Written by Larry M. Wortzel.

China launched its first satellite into space in 1970, about twelve years after the United States. In manned space flight, China’s Shenzhou program trailed the U.S. and Russia (then the Soviet Union) by more than forty years. However, China made up for lost time quickly. Since publishing its first “white paper” on space policy in 2001, Beijing issued two others in 2006 and 2011, setting out goals to explore outer space, use space for peaceful purposes, and to protect China’s national rights and interests. Indeed, in Beijing’s grand strategy, being a space power is part of China’s comprehensive national power. China’s space program today includes a world-class capability for various types of reconnaissance from space, suites of communications and data relay satellites, positioning and timing satellites, counter-space weapons, experimental programs to conduct attacks on the earth’s surface from space, a robust commercial launch industry and a manned launch program.

China’s military forces carefully absorbed U.S. doctrine on the use of space in warfare, noting how the U.S. employed satellites for surveillance, command and control, and targeting.  In military parlance these function are part of a process known as “command, control, communications, computers, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance,” or the acronym C4ISR. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), also has studied Soviet–era and contemporary Russian thinking on space operations, using these studies to guide its own evolving doctrine. The use of space for China’s national security thinkers supports national pride and becoming a “great power,” involves programs that would deny other countries the use of space for the control of military forces, and would perfect the PLA’s own C4ISR capabilities to support a military that could project force beyond China’s borders more effectively to support national interests. Today, China can gather surface, atmospheric and oceanographic data from space with several types of satellites.

According to a variety of space industry sources, Gaofen has eight-meter resolution, multi-spectral imaging. The Yaogan appears to be for military use; it has electro-optical capabilities, synthetic aperture radar with one-meter resolution, and can gather electronic intelligence. The Haiyang series monitors oceans and tides. The Huanjing series monitors the environment and has 20 meter resolution imaging. The Tianhui series provides stereoscopic, three-dimensional images and has military application. Other satellites like the Ziyuan series is used for surveying and mapping.  For meteorological survey’s, the Fengyun satellite series helps with weather forecasting and environmental monitoring. The Beidou, or Compass, series of satellites provides global positioning and timing signals that eventually will replace GPS systems for the People’s Liberation Army. Chinese communications satellites are built primarily by the Chinese Academy of Space Technology. In addition, China has a series of data relay satellites, the Tianlian, that eliminate blackout periods for both Shenzhou space missions and support real-time surveillance by military satellites.

China also has a well-developed program for warfare in space, or a counter-space program. The PLA has experimented with ground-based directed energy lasers that temporarily dazzled a U.S. reconnaissance satellite. Few people that follow events in space will forget the kinetic kill anti-satellite (ASAT) test by a Chinese anti-satellite system that created a field of orbiting debris when China destroyed its own aging meteorological satellite. Other ASAT and counter-space programs in China include high-power microwave and other radio-frequency weapons; GPS and other satellite jamming systems; and maneuvering constellations of micro-satellites that could jam or collide with other satellites.

The most widely published and senior author in the Chinese military on space warfare and aerospace doctrine, PLA Air Force Major General Cai Fengzhen, opines that the capacity to control areas of space is a natural extension of other forms of territorial control such as sea control or the control of a nation’s airspace. In a sense, however, this is a reaction in China to what some military writers in the PLA see as the United States building a “strategic external border” in space with its own ballistic missile defense plans.

Like the militaries of the United States and Russia, the PLA conceives of modern warfare as being conducted across a range of domains by forces able to operate in an integrated manner. These domains are land, air, sea (and undersea), space, and in the electromagnetic spectrum. The latter domain, the electromagnetic spectrum, encompasses traditional electronic warfare and jamming and what we know today as cyber warfare and computer network operations or information operations. Moreover, because so much communications and cyber traffic passes through satellites and space, those two domains of war are inextricably linked in military thinking.

In what appears to be a response to the U.S. experimentation with space-to-ground robotic planes, China is developing the Shenlong aerodynamic glide vehicle. This space plane is launched from a bomber and can operate in space or be used to reenter the atmosphere, potentially for offensive attack at hypersonic speeds. In commercial satellite launch, China has managed to become a major provider of services. Between 2007 and 2013, Chinese commercial launches had a market range share of between eight percent and twenty five percent of all commercial launches. Those percentages vary depending on whether the satellite was built in China or not.

In human spaceflight, the Chinese program is military controlled but is fully integrated with the state-controlled civil space industry. There have been five manned human space missions by China to date, starting with a spacewalk in 2008. In 2011, the first docking with a Chinese-launched space station took place when a Shenzhou space capsule docked with the Tiangong-1 space station. By 2023, Beijing projects having a long-term space station operating. As for going to the moon, China has conducted two missions to capture images of the lunar surface. A mission to put a rover on the moon failed, but further lunar exploration is a Chinese goal. By 2020, Chinese scientists hope to bring lunar samples back to earth.

China’s military space programs and programs with military application are quite advanced. The counter-space and ASAT programs of China’s People’s Liberation Army are a challenge for the U.S. and its allies, and could prove highly escalatory in a conflict.  And China’s advances in commercial space launch and space exploration can rapidly.  In the view of this writer, the area that Chinese and American diplomats most need to explore is the question of potential escalation in space warfare. To date, this matter seems to have been left to academic symposia by both countries.

Larry M. Wortzel is a retired U.S. Army officer who has served in China as a military attaché. He is presently a commissioner on the Congressionally-appointed U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The views presented here are his own and do not represent the Commission. Image credit: CC by Cory Doctorow/Flickr

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