Wargaming the China-US Space Race

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Wargaming the China-US Space Race

Insights from Mark Hilborne.

Wargaming the China-US Space Race
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Mark Hilborne – a lecture at the Defence Studies Department and War Studies Online, King’s College London, and leader of the Space Security Studies Group discusses the military facet of the China-U.S. space competition.

Explain the military applications of China’s recent space developments.

Due to the inherent dual-use nature of space technology, developments in this field can be difficult to pinpoint. China will aim to use space for military purposes in the same way that Western states use it: for intelligence, targeting, navigation, command, control, and communications (C3I), operating UAVs, and possibly in the future missile warning. China is also developing its counterspace capabilities to deny the use of space to adversaries and has carried out anti-satellite missile tests and is suspected of satellite jamming and “spoofing” (manipulating the data from a satellite) in the past. For instance, in 2014 China is thought to have interfered with the U.S. NOAA satellite system, taking that system’s data dissemination offline. There are also reports of GPS signal interference in coastal areas of China and in the South China Sea. In 2020 China also briefly flew a spaceplane which is thought to resemble – both in form and in function – the U.S. X-37B. This would offer a maneuverable and flexible space asset that would be capable of carrying out a wide variety of tasks. While these capabilities will be of benefit to China’s military, they may also be used to establish or enhance relationships with foreign states that currently lack access to space or space enabled military systems, enabling them to undermine Western goals and reduce dependence on U.S. systems.

Analyze the role of China’s civil-military fusion in space technology.

China’s Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) strategy is a state-led, state-directed program to leverage the levers of military and commercial programs and expertise to strengthen both the military, the economy, and scientific development. It represents a much deeper and more formalized integration than, for instance, the U.S. In 2017 Xi Jinping stated to the Central Commission for Military-Civil Fusion Development (CCMCFD): “We must accelerate the formation of a full-element, multi-domain, and high-return military-civil fusion deep development pattern, and gradually build up China’s unified military-civil system of strategies and strategic capability.”

Toward the stated goal of becoming a space great power, a deputy director of the CCMCFD expressed a desire for MCF efforts to support both the coordinated development of space exploration and exploitation programs and air and space defense capabilities. To this end, there are a number of space MCF megaprojects: the Long March 9 heavy launch vehicle , the spacecraft on-orbit service and maintenance system, the space-Earth integrated information network megaproject, and the next-generation space infrastructure.

Also relevant here will be the areas of big data analytics and machine learning  ̶  also the subject of MCF programs  ̶  that will aid the synthesizing of the vast data collected from space assets.

Compare and contrast China’s BeiDou satellite system to the U.S. GPS, EU Galileo, and Russian GLONASS. 

Broadly speaking, it is very similar to other GNSS systems. It provides accurate positioning and timing for a number of functions, military and civilian alike, and its accuracy is broadly comparable to competing systems currently. The encrypted military signal offers greater accuracy than the unencrypted civilian system. Chinese officials have noted the size of the GPS enabled-economy that the U.S. GPS system has given rise to, despite its military origins, and will seek to emulate this.

Unlike other GNSS systems, BeiDou is a two-way communication system. This allows it to identify the locations of receivers. BeiDou-compatible devices can transmit data back to the satellites, in messages of up to 1,200 Chinese characters (for instance distress or SOS messages). This raises concerns that the system can track users with compatible devices. Other GNSS systems are essentially beacons without that communication facility.

What are the most probable scenarios of a China-U.S. space war?

The most likely scenario where any conflict in space may occur would reflect the tensions on Earth – it is unlikely that a war that begins and ends in space would occur without that wider tension. Where that tension does exist, and thus conflict could occur, would be flare-ups over Taiwan, the South China Sea, or over other disputes over territory involving Japan or India.

It needs to be remembered that as space assets are tightly interconnected with critical strategic military functions, and in particular those of the U.S. are often tasked with nuclear and high-level conventional command and control, an attack on a nation’s space assets would be highly escalatory. Given the nuclear “entanglement” factor, what is assumed to be an attack for operational or tactical advantage may be read as a preliminary step to a nuclear strike, and risks tipping any conflict into a much more serious one. Even an attack on a ground station could generate the same risks – possibly even more so, as such attacks would be on sovereign territory. Countries with high investment in and reliance on space would be most reluctant to see any form of a “shooting war” in space – more likely are the more subtle attacks that involve jamming, spoofing, or manipulating the satellites and their signals.

Assess the high stakes of space security vis-à-vis the China-U.S. tech race in space.

Space has now become absolutely fundamental to many key aspects of modern life. The internet, banking, the stock market, electricity power grids to name but a few – not to mention the vast majority of military functions – all rely on space-based infrastructure and data. Critically important is the Position, Navigation and Timing signal (PNT) from GNSS systems. Denial of this service could have catastrophic effects for a nation. Thus, the security implications extend from military aspects though to the functioning of society as a whole.

Technological competition will enable the leader to gain or maintain a security advantage in space, in the form of military dominance and/or economic leadership. In the case of China, these advantages could extend to establishing or enhancing relationships with foreign states as noted above, leading to increasing alliances and potentially using the resulting leverage to influence international governance of space. In addition, technological “firsts” will generate triumphs of prestige, as they did in the Cold War – important symbols of scientific and societal prowess. It can be argued that space is the only field in which all these aspects are so clearly identifiable.