U.S. Report Wearily Eyes Rise of Chinese Space Program

Long March launch
Long March launch

A section of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2015 Report to Congress casts a weary eye on the rise of the Chinese space program.

“China’s rise as a major space power challenges decades of U.S. dominance in space—an arena in which the United States has substantial military, civilian, and commercial interests,” the report states.

Below are some key excerpts of the report’s section about China’s space program, including an overview, a description the program’s structure, conclusions and recommendations. You can read the full report here. The section on the space program begins on p. 272.

2015 Report to Congress
of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission

China’s Space and Counterspace Programs

Introduction

China has become one of the top space powers in the world after decades of high prioritization and steady investment from its leaders, indigenous research and development, and a significant effort to buy or otherwise appropriate technologies from foreign sources, especially the United States. China’s aspirations are driven by its assessment that space power enables the country’s military modernization
and would allow it to challenge U.S. information superiority during a conflict. As the Commission has documented in previous reports, China has asserted sovereignty over much of the East and South China seas, as well as Taiwan, and is engaged in a course of aggressive conduct to enforce those claims against its neighbors. Among other purposes, China’s space and counterspace programs are designed to support its conduct as part of its antiaccess/area denial * strategy to prevent or impede U.S. intervention in a potential conflict. China also believes that space power drives the country’s economic and technological advancement and provides the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with significant domestic political legitimacy and international prestige. Although China’s space capabilities still generally lag behind those of the United States and Russia, its space program is expanding and accelerating rapidly as many other countries’ programs proceed with dwindling resources and limited goals.

China’s rise as a space power has important national security implications for the United States, which relies on its own space capabilities to assess and monitor current and emerging threats to national security and project military power globally. Within this context, this section will examine China’s space and counterspace programs, including key organizations involved in the programs; space power’s contribution to China’s national power; China’s development of a robust and comprehensive array of counterspace capabilities; China’s rapid space-based C4ISR † modernization; China’s progress in space launch, human spaceflight, and lunar exploration; and U.S.-China space cooperation. The statements and assessments presented in this section are based on the Commission’s February 2015 hearing on China’s space and counterspace programs, unclassified briefings by U.S. and foreign government officials, consultations with nongovernmental experts on China and space issues, the Commission’s July 2015 fact-finding trip to China, and open source research and analysis.

Key Organizations Involved in China’s Space and Counterspace Programs

China’s space program involves a wide network of entities spanning its political, military, defense industry, and commercial sectors. Unlike the United States, China does not have distinctly separate military and civilian space programs. CCP leaders provide policy guidance and authorize allocations of resources for the program, and various organizations within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) execute space policy and oversee the space research, development, and acquisition process. China’s military also exercises control over the majority of China’s space assets and space operations.

Although China conducts civilian space activities, such as scientific research and exploration, and Chinese civilian agencies provide input into space policy and space research, development, and acquisition requirements, China does not have an official civilian space program. Tate Nurkin, managing director of research and thought leadership at IHS Jane’s Aerospace, Defense and Security, explained to the Commission:

China’s space program does not have structures in place that make meaningful divisions between military and civil programs, and those technologies acquired and systems developed for ostensibly civil purposes can be applied—and most frequently are—for military purposes. This dynamic indicates that China’s space program is also a critical element in the country’s ongoing military modernization program.

Under this nebulous framework, even China’s ostensibly civilian projects, such as human spaceflight, directly support the development of PLA space, counterspace, and conventional capabilities. Moreover, although any country’s satellites are capable of contributing to its military operations, the PLA during wartime would probably take direct command over all Chinese satellites.

Conclusions

  • China has become one of the top space powers in the world after decades of high prioritization and steady investment from China’s leaders, indigenous research and development, and a significant effort to buy or otherwise appropriate technologies from foreign sources, especially the United States. Although China’s space capabilities still generally lag behind those of the United States and Russia, its space program is expanding and accelerating rapidly as many other nations’ programs proceed with dwindling resources and limited goals.
  • China’s aspirations in space are driven by its judgment that space power enables the country’s military modernization, drives its economic and technological advancements, allows it to challenge U.S. information superiority during a conflict, and provides the Chinese Communist Party with significant domestic legitimacy and international prestige.
  • China’s space program involves a wide network of entities spanning its political, military, defense industry, and commercial sectors. Unlike the United States, China does not have distinctly separate military and civilian space programs. Under this nebulous framework, even ostensibly civilian projects, such as China’s human spaceflight missions, directly support the development of
    People’s Liberation Army (PLA) space, counterspace, and conventional capabilities. Moreover, Chinese civilian and commercial satellites likely contribute to the PLA’s command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) efforts whenever it is technically and logistically feasible for them to be so utilized, and they would probably be directly subordinate to the PLA during a crisis or conflict. Given the PLA’s central role in all of China’s space activities, U.S. cooperation with China on space issues could mean supporting the PLA’s space and counterspace capabilities.
  • China likely has capitalized on international cooperation to acquire the bulk of the technology and expertise needed for most of its space programs. China probably will continue to pursue close cooperation with international partners to overcome specific technical challenges and to meet its research and development objectives and launch timelines.
  • Chinese analysts perceive that China’s advances in space technology have become an important driver for the country’s economic growth. Satellite and launch service sales provide China’s defense industry with a growing source of revenue. Technology spin-offs offer competitive advantages in certain sectors, such as satellite navigation products. Exports of space technology-based products pose challenges to the United States not only due to the non-market-based nature of China’s economy, but also due to military and security concerns.
  • As China’s developmental counterspace capabilities become operational, China will be able to hold at risk U.S. national security satellites in every orbital regime.
  • China is testing increasingly complex co-orbital proximity capabilities. Although it may not develop or operationally deploy all of these co-orbital technologies for counterspace missions, China is setting a strong foundation for future co-orbital antisatellite systems that could include jammers, robotic arms, kinetic kill vehicles, and lasers.
  • China is in the midst of an extensive space-based C4ISR modernization program that is improving the PLA’s ability to command and control its forces; monitor global events and track regional military activities; and strike U.S. ships, aircraft, and bases operating as far away as Guam. As China continues to field additional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites, its space-based ISR coverage almost certainly will become more accurate, responsive, and timely and could ultimately extend beyond the second island chain into the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean.
  • China’s rise as a major space power challenges decades of U.S. dominance in space—an arena in which the United States has substantial military, civilian, and commercial interests.

Recommendations

The Commission recommends:

Congress continue to support the U.S. Department of Defense’s efforts to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. space assets through cost-effective solutions, such as the development of smaller and more distributed satellites, hardened satellite communications, and non-space intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets such as unmanned aerial vehicles.

Congress direct the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Air Force, and relevant agencies within the U.S. Intelligence Community to jointly prepare a classified report that performs a net assessment of U.S. and Chinese counterspace capabilities. The report should include a strategic plan for deterring, with active and passive systems, strikes against U.S. assets in light of other countries’ rapid advancements in kinetic and non-kinetic counterspace technology.

Congress direct appropriate jurisdictional entities to undertake a review of (1) the classification of satellites and related articles on the U.S. Munitions List under the International Trafficking
in Arms Regulations and (2) the prohibitions on exports of Commerce Control List satellites and related technologies to China under the Export Administration Regulations, in order to determine which systems and technologies China is likely to be able to obtain on the open market regardless of U.S. restrictions and which are critical technologies that merit continued U.S. protection.

Congress allocate additional funds to the Director of National Intelligence Open Source Center for the translation and analysis of Chinese-language technical and military writings, in order to deepen U.S. understanding of China’s defense strategy, particularly related to space.
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* According to the U.S. Department of Defense, ‘‘antiaccess’’ actions are intended to slow deployment of an adversary’s forces into a theater or cause them to operate at distances farther from the conflict than they would prefer. ‘‘Area denial’’ actions affect maneuvers within a theater, and are intended to impede an adversary’s operations within areas where friendly forces cannot or will not prevent access. U.S. Department of Defense, Air Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges, May 2013, 2.

† C4ISR refers to command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.