Governments in Asia and beyond are increasingly on alert as China’s power projection increases in the air, sea, and cyber realms, but much less attention is paid to the biggest realm of them all – space. China has space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets second only to the United States. The use of U.S. space-based assets in the Iraq and Afghan wars did not go unnoticed by China. China similarly wants to build space-based assets as an asymmetric means to deter a technologically advanced West.
With a distracted United States turned inward, how do Indo-Pacific states with considerably smaller GDPs begin to address a Goliath that seemingly already dominates space?
As China’s launch cadence increases, so do its ballistic missile capabilities. China’s launch cadence already exceeds the United States’, even when taking SpaceX into account. China’s anti-satellite capabilities have improved beyond missiles. China has been refining its co-orbital and multi-arm satellite capturing capabilities. With respect to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, China’s YaoGan constellation of military reconnaissance satellites supports a range of geospatial intelligence capabilities: optical, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), and electronic intelligence (ELINT). Most notably, unlike visible light optical imagery, China’s SAR capabilities allow the Chinese military to see through clouds and at night. Earlier this month, China delivered into orbit another trio of satellites designed to locate and track warships necessary for maritime domain awareness and intelligence operations.
Structurally, since the 1990s, China has taken great pains to reorganize its ministries to drive a national space startup strategy. Today, China’s New Space startups are more agile than their state-owned counterparts; they drive innovation and raise private capital. All the while, these “private” companies are intimately tied to the government through civil-military fusion policies. As China’s lunar lander and rover operations complete their second year and a new China-Russian moon base has just been announced, the West’s lead in space continues to narrow even faster.
Taiwan as David to China’s Goliath
More than any other nation in the Indo-Pacific, Taiwan is subject to the Chinese Communist Party’s laser focused attention. An island nation of 23 million people, Taiwan is the linchpin to the West’s commercial and military technological superiority. Taiwan’s factories and engineers produce microchips for the world’s civilian and military vehicles, smartphones, and other critical electronics that power the internet. Taiwan has also been a significant source of personal protective equipment to the West during this ongoing pandemic. Geographically speaking, the island is also a critical chokepoint to China’s submarines and burgeoning blue-water navy.
At the March 2021 U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission hearing, Lonnie Henley, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and a former Defense Intelligence Agency East Asia Intelligence officer, testified, “The PLA has systematically built the capabilities they believe they need for a war with the United States over Taiwan. They probably have achieved initial capability.”
Taiwan, like Japan, is at the receiving end of near-daily airspace incursions by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. In addition to the short and medium-range missiles pointed at the island, the rapid buildout of China’s RenHai missile destroyers and amphibious assault ships continues to expand China’s stand-off capability against U.S. naval assets in Guam and Pearl Harbor.
Notably, China’s evolving grey-zone warfare tactics now include a fleet of sand dredgers just six miles off the coast of Matsu, one of Taiwan’s vulnerable outlying islands. China’s use of grey-zone tactics offers plausible deniability while creating options as public perception may allow. Running round-the-clock patrols is a significant resource drain on Taiwan’s Coast Guard fleet and relatively small military budget.
China excels at employing incremental tactics that achieve its goals but run just short of triggering a sharp response from the West. From incremental annexation of the South China Sea to cyber espionage and disinformation warfare, China has largely gone unpunished. So how can space-based assets help Taiwan? Moreover, with local and international media’s talking heads’ ad nauseam coverage of the perceived threat of imminent Chinese invasion, how do Indo-Pacific countries change the narrative?
Intelligence in the Left-of-Launch Right-of-Launch Timeline
Modern military conflicts are either short and decisive (Armenia-Azerbaijan) or drawn out when the larger asymmetrical power cannot end the conflict (Afghanistan). In the latter case, military superiority eventually disintegrates as a decisive factor. The larger power’s domestic enthusiasm and political support fades, as international pressure slowly builds. In an asymmetrical conflict, David needs to buy time and protect a strategic position to respond to Goliath effectively.
The Biden White House recently reiterated its commitment to Taiwan’s defense. But U.S. forces are spread globally, requiring Taiwan to hold out until a U.S.-led coalition can assemble focused assistance. Therefore – and with limited resources – Taiwan must master three capabilities: 1) possess actionable intelligence; 2) maintain robust military strength; and 3) deploy limited defensive assets most effectively to defeat – or in an asymmetrical conflict, forestall – the adversary. Mastering these three capabilities buys Taiwan what it needs most: time.
Consider the “left-of-launch” and “right-of-launch” timeline used by military strategists. Where launch refers to the first-strike missile launches opening hostilities, left-of-launch is the period before a conflict in which intelligence assets forewarn by monitoring and assessing threats. Right-of-launch is optimizing the deployment of defensive assets designed to support a hot war. Left-of-launch capabilities forewarn and shape military capability development, while right-of-launch supports the precise use of that capability.
Space is a critical warfighting domain for both. Left-of-launch, space assets for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance are uniquely capable of overflying and assessing production capabilities, patterns of behavior, and massing of forces. Space-based remote sensing across the electromagnetic spectrum aids in ISR, especially optical imaging (visible light pictures), synthetic aperture radar (SAR – 3D radar imagery), and electronic intelligence (ELINT – monitoring of radio frequency signals). Right-of-launch requires survivable space assets for launch detection, enemy position and movement knowledge, and damage assessment, while supporting troops with telecom, navigation, weather, and other services. To counter Goliath, David must collect data from the operational environment, then process and exploit the data to generate information that is analyzed to produce the intelligence upon which military and political decisions are made.
The use of left-of-launch grey-zone tactics makes it difficult to measure China’s intent. On the continuum of warfare, timely intelligence is crucial. Geospatial intelligence on Chinese military forces is a critical tool for assessing patterns of behavior, measuring expanded capability, and tracking the massing of China’s civil-military fused forces.
Arming David With a Better Slingshot
Indo-Pacific leaders need intelligence to see threat force concentrations and reduce the likelihood of being blindsided by Chinese grey-zone tactics. Historically, space ISR capabilities have been prohibitively expensive for most Indo-Pacific countries. This has changed. Now, many smaller countries can purchase commercially available space-based optical, SAR, and emerging ELINT capabilities, or even acquire their own satellite or multi-satellite constellation at an affordable cost. Satellites enable frequent surveillance of broad areas, from the entire Chinese mainland to across the South China Sea.
For Taiwan, Japan, and India, land and maritime domain awareness are critical tools in fighting disinformation and facilitate effective deployment of high-value land, air, and sea assets. Consequently, SAR capabilities are the essential left-of-launch and right-of-launch capabilities. Why? SAR provides ISR capabilities at night and through clouds when optical imaging is blinded, and can image ships, missile launchers, or other assets when all radio frequency emissions are turned off to avoid detection.
Commercial SAR imagery is available at the resolutions necessary to achieve land surveillance and maritime domain awareness. SAR constellations now being deployed provide a unique long-range capability maintaining deep and frequent watch over PRC military assets on the mainland and South China Sea: airfields, missile sites, shipyards, and naval bases – locations where lower altitude assets cannot fly. The ability to conduct dark vessel detection and ship-building tracking is a well-established tool.
SAR satellites have long been among the most sensitive of U.S. intelligence spacecraft. In addition to imaging, digital maps derived from SAR can also be used for terrain-following cruise missiles. SAR interferometry can detect the most subtle changes at the sub-centimeter level. Finally, SAR is a critical component of sensor fusion (combining different imaging phenomenologies of a target) and tip-and-cue coordination, such as SAR detecting overnight changes at a military base or a ship in an exclusive economic zone, and thus cueing optical and/or ELINT surveillance.
New commercial space options provide significant opportunities to narrow the capability gap with China. Commercial SAR and ELINT constellations are growing so fast that it is increasingly difficult for bad actors like China to hide their activities.
Right-of-launch, it is critical to secure control of SAR imaging assets before an attack. Direct ownership, and thus, imaging prioritization, is essential for nations under existential threat. Nation-states can then augment their domestic capability with military-level commercial systems.
It is important to note that, for either scenario, it is impractical for China to disable such a large number of space-based assets kinetically or to use directed energy weapons without the resulting debris affecting their assets or future space aspirations. Jamming also would affect their abilities to monitor their waters.
To avoid and win a conflict with Goliath on the modern battlefield, Indo-Pacific states need to prepare for both left-of-launch and right-of-launch scenarios. Space-based assets are the most effective means, particularly for Taiwan. However, the learning curve for homegrown satellite SAR and ELINT programs is incredibly steep. The hardware, software, and analytical processes are challenging to build and integrate. Notwithstanding, launch bookings run years into the future. Taiwan needs these intelligence resources – yesterday.
Conclusion: David‘s Preparations
Taiwan should immediately initiate a hybrid program: leverage newly available commercial SAR imagery services and simultaneously invest in a domestically owned constellation. Purchasing SAR satellite images now presents a critical new ISR source for left-of-launch forewarning. It will also drive the domestic development of SAR image processing, sophisticated machine learning analytics, and implementation of processes for exploitation and dissemination of SAR-based intelligence.
The acquisition of a national SAR constellation will immediately leverage the domestic SAR infrastructure that matured from purchased imagery. A national SAR system can then be a primary source that is augmented by commercial services for left-of-launch forewarning and defense planning. In a hot conflict right-of-launch, the national SAR constellation will provide essential surveillance, targeting information, and damage assessments through smoke, fog and the nighttime darkness.
A robust SAR program will provide critical intelligence to help shape Taiwan’s preparations for both a more effective defense of the nation and, critically, also buy valuable time in an asymmetric conflict. Now that SAR capabilities have arrived with high resolutions and affordable price tags, Taiwan should seize the opportunity to employ this powerful new slingshot.