China’s space weapons test ten years on: Behemoth pulls the peasants’ plough


This post is based aspects of a forthcoming paper presented at the ISA Annual Convention 2017 in Baltimore, MD.

Ten years ago, on 11th January 2007, a road-mobile SC-19 Chinese antisatellite (ASAT) weapons test renewed interest, debate, and occasional polemic hysteria, in the role of space weapons in international security and Sino-US relations. The test destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite, and in the process created thousands of pieces of debris which threatened other satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO), the bulk of which will take another 30 years to de-orbit. It also caused some chaotic, heated, and embarrassing diplomatic fallout: three months later, China was due to host the 25th annual meeting of the international Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. .

This instance was part of a wider programme of Chinese space weapons development and testing – which has included a series of ‘cleaner’ kinetic-kill tests at allegedly higher altitudes (almost reaching geosynchronous orbit ), laser dazzling, and radiofrequency jamming – and which is the fruit of the larger program of military modernization in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its supporting defence industrial base that stretches back to Plan 863 from 1986. This space weapons programme itself is part of a larger drive to modernise the PLA to enable it not only resist and inflict punishment and pain on a spacepower-enabled adversary (such as the United States), but also to develop its own space infrastructure in support of terrestrial military capabilities.

These two pillars of Chinese military spacepower have altered the balance of forces significantly 20 years after the Taiwan Crisis of 1996. As well as flooding the Taiwan Strait with over 1,200 short range ballistic missiles in support of an amphibious assault, China is on its way to holding US Navy carriers, naval bases, and air strips across the western Pacific hostage with precise long-range weapons systems. These long-range weapons systems depend upon Chinese space services to provide targeting data and to cue terrestrial air, land, and sea reconnaissance and targeting systems. This dependence on space systems will only increase if aerial and naval drones are increasingly deployed

The 1991 Gulf War demonstrated the potential of spacepower in terrestrial warfare. Spacepower supported mechanised forces are, generally speaking, faster, more mobile, flexible, precise, and efficient than those without, as the ‘Highway of Death’ and Schwarzkopf’s ‘left hook’ in the Iraqi desert proved. China, like many other powers, is developing or refining armed forces that can effectively target what they can see as rapidly as possible – and space technologies are central to this endeavour.

Since 2007, Chinese space infrastructure has grown tremendously. China has been launching rockets with orbital payloads at almost twice the usual rate of the preceding years, at around 15-20 Long March launches a year. China has over 180 satellites registered to it, whilst Russia registers just over 140. The United States meanwhile, registers approximately 580 satellites, both military and non-military. Russia’s involvement in Syria demonstrates some of its progress in long-range command and control, as well as in precision munitions with cruise missiles and guided bombs. China has been consistently investing for longer in space technology for ‘force enhancement,’ and has a far larger chequebook and space industrial base to rely on than Russia. The space security community is still waiting for the watershed moment in Chinese space support for its military. Recently, a reorganisation of the PLA created the PLA Strategic Support Force, which combines PLA ‘space troops,’ ‘cyber troops,’ and ‘electronic warfare forces’ as one independent service. Whilst it is too soon to draw any firm observations from this, it is clear that China is thinking strategically about the role of its space systems as the connecting mesh between its terrestrial forces, and how it should be protected and exploited.

The dual-use nature of satellite services means that space infrastructure can be used for military and non-military purposes rather easily. China’s maturing position as a major spacepower is thus not solely a military story. Its development of a navigation system – Beidou/Compass – to rival GPS is as much an economic infrastructure as it is a military asset. Similarly, Chinese Earth observation and continental communications satellites are about economic development as well as military modernisation. China’s international space diplomacy continues apace, and is making inroads in developing satellites, services, as well as control and tracking stations in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Chinese space systems now take centre place in civic planning, infrastructure development, and the building of a high-data urbanised economy.

The economic take off from the late 1980s gives Chinese spacepower huge potential, and this is being delivered upon through efficiencies in resource use, communications networks that span a continental state, and the consumer markets that emerge from that infrastructure. Spacepower is essential for China’s ongoing ecological crisis and for managing the worst effects of climate change and urbanisation. Should President-elect Trump fatally wound the United States’ leading position in Earth science and climate change monitoring, China is on track become the single-largest 21st century spacepower contributing to climate politics and developing a less carbon-intensive advanced economy.

Chinese spacepower development has been so rapid in the 20 years since the Taiwan crisis, and the ten years since its controversial space weapons test, China has not only developed an ability to threaten aspects of US spacepower and military capability but also begun to mirror the United States in its multifaceted dependence on spacepower for conventional military power and economic well-being. True, in a Taiwan war China will be less dependent on space systems than the United States. However, Chinese long-range weapons systems needed cueing and targeting information from space to strike American and Japanese ships and bases at a distance. However, for missions other than Taiwan, the PLA would find greater use for space communications, especially as its Navy begins operations further afield. And it is these expeditionary operations or regional wars with non-nuclear states that are far more likely to occur for the PLA than a ‘tweet’ that launched a thousand missiles.

In the context of a maturing Chinese military space power, American worries of a ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ are making a comeback. A crippling Chinese attack on US space infrastructure would no doubt hamper US abilities to conduct a war in the Pacific. Yet, the details required to plan such a scenario cast doubt on its practicality. Some satellite constellations can suffer significant losses before services even begin to degrade – such as the Global Positioning System. Those who worry of a pre-emptive space attack are right to worry, but the effects of such attacks will depend upon whether an adversary can disrupt or destroy enough of the right satellites and communications networks. That caveat and lack of information is sometimes missing in public debate. Specific satellites provide specific services, and the timing of such attacks must be coordinated with terrestrial operations for space warfare to have any meaningful effect. Furthermore, the United States continues to explore methods to not only adapt to space warfare, but also is developing latent space weapons technology of its own, with a dual-use capability in the Aegis-equipped ‘missile defence’ destroyers and in on-orbit manoeuvring technology in the X-37B and the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program. Simplistic notions of surprise attacks at the outset of hostilities in space clash with the ability of many space systems to actually be resilient in warfare. Space weapons do not herald the era of certain doom for, or easy solutions against, high-technology militaries.

China and America are two leading space powers that are integrating spacepower into their military, political, and economic power. It is no surprise, then, that both are hedging against the possibility of space warfare – although rhetoric and proposals on space arms control seem to ignore this reality. Indeed, even European and Japanese space infrastructure has increasingly military potential through dual-use services. The growing Chinese orbital behemoth, like America’s celestial leviathan, is a fount of economic and technological momentum, as well as a source of simultaneous vulnerability and resilience depending on the space systems relied upon and threated. Although China has continued its space weapons development on a steady course in the past ten years, it has been hard at work launching many more targets of its own into outer space.

Image: a US SM-3 missile launch to destroy the NRO-L 21 satellite, via wikimedia commons.

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