Chinese military takes its martial objectives deep into space

HORNBILLTV
March 19,2024 02:34 PM
HORNBILL TV

Highlights

The Chinese military takes is taking its martial and warfighting objectives deep into space.

Hong Kong, March 19 (HBTV): One thing conspicuously absent from China's defense budget--announced on March 5 and amounting to a 7.2 per cent year-on-year increase to CNY1.66554 trillion (USD231.4 billion) - was its military space spending. It is notable that the real power behind China's space program is the People's Liberation Army (PLA).  

The previous year was a record for Chinese space launches, with 67 rockets putting 207 satellites into orbit, of which many were for military or dual-use purposes. Currently, China has approximately 245 military satellites in orbit.                    

Formed in 2015, the Strategic Support Force of the PLA is responsible for military space operations, specifically its Space Systems Department and Network Systems Department.   

"Informatisation" is one of three key pillars in the modernization of the PLA, alongside mechanization and ‘intelligentisation’. China's 2015 Defence White Paper announced: ‘Outer space has become a commanding height in international strategic competition. Countries concerned are developing their space forces and instruments, and the first signs of weaponisation of outer space have appeared.’  

China has never released an official space warfare doctrine, but instead it likes to repeat vague claims that it "always adheres to the principle of use of outer space for peaceful purposes and opposes the weaponisation of or an arms race in outer space".’     

While China is pursuing scientific work in space, its space program extends far beyond that to include nefarious military purposes. 

In the government's recently released "Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community", a section devoted to China's space capabilities summarised, "China remains committed to becoming a world-class space leader, and continues to demonstrate its growing prowess by deploying increasingly capable space systems and working towards ambitious scientific feats. By 2030, China probably will achieve world-class status in all but a few space technology areas."  

This assessment highlighted Chinese improvements in space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), as well as position, navigation and timing, and satellite communications. The US said that China is intent on "closing the perceived gap between itself and the US military" in these areas, and the Pentagon said China's ISR satellite fleet nearly doubled in the period 2018-22.  

A vitally important family of ISR satellites is the Yaogan series in low Earth orbit (LEO), with at least 54 for ISR plus 46 for electronic intelligence. On 15 December 2023, China launched the large Yaogan-41 optical satellite into geostationary orbit.  

"These satellites allow the PLA to monitor potential regional flashpoints, including the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, Indian Ocean and South China Sea," explained the US government. Increasingly, such satellites are able to enhance PLA operations farther from the Chinese coast, as China's military seeks to extend its geopolitical reach.  

In addition to the aforementioned US threat assessment published this month, the Pentagon's most recent report on China's military added this, "The PLA views space superiority, the ability to control the space-enabled information sphere and to deny adversaries their own space-based information gathering and communication capabilities, as critical components to conduct modern 'informatised warfare'."  

Whereas the US has GPS, China has its own equivalent known as BeiDou. This constellation presently has 45 satellites, with the final member launched in June 2020 to give a positioning accuracy level of 5m in the Asia-Pacific region.     

A report published by the Belfer Center of Harvard Kennedy School in the US last year, entitled "China's BeiDou: New Dimensions of Great Power Competition", argued that this satellite constellation is a predictable manifestation of China's growing military, economic and technological power. Yet, it also cautioned, "BeiDou and its associated ecosystem of continuously operating reference stations and receivers embedded in infrastructure and consumer products over time may undermine the national interests of the United States and partner nations."           

With its global positioning service, China reaps economic advantages and increases foreign political ties as other nations become reliant on BeiDou. Furthermore, it "strengthens China's defence and space capabilities. It removes a potential source of US leverage over China during conflict. It provides China with greater freedom of military action and may increase incentives for attacks against US and allied global navigation satellite systems."                

Elsewhere, "China's commercial space sector is growing quickly and is on pace to become a major global competitor by 2030," assessed US intelligence agencies. As an example, China is developing an LEO satellite internet service to compete with Western commercial services such as Starlink belonging to SpaceX in the US.  

Indeed, it is planned that China's government-created SatNet company will operate the Guo Wang mega-constellation of up to 13,000 satellites. This planned internet-in- the-sky network would have both military and commercial applications.     

China plans to land taikonauts on the Moon in around 2030. Simultaneously, it is "engaging countries to join its lunar research station effort as part of its broader attempt to develop an alternative bloc to the US-led Artemis Accords," said the US threat assessment. China harbors long-term astro-strategic ambitions, as it seeks to gain an advantageous position on the lunar surface and in cis-lunar space.

As on Earth, whoever controls the "high ground" will have a greater ability to control resources.

Therefore, China is making sure to stake its claim. In April 2021, a Long March 5B rocket carried the Tianhe 1 core module of China's new space station into orbit. China said its Tiangong space station will aid in "realising the shared vision of a community of destiny for the benefit of all mankind" in international space cooperation.  

China promotes itself as being "a more inclusive space power" than the US, and its space station is now permanently crewed. Yet China was forced to go it alone after NASA banned it from international space cooperative activities in 2011 over concerns about technology theft and national security.       

A 2007 ASAT test garnered international opprobrium when China created a massive cloud of space debris after destroying its defunct FengYun 1C weather satellite. However, it was a powerful demonstration of China's ability to do it again should it want to.     

A recent report by the US-based China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI) asserted, "Authoritative PLA texts repeatedly state that kinetic space attacks should be a limited method of achieving space control, and primarily used as a deterrent against strong opponents. The PLA seems more focused on using other types of space control, specifically space situational awareness, satellite maneuverability and improved encryption."  

Direct-ascent ASATs are controlled by the Central Military Commission, the highest military body in China that is chaired by Xi Jinping. The CASI report mentioned, "PLA academy textbooks repeatedly state that the PLA Air Force, Rocket Force and Army will be the likely operators of direct-ascent ASAT-capable missiles ... Ensuring multiple services are capable of launching [such] missiles is the best way for the Central Military Commission to achieve its primary intention, which is to deter and develop other capabilities."     

The PLA has been training with ASATs since at least 2018, but there is no evidence that the Strategic Support Force is the exclusive owner of mobile launchers. Indeed, having more than one PLA service possess ASAT launchers and missiles, and being able to deploy from multiple locations, makes such a capability a serious deterrent. China has at least one, and possibly three, direct-ascent ASAT missiles. The SC-17 is also known as the DN-1, but there are also believed to be DN-2 and DN-3 missiles that can even target satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit too.      

China has fielded road-transportable, solid-fuelled space launch vehicles as well. These quick-response rockets are significant because they would help the PLA to rapidly reconstitute its LEO space capabilities by launching replacements for any satellites knocked out of action in a war.     

In August 2021, China demonstrated its ability to launch orbital weapons when it deployed a fractional orbital bombardment system. Although this was not a counter-space weapon test per se, such a capability enables China to circumvent American early-warning radars and ballistic missile defenses.  

China, for all its talk of peaceful use of space, continues to flatly refuse to enter into arms control talks with the US.    

It is difficult to ascertain to what extent China has interfered with others' satellites, but the National Reconnaissance Office in the US confirmed in 2006 that at least one of its satellites had been illuminated by a Chinese ground-based laser during a "test".       

China has multiple ground-based lasers to disrupt satellites in LEO. The Pentagon describes this as a "current limited capability", but higher-powered systems may extend this threat in the mid- to late 2020s. China is also developing satellite-killer satellites that aim a laser at the solar panels or antennas of an adjacent satellite. It is unclear whether China has launched such killer satellites already, but the country may well be already testing them against its own ageing satellites.   

Of course, if China attempted to interfere with American satellites in these ways, it would suffer retaliatory strikes against its own satellites. China, in recent years, has been building up its ability to strike asymmetrically against American military strengths - and that includes targeting its sophisticated space-based sensors - but by the same token China has become far more dependent on its own space assets. One of Beijing's methods to reduce the risk is to flood space with greater quantities of its own satellites; a larger critical mass means that any degradation by a hostile power will be less debilitating to the PLA.    

(ANI) This is a syndicated news feed. HBTV has edited it for clarity.