These assets are designed for detecting, tracking, and characterizing space objects. Similar to the United States and Russia, China’s SSA radars also serve the critical function of missile warning.

While China’s SSA assets are primarily within its borders, it has taken steps to expand its reach. This includes maintaining a fleet of tracking ships and fostering relationships with other nations that may potentially host additional tracking sensors. Moreover, since 2010, China has launched multiple satellites equipped for rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) in orbit. These satellites likely contribute to China’s ability to gather intelligence and characterize foreign satellites, enhancing its overall SSA capabilities.

Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Missiles:

China demonstrated its ASAT capabilities in 2007 when it destroyed one of its own defunct weather satellites, creating thousands of pieces of space debris. This action sent shockwaves through the international community, as the debris posed a threat to other satellites and space missions. Chinese DA-ASAT capability against LEO targets is likely mature and likely operationally fielded on mobile launchers. Chinese DA-ASAT capability against deep space targets – both medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and GEO – is likely still in the experimental or development phase.

China has conducted multiple flight tests of new anti-satellite missiles, raising concerns about its intentions in space. In May 2013, China launched a ballistic missile (DN-2) on a trajectory near geosynchronous orbit, a region with numerous communications and earth-sensing satellites. China is progressing with the development of missiles and electronic weapons that could target satellites in low and high orbits, the Pentagon says in a new report released Sept. 2020.

Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs):

China possesses ground-based lasers capable of blinding or destroying optical sensors on satellites, compromising their functionality.  Dazzling refers to the use of lasers to temporarily blind or disable satellites. These weapons could disable reconnaissance satellites and impact communication networks, severely hampering military and civilian operations.

In the December 2013 issue of Chinese Optics, an article titled “Development of Space-Based Laser Weapons” was published by Gao Min-hui, Zhou Yu-quan, and Wang Zhi-hong from the Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics. This institute is renowned for its work in laser technology, both for civilian and military applications. The article disclosed that in 2005, a successful satellite blinding experiment was conducted in Xinjiang province, China. The experiment involved the use of a 50-100 kW capacity mounted laser gun to disable a low orbit satellite positioned at a distance of 600 km. The telescope used to fire the laser beam had a diameter of 0.6 meters, and the precision of the acquisition, tracking, and pointing (ATP) system was less than 5 microradians.

Satellite imagery of China’s Korla East Test Site in Xinjiang has raised concerns about the possible use of anti-satellite laser weapons (ASAT) targeting Western satellites. The imagery reveals two laser gimbals and supporting infrastructure in separate hangars with retractable roofs, strongly suggesting the presence of ASAT weapons. These hangars open around solar noon, a time when imaging satellites from other nations are most active, indicating a deliberate attempt to engage with them.

The laser ASAT weapons at the Korla East Test Site possess versatile capabilities, including disrupting satellite communications and sensors, heating targets for engagement with heat-seeking missiles, or direct destruction of satellite components. They could also potentially spoof encrypted laser information transfer, allowing adversaries to gather critical data from targeted satellites.

In addition to laser ASAT weapons, the presence of an EMP generator and an aerostat blimp at the site raises further questions about its capabilities and objectives. Such developments have implications for global security and satellite system vulnerabilities, highlighting the need for ongoing monitoring and assessment of China’s space capabilities.

Electronic Warfare (EW):

China has invested in electronic warfare systems designed to disrupt satellite communication and navigation systems. Such capabilities could cripple an adversary’s ability to navigate, communicate, and gather intelligence.  Jamming refers to the use of radio waves to interfere with satellite communications

China likely has sophisticated capabilities for jamming or spoofing space-based positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) capabilities. There are multiple open source reports of Chinese military PNT jammers being deployed on islands in the South China Sea as well as reports of sophisticated, widespread spoofing of civil GPS signals near the port of Shanghai.

In addition to its ‘counter-space’ capabilities, China has been actively developing a range of space-based weapons technology.

Kinetic Kill Vehicles:

China is working on kinetic kill vehicles that can collide with and destroy enemy satellites. This technology is challenging to detect and can be rapidly deployed. Kinetic kill refers to the use of projectiles to destroy satellites.

Co-orbital Satellites:

China has also been developing antisatellite weapons that could be launched from space. China is also experimenting with co-orbital satellites that can approach and manipulate enemy satellites. These “killer satellites” can potentially disable or redirect critical space assets.

Satellite Repair

Direct engagement of adversary satellites through capabilities to execute grappling and remote proximity operations (using extendable arms to physically interact with a target satellite to repair or refuel the satellite for peaceful purposes or, as a weapon, to damage or destroy it—a true dual-use capability

In August 2013, China launched the Shijian 15 satellite along with three other satellites. During this mission, the main Shijian satellite released a smaller sub-satellite and performed maneuvers. The Shiyan 7 satellite, one of the co-launched payloads, featured a Remote Manipulator Arm, which demonstrated China’s capabilities for coorbital Anti-Satellite (ASAT) operations. The spacecraft was able to capture a defunct satellite and bring it back to Earth. This demonstrated China’s ability to capture and destroy satellites in space.

Space Mines and Traps:

China’s research into space mines and traps reveals its intent to secure its strategic interests in orbit. These devices could be deployed to protect Chinese satellites or target those of adversaries.

China also fielded sophisticated on-orbit capabilities, such as satellites with robotic arm technology for inspection and repair, which the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assesses could also function as a weapon.

These destructive capabilities are not only disruptive but also generate long-lasting space debris, further exacerbating space congestion.

 

International Concerns and Implications

China’s aggressive pursuit of space militarization has raised concerns among other spacefaring nations. China’s relentless development of destructive space technologies poses a threat to peaceful space-faring nations. As they continue to refine their missile and electronic warfare capabilities, the risk of space becoming a domain of conflict grows.

Threat to Global Space Infrastructure:

The continued escalation of space militarization poses a significant threat to global space infrastructure. Disruptions to satellite networks, GPS systems, and communication grids could have far-reaching economic and security consequences.

The international community is increasingly concerned about China’s space militarization efforts. The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) warns that China seeks to integrate space services into its military command and control systems to erode the US military’s information advantage. China’s pursuit of ground-based ASAT missiles, lasers, and electronic warfare capabilities heightens the risk to international space activities. The United States, Russia, and other nations are closely monitoring these developments and are themselves taking steps to protect their space assets.

Arms Race in Orbit:

The development of space weapons by China has ignited an arms race in orbit, mirroring the Cold War-era arms race on Earth. This could potentially lead to the proliferation of destructive capabilities in space, increasing the risk of accidents and conflicts.

The Need for Diplomacy:

To address these challenges, diplomatic efforts are crucial. The international community must engage in dialogue and negotiations to establish norms and rules of behavior in space. Preventing the weaponization of space is in the interest of all nations.

Conclusion

In conclusion, China’s rapid ascent as a space power and its focus on militarization underscore the evolving landscape of space exploration and security. China’s escalating space militarization efforts, including ‘counter-space’ capabilities and space weapons advancements, have raised concerns about the stability of the space domain. The extensive modernization of China’s space-based Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities underscores its commitment to enhancing military strength and achieving information dominance.

As we enter a new era of space exploration and utilization, it is imperative that nations work together to ensure the peaceful and responsible use of outer space for the benefit of all humanity.

The future of space security depends on international cooperation, transparency, and diplomacy, rather than an arms race beyond our planet.  The international community must remain vigilant, engage in dialogue, and seek avenues for peaceful cooperation in space while preparing for potential challenges posed by the militarization of this final frontier. International engagement and the establishment of comprehensive space governance frameworks are essential for ensuring the peaceful use of outer space and safeguarding the benefits that space activities bring to humanity.

 

 

 

 

References and Resources also include:

https://www.scmp.com/news/world/united-states-canada/article/3140634/chinese-space-technology-capable-jamming-satellites

https://www.army-technology.com/features/is-chinas-korla-laser-asat-site-hacking-western-satellites/

https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/2023-02/20230209-sr-515-china-strategic-instability-space.pdf

 

About Rajesh Uppal

Check Also

Guiding the Way: GNC Systems in Deep Space Exploration and Colonization

Introduction: The vast cosmos has always beckoned to humanity’s adventurous spirit, and with each passing …

error: Content is protected !!