china space strategy

China Is Intent On Becoming The Dominant Power In Space

Unclassified Chinese military documents outline China’s push to assert their military dominance in outer space. What does that mean for the future of space development?

In 1958, smack dab in the middle of a period of world history now commonly referred to as the “Space Race,” American General Homer A. Boushey – then director of Air Force research and development – stated, “He who controls the moon, controls the Earth.”

It’s a statement that, today, might come off as a bit naive — or in the worst case, comical — not because it was wrong (Boushey’s statement was in actuality, remarkably prescient) but because it wasn’t quite grand enough.

Today, sights – China’s in particular – are set far beyond control of the moon, transitioning instead to the entirety of Earth’s orbit – and these ambitions, are becoming increasingly more militaristic.

More money, more ambition

Globally speaking, in the past 6 years, global spending on space programs has fallen quite dramatically. Countries like the US which spent about $47 billion on their space programs in 2009 have now retracted that budget by 20 percent.

Likewise, Russia, which is still the only other country aside from the US spending over $10 billion on its space programs, has slowed its focus in recent years.

In step with most countries, China maintains a somewhat modest budget for space exploration, clocking in at 8th place (just over $1 billion) globally in terms of spending.

On the surface, it may appear that China isn’t as ambitious about pursuing a dominant space presence as they’ve been purported to be – that is, until considering their military strategy.

China pursuing the final frontier

While China’s intentions for its military space program are still a bit opaque, their ambition to establish their dominance outside of Earth’s atmosphere is all but crystal clear.

China’s President Xi has gone on record stating that the PLA’s air force will actively seek greater integration of both air and space technology – and has wasted little time doing so.

According to an annual congressional report, since 2012, China has rapidly expanded its space-based intelligence gathering systems, launching at least eight space missions in 2013 to do so, in addition to advancing its space reconnaissance and its anti-satellite capabilities.

Some other projects to advance China’s presence in space include:

  • 11 new remote-sensing satellites capable of both military and civilian applications
  • 6 new constellation satellites for military and civilian navigational purposes
  • 3 communication satellites

So far, China is on pace to meet its goal of launching more than 100 satellites by the end of 2015.

Another recent report by University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation also supports the thesis that China is seeking military hegemony in space, stating “China’s goal is to become a space power on par with the United States and to foster a space industry that is the equal of those in the United States, Europe, and Russia.”

China’s military space strategy in perception

From an American military perspective, there’s been much ado about China’s ambitions to expand their presence into space, or more specifically, about their potential to attack the US.

Reports of Chinese ambitions to launch preemptive attacks against US satellites which took root in the 1990s have long permeated US discussions about the Asian power’s military strategy.

In 2001, such claims were given even more credence by a report stemming from the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management, headed then by Donald Rumsfeld, which described an imminent attack on US satellites using terror-inducing terms like “space pearl harbor.”

While these assertions riled many, some of such intelligence may have been little more than misinformation aided by a steep translation barrier.

As shown by a 2014 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists by Gregory Kulacki, expert on cross-cultural communication between US and China, many of those assertions have stemmed from questionable sources.

Some of such claims include:

  • China is pursuing an offensive military space strategy – while claims such as this have gained currency throughout the past decade, they come from mainly unofficial sources – like misinterpreted military propaganda, complete with cartoons.
  • Claims of a parasitic microsatellite – Pentagon reports of China developing a micro-satellite capable of attaching itself to other larger satellites and intercepting data, were derived from military blogs mistaken for reputable sources

Kulacki’s report, which uses a Chinese military textbook formerly under the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) third highest level of classification to analyze over 30 years of Chinese military thinking, shows no direct sign of China’s ambitions to attack US satellites.

This lack of evidence, however, hasn’t stopped some from hypothesizing.

Fears over China’s pursuit of an offensive military space strategy were further inflated in 2013 when China launched a vessel past low-Earth orbit in a described “scientific experiment” – an act which speculators claimed was actually an anti-satellite missile test.

What does it all mean?

For most people, it comes as no surprise that space has become the final frontier for not only exploration, but for military expansionism. What the impacts of such military strategies will be is another story.

More than ever, the US, once dominant in its military control of space, is being challenged as a result of major advancements in in the technological capabilities of both Chinese and Russian space programs – advancements which have created whispers of yet another (and even more competitive) space race.

For decades, US technological superiority has been a major vehicle for projecting power across the globe, but as budget sequestration continues to slash money typically allocated for military and space development, the window for military space dominance is as open as ever.

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James Pero