The Sino-Russian military nexus in outer space: strategic implications?

Mark Hilborne (Defence Studies Department, King’s College London), Pawel Bernat (Military University of Aviation, Dęblin, Poland) and Graeme P. Herd (George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies)

This piece is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Great Power Competition Seminar Series (GPCSS) webinars held on 18 January 2022 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of any of the participants.

In the Cold War the Soviet Union and the United States were leading space powers, largely competing but also in the 1970s cooperating. This cooperation continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the US subsidising the Russian space programme in order to prevent the spread of military-relevant technologies. The construction of the International Space Station (ISS) in the 1990s and 2000s and the US reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets after the closure of its Space Shuttle programme in 2011 (until 2020 when the US regained the capability through SpaceX Dragon-2) are examples of such continued cooperation.

In recent years we have witnessed a marked Russian reorientation away from Russo-US space cooperation and its withdrawal from participation in many international projects, such as the joint lunar project and ISS (by 2025), towards Russian-Chinese space cooperation. In 2019, Roscosmos and China National Space Administration agreed coordination between the lunar exploration missions Luna-Resurs-1 and Chang’e 7 (嫦娥七号). China and Russia, as second and third placed space powers respectively, cooperate together, building on the legacy of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship of the 1950s.  As before, both look to counter-balance the US in space and challenge its primacy in international politics.  What are the implications of this Sino-Russian space nexus for strategic competition?

The drivers of Russian cooperation with China are numerous: 1) Russia’s technology is increasingly obsolete; 2) budgetary cuts and corruption diminish solo efforts; 3) the need to maintain Great Power status and the idea of breaking encirclement; 4) China agreeing to an intellectual property accord in 2016, signed in 2017, outlining space cooperation, special materials development, remote sensing, heavy rocket engine technological transfers and cooperation. Russia sacrifices international cooperation and civil use of space and instead prioritises military use, where it can still compete with the US.  As a result, Russia’s focus is on building military capabilities that allow it to remain strategically relevant. The core of Russian “counter space weapons” include:

  1. The S-400 system, capable of interception in the lower reaches of the low orbit (185km). This was transferred to China following an agreement in 2014. First deliveries occurred in 2018, with a suspension in 2020 until exports to India coordinated.
  • The Nudol anti-satellite (ASAT) missile system. This system was initiated in 2009, testing began in 2013 and most recently a “combat” test took place on 15 November 2021 against a Russian Kosmos-1408 satellite, demonstrating Russia’s ability to destroy one of its defunct Cold War-era satellites in low-Earth orbit. This system allows Russia the capability to destroy satellites above its territory. It may yet acquire the official designation as the S-550 air defence missile system and be fully deployed in 2022.
  • The Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO) system. This has the ability to undertake co-orbital manoeuvres (change orbit, follow and destroy its opponents’ satellites). 
  • Jamming satellite signals, work on space lasers and other directed-energy weapons.
  • The Burevestnik missile air-launched from MiG-31BM aircraft. This has the potential for anti-satellite capability.

China has the ambition to be the leading global space power by the mid-2040s. Assessing China’s configuration of capability in space is hard to clarify and complicated by numerous factors, not least: 

  1. Civil and military dual-use launches and satellites.
  • The 2016 policy of civil-military fusion under President Xi, which focuses on AI, semi-conductors and other leading technologies as well as space.
  • Gauging the impact of commercial developments on military usage and understanding how military capability developments can and may be cloaked by commercial progress.
  • New constellations of smaller vs older more vulnerable satellites.
  • Overlapping anti-ballistic missile and anti-satellite technologies.
  • The secretive nature of Chinese-Russian decision-making and technological cooperation.

In the military sphere China is developing ASAT weapons capable of disrupting/destroying satellites in geo-stationary orbit:

  1. The SC-19 anti-satellite missile (tested in 2007).
  • The DN-3 2018 ex-atmospheric missile interception.
  • In 2021, a hypersonic missile with a potential nuclear warhead was tested.
  • Cyber-attacks, jamming, GPS-spoofing (manipulating false data with attendant difficulties in attribution), and demonstration of RPO capabilities.
  • A space ‘plane’ that was tested in late 2021.
  • An offensive fractional orbital bombardment system that can attack the US from the south.

There are certain characteristics of Sino-Russian Space Cooperation. First are the asymmetries. In 2020, Russia undertook only 25 launches (17% global share) while China had 55. China’s space budget in 2020 was $8.9bn and second only to the US’s, while Russia’s was down at $2.7bn. Russia focuses two thirds of its smaller budget on military capability that itself is reliant on Soviet-era projects from the 1970s (e.g. Angara A5M engines). China, on the other hand, exploits commercial opportunities and undertakes more innovative activities. Russia, however, can offer China operational combat experience (use of S-400s in Syria, jamming of drone attacks), which China lacks, having not itself undertaken combat operations since the 1980s.

There are also the synergies in their relationship. In terms of global positioning systems, the Chinese Beidou and the Russian Glonass are complementing each other. By combining 35 Beidou and 24 Glonass satellites, Russia and China would have a system capable of competing with the 31 satellites that constitute GPS. Cooperation over mutual development of early-warning radar sites can also enhance the deterrence capabilities of both China and Russia in regard to any threat from the US. Furthermore, the creation of a Sino-Russian space-based cooperative ecosystem creates soft power and legitimacy advantages for both. This generates the ability to attract the support of third parties, which in turn can be translated into diplomatic influence and UN votes.

Both likewise use space in symbolic and instrumental ways. For China, space leadership signals the “century of humiliation” is over, and represents a shift in strategic thinking, placing Xi-era exquisite technologies and innovation over Mao-era quantity (“more soldiers than the enemy has bullets”; “more is better”).  For Russia, the Soviet space legacy can be leveraged symbolically to promote current Great Power status, as evidenced by the launch of the Sputnik-V vaccine and Russian COVID-diplomacy, or the construction of AI robots that are named “Leontov” and “Gagarin”.  Russia instrumentalises space through demonstrating ASAT weapons capabilities ahead of any potential international prohibitions.  This also ensures Russia a “seat at the table” in any future negotiations on restricting ASAT testing and use.

The main legal document that regulates any state’s activities in space – The Outer Space Treaty, formally the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (27 January 1967) – is now obsolete. But space-faring powers do not want to negotiate towards a new legally binding regulatory system.  The US backed a UK-sponsored resolution for responsible behaviour in space and an “Open-Ended Working Group” (OEWG) to begin discussion on responsible behaviour.  In addition, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin laid out five “Tenets of Responsible Behaviour” that the DoD would follow (7 July 2021), highlighting best practice and setting normative standards.  Russia and China, meanwhile, back a “Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects” (PPTW). This proposal bans the placement of weapons in space but not the deployment of ground-based direct-ascent weapons or their testing.

The strategic importance of Russian-Chinese space cooperation is growing rapidly and creates sensitive policy challenges for the US. In 2002, Everett Dolman conceptualised space-based competition in terms of zero-sum, neo-classical geopolitics – astropolitik – suggesting that: “Who controls low-earth orbit controls near-Earth space. Who controls near-Earth space dominates Terra. Who dominates Terra determines the destiny of humankind.”  It is clear now that China and Russia are cooperating in terms of militarising space as an asymmetric response and challenge to US technological superiority and current primacy built on a space-enabled modernity paradigm. Connectivity, cooperation and functional innovation provides the underlying dynamics that drives the logic and evolution of current strategic competition in space.

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments.

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