Space Threat 2018: China Assessment

Arguably the fastest rising power in space, China has made rapid progress in developing both its space and counterspace capabilities. The country has tested direct-ascent ASAT weapons, on-orbit robotics, and remote proximity operations. Reports indicate that China is also developing and testing directed-energy and jamming technologies.

The following article is an excerpt from Space Threat Assessment 2018, a report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

Overall Space Capabilities

…for countries that can

never win a war with the

United States by using

the method of tanks and

planes, attacking the U.S.

space system may be an

irresistible and most

tempting choice.WANG HUCHENGChinese Military Analyst 1

CHINA LAUNCHED ITS FIRST SATELLITE in 1970. Only 33 years later it became the third nation to launch an astronaut.2 Today, China is a major space power with a record of successful crewed space flights; two space stations, with plans for a third; lunar orbiters and a lunar rover; and a program to put Chinese taikonauts on the Moon.3 To achieve these feats, China has an advanced family of rockets, the Long March series, that is used to launch satellites and the crewed Shenzhou spacecraft.

China has significant goals for its civil and military space systems. China’s 2016 white paper on its space activities states that the country’s vision is to “build China into a space power in all respects.”4 To accomplish this, China plans to “expedite the development of its space endeavors by continuing to enhance the basic capacities of its space industry.”5 As part of its mission to become a dominant actor in the domain, China has increased spending on space technologies and activities. In 2017, it was estimated that China spent almost $11 billion on space. This is the second most spending for any country on space activities; the United States spends the most at almost $48 billion.6



In addition to direct government investment in space, China has been attracting outside funding. In 2015, China and Russia partnered to launch a $200 million venture fund to incubate innovative technologies.7 Private investors have also been actively supporting Chinese space start-ups, including a $182 million investment in a Chinese company called ExPace Technology, which to-date is “the largest investment in a non-U.S. space start-up.”8 One of the most active China-based investors, Tencent Holdings, has also invested in several U.S.-based space startups such as Moon Express, Planetary Resources, and World View Enterprises.9

To improve its space capabilities, China is focusing on many lines of effort, notably its rapid development and launch of both intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites and positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellites. By 2020, China “plans to establish a global, 24-hour, all-weather earth remote sensing system and a global satellite navigation system.”10 With a PNT system of its own, China will rely less on the United States’ GPS constellation for military and commercial applications. China is also experimenting with new capabilities in space, including such feats as launching the first ever quantum communications satellite in 2016.11 China continues to increase its activity and experience in space, launching 31 payloads in 2017, second only to the United States in payloads launched that year.12  

Space Organization and Doctrine

IN 2015, CHINA PUBLISHED a white paper on military strategy that states, “outer space and cyber space have become new commanding heights in strategic competition among all parties.”13 Many scholars believe that this statement represents China’s formal designation of both space and cyberspace as new warfighting domains.14 In recognition of the increasing importance of these two domains, China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), created a new organization dedicated to both space and cyberspace in 2015. This new organization, called the Strategic Support Force (SSF), consolidates much of China’s space and cyber capabilities into one central organization and bestows an elevated importance to space and cyberspace.15 The mission of the SSF includes “coordinating and executing electronic warfare, space / counter-space and cyber warfare activities.”16 Although experts do not believe the SSF has full authority over the nation’s arsenal of direct-ascent ASAT weapons, the SSF does appear to have control over other types of counterspace activities.17

Image Source: A Long March 7 orbital launch vehicle carrying China's cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1 on April 20, 2017. (FRED DUFOUR / AFP / GETTY IMAGES)

In military writings, China sees both space and cyberspace as important elements of military power and views U.S. space and cyber assets as vulnerable.18 Chinese military scholars write that “space dominance will be a vital factor in securing air dominance, maritime dominance, and electromagnetic dominance. It will directly affect the course and outcome of wars.”19 In a 2015 report, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission determined that while China has not published an official, public document detailing its counterspace strategy and doctrine, its actions since the early 2000s indicate that the Chinese program is “primarily designed to deter U.S. strikes against China’s space assets, deny space superiority to the United States, and attack U.S. satellites.”20 The PLA leadership is aware of China’s growing reliance on space for its expanding military capabilities and reach. According to Chinese sources, achieving space superiority means China must ensure its ability to fully utilize its own space assets while simultaneously degrading, disrupting, or destroying its adversary’s space capabilities.21
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Image Source: Robert Karma / Flickr

China began testing its direct-ascent ASAT capabilities in the mid-2000s. The nation’s first two tests of the SC-19 direct-ascent ASAT system occurred in 2005 and 2006 and were unsuccessful. In its third attempt in 2007, China destroyed one of its own satellites and produced a cloud of hazardous debris in low Earth orbit (LEO) that still threatens other satellites in that orbital regime today. Following the 2007 test, China conducted additional tests of the SC-19, although these were designed to not produce orbital debris.22  

In May 2013, China launched a new type of ASAT system, which Beijing claimed was intended to reach a height of 10,000 kilometers (km) to disperse a barium cloud for scientific research.23 However, experts have suggested that this test was likely a high-altitude direct-ascent ASAT test that could reach satellites as high as geosynchronous orbit (GEO), which includes satellites used for missile warning, military communications, and ISR.24 A kinetic ASAT attack in GEO could be devastating for the United States and other space-faring nations because the debris it would produce could linger for generations in this unique region of space and interfere with the safe operation of satellites. China has also begun testing a new DN-3 ASAT missile capable of reaching higher orbits, with non-debris producing tests conducted in October 2015, December 2016, August 2017, and February 2018.25 China may be developing three or more direct- ascent ASAT systems simultaneously, but it is not certain if each is intended to become operational or if some are intended to be missile interceptors.26

China has also developed and launched several satellites for testing co-orbital capabilities. In 2008, a Chinese spacecraft deployed a miniature imaging satellite, the BX-1, that positioned itself in orbit around its mother spacecraft. After the successful deployment of the BX-1 and establishment of close orbit around the larger spacecraft, reports speculate that the BX-1 then maneuvered to intercept the International Space Station (ISS), passing within 45 km of the station without providing prior notification.29 However, other accounts argue that the BX-1 was released by a spring-loaded device and was unable to be actively controlled until after it had passed the ISS.30 While such technology may not be overtly counterspace, at a minimum it gives China the operational and technical expertise necessary to one day develop a co-orbital ASAT weapon.

In 2010, following the BX-1 test, China launched the SJ-12 satellite, which conducted a series of remote proximity maneuvers with an older Chinese satellite. Some have speculated that this mission was designed to test co-orbital jamming or other counterspace capabilities.31 At one point, the SJ-12 satellite made contact with another satellite at low speed; however, this incident was “unlikely to have resulted in debris or significant damage to either satellite.”32 Although this may have been a test run for the 2011 docking of the Shenzhou space capsule with the Tiangong-1 space station, the SJ-12 maneuver could have serious counterspace implications as well.33 In 2013, China reportedly tested its ability to use a robotic arm mounted on one satellite to seize another satellite,34 although this has yet to be verified from publicly-available information.35

In June 2016, China launched the Aolong-1 spacecraft, which included a robotic arm and a sub-satellite that would be released and recovered during its mission. According to official statements, the Aolong-1 was intended to test technologies needed to collect space debris and remove it from orbit. Though studies on the incident debate the success of this test,36 the technology could potentially be further developed and used to damage or disable other satellites 37 Similarly, China also deployed the Tianyuan-1 spacecraft in 2016, which according to Chinese press accounts, successfully tested the ability to refuel other satellites while in orbit.38 China has the largest standing army of any nation and over the past decade has significantly increased its military budget and modernized its conventional military forces.39 In a conventional conflict, China could be capable of striking an adversary’s satellite ground stations with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, or long-range strike aircraft. And as China’s military reach continues to expand, it will be able to use its conventional forces to hold ground stations at risk over progressively greater distances.

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Image Source: U.S. Air Force

China has made significant advances in non-kinetic forms of attack that can have physical effects on space systems from a distance. In a recent report, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence finds that China is making advances in directed energy technologies that can “blind or damage sensitive space-based optical sensors, such as those used for remote sensing or missile defense.”40 Chinese military and technical writings also reference directed energy as a key technology in successful counterspace weapons.41 For example, several Chinese scientists claimed to have successfully blinded a satellite in a 2005 test using a “50-100 [kilowatt] capacity mounted laser gun in Xinjiang province.”42 However, this claim cannot be confirmed through publicly-available information.

In 2006, reports surfaced that U.S. imagery satellites had been illuminated by lasers over Chinese territory.43 Though much speculation surrounded these incidents, senior United States officials have stated that “China not only has the capability, but has exercised it.”44 Indeed, then-Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, Donald Kerr, acknowledged the incident over China, but stated that it did not “damage the U.S. satellite’s ability to collect information.”45 This incident demonstrates that China has much of the technology necessary to field an operational capability to dazzle or blind a satellite; and experts believe China will continue to work on developing efficient and accurate high-powered laser systems.46 As one China expert explained, “there are no serious fundamental barriers to China eventually obtaining an effective directed energy weapon system… the only fundamental barrier to learning these abstract elements and achieving a practical weapon capability is effort—time, will, and money.”47

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists / Caroline Amenabar / CSIS

China has also shown interest in developing HPM weapons for air and missile defense. In January 2017, Chinese media celebrated the work of expert Huang Wenhua, who developed a miniaturized HPM weapon capable of being placed on a ship. This technological advance indicates that “China could have a mobile HPM system capable of attacking electronics on aircraft and anti-radiation missiles.”48 However, adding a mobile HPM system to a satellite would require further reductions in size, weight, and power in addition to a number of other integration challenges unique to the space environment.

As a nuclear power with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), China has the latent capability to launch a nuclear weapon into LEO. However, while China has the technology necessary to field a nuclear-armed ASAT weapon, it appears to be focusing its efforts in other areas.

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Image Source: Jose Gil / Adobe Stock

China acquired foreign ground-based satellite jammers from Ukraine in the late 1990s, and has continued to develop the technology independently in the ensuing decades.49 Currently, China has the ability to jam common satellite communication bands and GPS signals, and it has made the development and deployment of satellite jamming systems a high priority.50 A paper from the China Electronic Technology Group Corporation proposes solutions for “overcoming the high power requirements for jamming U.S. millimeter wave (MMW) satellite communications by using space-based jammers hosted on small satellites, in a ‘David versus Goliath’ attack.” The authors further identify U.S. satellites that would be particularly susceptible, such as “the AEHF (Advanced Extremely High Frequency), WGS (Wideband Global SATCOM), and GBS (Global Broadcast Service) satellite constellations.”51 Another Chinese technical paper provides insight into how China plans to jam GPS signals used by U.S. drones, such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk, over the Spratly Islands and South China Sea.52 At the DefCon hacking convention in Las Vegas in 2015, two Chinese researchers presented a guide to building a GPS spoofing device and sold kits for about $300.53 Although there are no public accounts of the PLA spoofing GPS signals, the ability to spoof GPS and other satellite signals is well within the reach of the PLA, especially given the priority China places on electronic forms of attack.

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Image Source: spainter_vfx / Adobe Stock

China has highly advanced cyber capabilities, many of which are run by the SSF in conjunction with their counterspace operations. Chinese hacks against secure government networks to steal personal information and technical data are well known, but the country’s efforts to attack and infiltrate space systems has received relatively less attention.56 Chinese writings and research efforts indicate that in a conflict, it would attempt to conduct cyberattacks against U.S. satellites and ground stations.57 As China expert David Chen has noted, “China’s space system researchers already possess foundational knowledge that could be used for a cyber-electronic warfare counter-space R&D [Research and Development] program.”58  

China has already been implicated or suspected in several cyberattacks against U.S. satellites 59 In October 2007 and again in July 2008, cyberattacks believed to originate in China targeted a remote sensing satellite operated by the U.S. Geological Survey called Landsat-7. Each attack caused 12 or more minutes of interference with ground station communications, but the attackers did not gain control over the satellite. In June and October of 2008, hackers also believed to be from China attacked NASA’s Terra Earth observation satellite. In these attacks, the hackers “achieved all steps required to command the satellite but did not issue commands.”60