Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

Washington Watching as Beijing’s Space Power Grows

The latest U.S. Defense Department report on Chinese military power recounts Beijing’s growing space and counterspace capabilities.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
Washington Watching as Beijing’s Space Power Grows
Credit: NASA

The U.S. Department of Defense last week released its annual report on China’s military power.  The report details all aspects of China’s military including land, naval, air, space and information domains. The report identifies a few areas such as shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air defense systems where China has “achieved parity with – or even exceeded – the United States.”  

According to the report, China has also made impressive strides in critical sectors such as cyber and space. Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, there has been greater focus on overall military capabilities and the PLA has devoted more attention to space and information capabilities. The last Chinese Defence White Paper (2019) identified space as “a critical domain of international strategic competition.” The 2019 White Paper also identified the important role that space will play in “improv[ing] the capabilities of joint operations command to exercise reliable and efficient command over emergency responses, and to effectively accomplish urgent, tough and dangerous tasks.”  

With China emerging as a global power, it is only natural to expect it to develop a range of space and counterspace capabilities. However, Beijing’s emphasis on developing these capabilities to “paralyze the enemy’s operational system of systems” as well as “sabotage the enemy’s war command system of systems” means others have to take note. This, Beijing believes, can enable it to disrupt and deny any space-based advantage that an advanced military like the U.S. may have. The Pentagon’s report highlights PLA writings that have noted “the effectiveness of IO and cyberwarfare in recent conflicts and advocate targeting C2 and logistics networks to affect” an adversary in times of conflict. The report also cites “authoritative PLA sources” who have called for “the coordinated employment of space, cyber and EW as strategic weapons” in order to create significant disruptions in an adversary’s command and control as well as logistics networks. 

Worryingly, the U.S. report states that China has plans to use a combination of these capabilities on assets beyond military ones to include “political and economic targets with clear ‘awing effects’ – as part of its deterrence.” This would entail the PLA’s possible use of its cyber warfare capabilities “to collect data for intelligence and cyberattack purposes; to constrain an adversary’s actions by targeting network-based logistics, C2, communications, commercial activities, and civilian and defense infrastructure; or, to serve as a force-multiplier when coupled with kinetic attacks during armed conflict.”  

With the goal of being a “world-class military power,” China has gone about advancing its space power, both in terms of institutional reorganization and development of space and counterspace capabilities. The military modernization and reorganization undertaken by China since 2015 is worth noting. In terms of institutional architecture, the most significant development is the creation of the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), a theater command-level organization designed to combine “the PLA’s strategic space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities.”  The U.S. report adds that the PLASSF’s Network Systems Department, which controls information warfare, has identified the U.S. as the “current major target.” The PLASSF is an institutional innovation to bring about greater synergies in functions that were previously spread across a number of departments. Under the reorganization, the PLASSF is directly under the Central Military Commission and is responsible for extending support to the entire PLA. China’s 2019 Defence White Paper clearly outlined the goals of the PLASSF as “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.”  

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The U.S. Department of Defense’s report details the structure and functions of some of the key institutions under the PLASSF. The PLASSF houses two near-independent departments – the Network Systems and the Space Systems Departments – that are responsible for an entire range of capabilities and missions involving space, cyber and electronic warfare technologies. The Space Systems Department, for instance, has the complete responsibility for almost all of the PLA space operations including space launch and support, space surveillance, space information support, space telemetry, tracking and control, and space warfare. While it is not clear where the counterspace capabilities fit and which institution is responsible for it, China is clear on the role of space in future conflicts to enable “long-range precision strikes and in denying other militaries the use of overhead command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems.”  

Unlike many other space powers, China’s space program has historically been under the PLA, and it continues to play a critical role in developing China as a major space power  Today, China has fielded a large fleet of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), communication and navigation satellite constellations which is enabled by strengthened launch capabilities. China has been also active in its human spaceflight and lunar exploration missions, plus a debut Mars mission in 2020. China has additionally gone about developing a larger space ecosystem that has resulted in diversification to include several sub-sectors beyond the military, to the political, defense-industrial and commercial arenas. It is not clear if this was a deliberate decision by the PLA or not, but it could possibly help in strengthening China’s overall space competitiveness. China is also thought to have developed “quick response” small satellite launch vehicles to cater to the growing small satellite market. This capability could be helpful to China “to rapidly reconstitute low Earth orbit space capabilities,” which could come into play during conflicts should Beijing have the need to launch a large number of satellites to replace satellites that are damaged or increase the number of satellites in a particular orbit for better services.  

While China’s development of space capabilities has been impressive, it has also pursued counterspace capabilities in a focused manner. Beijing has an array of counterspace capabilities including direct ascent and co-orbital anti-satellite weapons, offensive cyber and electronic warfare capabilities such as satellite jammers, as well as directed energy weapons that can target an adversary’s system and create disruptions or denial of services, thereby cutting off “an adversary’s access to and operations in the space domain during a crisis or conflict.” According to the U.S. report, China has expanded its space surveillance capabilities which aids Beijing in keeping a watch on “objects in space within their field of view and enable counterspace actions.” China has demonstrated its ground-based ASAT capability which is capable of targeting satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) but the report notes that China possibly has plans to expand its ASAT capabilities to destroy satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit, targets that are much farther away.  

Over the last few years, a number of open-source reports have detailed growing Chinese counterspace capabilities. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report of 2019 also highlighted these growing threats. China is known to be engaged in testing certain dual-use technologies in space that could be used for counterspace activities as well. For example, China’s “Roaming Dragon” system, fitted with a robotic arm, is supposed to be used for space debris removal missions but can very well be used for counterspace missions. In fact, Chinese scholars have stated that the “Roaming Dragon” could be engaged in debris removal activities during peacetime but at times of conflict, “they could be used as deterrents or directly against enemy assets in space.”

The U.S. report also outlines China’s efforts at espionage to steal U.S. military technology including space technology. According to the report, a number of U.S. criminal indictments have been handed down involving Chinese nationals, naturalized U.S. citizens, permanent resident aliens from China, and U.S. citizens since 2015, for attempts at “procuring and exporting controlled items to China.” Some of the sensitive, dual-use technology or military-grade equipment in these cases have included radiation hardened integrated circuits, monolithic microwave integrated circuits, accelerometers, gyroscopes, syntactic foam trade secrets and space communications technologies, among others. The report listed some recent cases including one in October 2019 when a Chinese national was sent to prison for 40 months for “conspiring to export military- and space-grade technology illegally” from the U.S. to China. The individual is reported to have worked with others in China “to purchase radiation-hardened power amplifiers and supervisory circuits used for military and space applications.”   

China’s achievements in the space domain are indeed impressive but the increasingly contested geopolitics make space yet another arena for competition and rivalry.  China’s actions will be closely watched and, in many respects, will fuel further rivalries in the Indo-Pacific.