By Manoj Joshi
Space is the new frontier of the global geopolitical competition. In the past week, we have had two significant national publications outlining this. On Wednesday, Britain came out with its first-ever Defence Space Strategy (DSS), and a few days before that, China released a White Paper on Space. Just a month before, in December 2021, the United States (US) had released a “Space Priorities Framework.”
The British Defence Space Strategy is subtitled “Operationalising the Space Domain” and is also viewed as a component of the country’s larger National Space Strategy that had been published in September 2021. The DSS is aimed at setting out British plans to “address growing threats” in space and support greater “global surveillance and intelligence for military operations”.
As for the Chinese, they have put forward their White Paper without specific reference to defence. The paper speaks of the need to “integrate space science, technology, and application…for high quality development”. But it makes no bones about the fact that this is the beginning of “a new journey toward [becoming] a space power.”
A year earlier in 2020, the US had also released its first Defence Space Strategy which emerged from its 2018 National Strategy for Space.
For the British, this is an important step in seeking military benefits from the ongoing civilian programmes, something that was also triggered by Brexit. As much was suggested by the Integrated Review, a kind of a national security strategy document that was published in March 2021. This was followed a week later by the Defence Command Paper“Defence in a competitive age.”
The British DSS speaks of a GBP 1.4 billion investment in addition to an ongoing GBP 5 billion to upgrade the United Kingdom’s Skynet communications satellite. A part of the new investment would be used for satellites for greater global surveillance and intelligence for the military, and GBP 61 million to develop cutting edge laser communications technology to deliver data from space to Earth.
The British DSS has set its context in the emerging threats from space, including electronic warfare, cyber attacks, directed energy weapons, co-orbital satellites, and direct ascent missiles to attack satellites. China naturally figures as a major challenge with its direct-ascent anti-satellite programme, technologies relating to co-orbital anti-satellite systems.
China’s White Paper is not about defence, but ostensibly civilian applications of space. But the Chinese space programme itself is an offshoot of its defence programme, and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) is part of the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND). Under it are two key state-owned enterprises, the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) and the China Aerospace Science and technology Corporation (CASC) all of these are descended from the No. 5 Research Academy of the Ministry of National Defence.
According to the White Paper, from 2016 to 2021, China completed some 207 launch missions mainly by using the Long March-5 rocket. Now, in the next five years, China plans “to send into space new generation manned carrier rockets and high thrust solid fuel carrier rockets, and speed up the R&D of heavy-lift launch vehicles.”
A major achievement of last year was the launch of the ‘Tianhe’, the core module of its new space station and the two missions comprising of three astronauts each in June and October 2021. This year, two other modules of the space station are likely to be sent up to create a T-shaped station by the end of the year.
In addition, the White Paper has spoken of the Chinese activities in high-resolution Earth and ocean observation and meteorological satellites, as well as fixed communication and broadcasting satellite networks. It is now offering its 30-satellite BeiDou navigation satellite system for services around the world.
A new mission that the White Paper has revealed is that of a space telescope, Xuntian, which will launch to the same orbit as the space station and dock with it periodically.
A major focus will be the Moon missions, which aims to eventually set up a lunar base. In addition, according to the White Paper, China will “complete key technological research on Mars sampling and return, exploration of the Jupiter system and so forth” as well as take up the exploration of the solar system through a mission that would send up twin probes into the edge of the heliosphere.
The White Paper is a public document and China has sought to project its goals similar to the ones outlined by the US Space Priorities’ paper as well on the peaceful uses of outer space and of “cooperation and sharing” and international exchanges, and “expanding global public services for space technology and products”. It has also spoken of global governance of outer space and international cooperation by “safeguarding the central role” of the UN treaty on the uses of outer space.
Taking a leaf out of the American playbook, China has encouraged its private sector to also participate in its space ventures. As of 2018, some 141 aerospace enterprises dealing with satellite manufacturing, launch vehicles, satellite operations, and so on have been registered in China.
Many space systems are dual-use, such as observation, navigation, and communications satellites. Details of military satellites such as those dedicated for electronic intelligence and targeting are rarely disclosed by any country. But what worries the world are certain new technologies that China has listed, such as “in orbit service and maintenance of spacecraft and space debris cleaning”. Like all space powers, China has been affected by space debris, and recently complained that its space station had to make evasive manoeuvres to avoid one of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites.
But space debris mitigation technologies are ‘dual use’, having both civilian and military applications. Satellites with the ability to rendezvous and attach to a satellite for refueling and repair can also be used to disable adversary satellites. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of attention paid when last October, China launched a Shijian 21 satellite which was aimed at testing “space debris mitigation technologies”.The Secure World Foundation has a number of fact-sheets listing the anti-satellite tests, rendezvous and proximity operations of countries like China, India, Russia ,and the United States. The Chinese activities in these areas are listed here.
As of now, the US remains a world leader in space technologies, a fact underscored by the deployment of the new James Webb telescope, a hundred times more powerful than its predecessor Hubble. But over the years, it has lost key ground on developing new launch vehicles, space stations, and deep space focus. Now, it is bouncing back with help from its private sector companies like Space X and Blue Origin and dozens of smaller operators. The White House Space Priorities document is clear that “a robust space program enables us to expand our alliances and partnerships and underpins our military strength.”
The document outlines a plan which will see renewed exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond. It says it will reinforce the space-related critical infrastructure of the country and defend itself against “the growing scope and scale of space and counterspace threats”. As part of this, it will leverage its new commercial space capabilities and services to meet national security requirements.
In December 2019, the US had established a Space Force and the next year, it had come out with its Defence Space Strategy which noted that “space is now a distinct warfighting domain” whose goal would be “to compete, deter and win in a complex security environment characterised by great power competition.”
The American DSS is quite straightforward in viewing China and Russia as “the most immediate and serious threats” though it does talk of North Korea and Iran as well. It says that the Chinese and Russians are aware of the American dependence on space “and have developed doctrine, organisations and capabilities” to deal with them. For its part, the US is determined to develop its space power “to ensure space superiority and secure the Nation’s vital interests.”
India’s concerns relating to space are not very different from that of Britain, since both of them are venturing somewhat late into the arena of military uses of space. New Delhi has considerable depth in space activities but it could draw a lesson or two from the British thinking in this area. In 2019, the government set up a Defence Space Agency and a Defence Space Research Organisation, but has baulked in setting up a fully-fledged Space Command. As of now, India has a number of GSAT series satellites which provide secure communications for its military. Besides imagery satellites, India has a number of synthetic imagery satellites exclusively for defence use. Many of the assets—surveillance and communications satellites—that the military uses are operated by ISRO. But there could be circumstances, especially during war, when these should be under direct military command. In 2019, India took a big step in conducting an integrated space warfare exercise which focused on integrating space assets for military uses
Reports suggest that India is working in a range of areas relating to counter-space defence. In 2019, it conducted a direct ascent anti-satellite test, but it is also working on counter-space capabilities like directed energy weapons, co-orbital satellite systems as well as other means to protect its own satellites from electronic and physical attacks.
But India needs to worry that Chinese military space capacities, which is being developed for taking on the US, could have the ability to overwhelm our assets in conflict situations. New Delhi, therefore, needs to sharply step up its activities here and also reach out to friends like the US to boost its capabilities.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).