Overall Space Capabilities
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.
…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 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.9In 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
Kinetic Physical Counterspace WeaponsKinetic Physical
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.
Non-Kinetic Physical Counterspace WeaponsNon-Kinetic Physical
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
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.
Electronic Counterspace WeaponsElectronic
Cyber Counterspace WeaponsCyber
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