By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
The growth of China’s space capabilities in the last decade has been impressive, corresponding to the growth of overall Chinese power. Even though outer space had remained relatively peaceful and de-linked from the geopolitics for most of the last three decades, it is once again at the heart of the great power competition, a manifestation of the conflicts on Earth. While China is developing these capabilities with an eye on the United States, the impact of these capabilities will be felt also in the Indo-Pacific. Given the economic, social and security stakes involved, India must devote more attention to China’s growing space capabilities and address some of the vulnerabilities and gaps.
While China continues to claim that it is only pursuing peaceful uses in outer space, there have been growing concerns from other countries about China’s recent advances in outer space because of the inherent strategic and security risks. Like all the modern militaries, China too is heavily reliant on outer space for carrying out what is called passive military applications such as intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR). But with the creation of the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), China’s military is indicating that it has much bigger roles planned for utilising outer space. The PLASSF is significant for a number of reasons, the major one being the integration of outer space, cyber and electronic warfare to bring about more effective into play. It should also be noted that China established the PLASSF much earlier than the US Space Force.
This is also in line with China’s defence white papers, which see a more significant role for outer space. For instance, the latest defence white paper (2019) explained the importance of outer space in China’s national thinking. It said: “Outer space is a critical domain in international strategic competition. Outer space security provides strategic assurance for national and social development. In the interest of the peaceful use of outer space, China actively participates in international space cooperation, develops relevant technologies and capabilities, advances holistic management of space-based information resources, strengthens space situation awareness, safeguards space assets, and enhances the capacity to safely enter, exit and openly use outer space.” Further, China’s military reforms and modernisation undertaken in 2015 have streamlined the PLA in order to make it a more agile and responsive fighting force. The major re-organisation including the creation of the PLASSF is meant to make the military effective and efficient in addition to bring about operational synergies, as a recent report by the Project 2049 Institute detailed. This has further accelerated China’s ISR capabilities. PLA’s growing fleet of electro-optical (EO), radar, and other space-based sensor platforms are in a position to “transmit images of the Earth’s surface to ground stations in near-real-time.” It has also made significant investments in synthetic aperture radar (SAR), and electronic reconnaissance surveillance capabilities. Additionally, as the report points out, “(F)uture deployments of potential sea-based imagery receiving stations, additional data relay satellite systems, or the further establishment of ground stations abroad could enhance China’s extended-range near-real-time targeting capability.”
The risks posed by China’s military space programme is primarily to other more capable powers such as the US using space as a force multiplier. But the growing number of counter-space capabilities developed by China poses a threat not to the US alone, but others also — especially its neighbours in the Indo-Pacific. The return of the anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons with China’s conduct of the ASAT test in January 2007 has sparked a new competition, which was absent at least in the outer space domain. Following the first successful Chinese ASAT test, the US carried out an ASAT test but in a more responsible manner, thereby not resulting in a large amount of long-lasting space debris. Since the Chinese ASAT test, India has mulled over the threats, challenges and ways to protect its own assets. Even though India has remained somewhat a reluctant player in the military space realm, ignoring the larger developments including the ASAT tests and renewed efforts at developing counter-space capabilities carried its own risks for India. This thinking pushed India to finally demonstrate its own ASAT capability in March 2019.
Thus, one could argue that China’s actions in outer space including the development of ASAT and other counter-space capabilities have led to a new competition. Indeed, the signs of a budding arms race is evident. Recently, several reports have chronicled China’s growing inventory of counter-space capabilities. These include, in addition to the already mentioned report by the 2049 Institute, reports by the Secure World Foundation (Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment) and Center for Strategic and International Studies (Space Threat Assessment 2020). All the three reports detail China’s counter-space capabilities including direct ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) weapons, high-powered lasers, co-orbital satellites, directed energy weapons, electronic jamming and spoofing, and cyber means that have been developed over the past decade. Some of these capabilities are operational while some are still being developed. China has so far undertaken several ASAT tests in an effort to make its capability more mature and reliable. SWF report claims that “Chinese DA-ASAT capability against LEO targets is likely mature and likely operationally fielded on mobile launchers. Chinese DA-ASAT capability against deep space targets — both Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and GEO — is likely still in the experimental or development phase,” but they also suggest that there is no substantial evidence to suggest that China plans to develop it as an operational capability in the future.
On other technologies, the situation is different. The SWF report says that China now has “sophisticated capabilities for jamming or spoofing space-based positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) capabilities,” which have been operationalised and used in South China Sea. The SWF report also states that the PLA PNT jammers have been possibly used in “sophisticated, widespread spoofing of civil GPS signals near the port of Shanghai.” On China’s co-orbital ASAT capabilities, the CSIS report states: “It does not appear that China has successfully tested a co-orbital ASAT capability, although it has demonstrated several of the technical capabilities required to construct such a weapon.” There are also other civilian technologies that can be effectively used in counter-space functions. China has been developing and testing such technologies but verifying the intent of these are challenging. China’s increasing number of rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) capabilities, is a case in point. RPOs are simply capabilities to “to maneuver satellites in orbit near one another.” These can be done with hostile intent (thus a co-orbital ASAT) but the very same technology can be used for on-orbit satellite servicing or active debris removal functions. It is unclear and a challenge to determine the purpose of such dual-use technologies.
While China is developing much of its counter-space capabilities in an effort to deny the United States any advantage it may accrue from its space capabilities, especially in the context of a possible conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea, India and other neighbours cannot afford to take these developments lightly. India has of course begun to respond, the first of which was the demonstrated ASAT capability in 2019 but China’s counter-space capabilities are also leading to further responses, contributing to a competitive outer space realm. The absence of effective global conversations on these issues to develop global norms of responsible behaviour has meant that more countries will go down this path, adopting deterrence in space as a state policy.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).