The Next Space Race
The Pentagon has just released its annual report on Chinese space power, and it's a disturbing document, in several respects. Not only is Beijing spending heavily to develop space-based surveillance and reconnaissance systems, it is also investing in navigation warfare and anti-satellite capabilities that pose a direct threat to U.S. and its ability to wage future wars.
Space.com has a summary of the report, which focuses on China's efforts to expand its manned space program, develop its own, space-based navigation systems (similar to GPS), improve launch capabilities and create viable anti-satellite technologies that could threaten U.S. reconnaissance satellites in low earth orbit, and deny information to military commanders.
From an intelligence perspective, China's emerging navigation warfare (NAVWAR) strategy is a clear concern to American defense analysts and military planners. Beijing clearly understands that the U.S. has grown increasingly dependent on precision-guided munitions, and the satellites required to guide them to their targets. As a hedge against our precision strike systems, China is developing a two-phased approach. Within their own territory, they plan to deploy GPS jammers, making it more difficult for satellite-guided bombs to find their mark. While military systems use a "secure" mode of GPS, advanced jammers (deployed properly) could have some impact on that system, creating miss distances that would ensure target survival, or minimize damage, and force a re-strike, against an increasingly defense Chinese air defense array.
At the same time, Beijing is also investing in its own satellite-guided weapons, capable of using GPS, Russia's GLOSNASS, the European Galileo system, or China's own Beidou navigation satellites. The Chinese assume that signals from at least one of these systems would be accessible in the skies over Taiwan, allowing short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles to still find their targets. In essence, China hopes to deny use of space-based navigation and strike capabilities to an adversary operating over their territory, while using the same technology to conduct attacks against Taiwan. While there are some problems with this approach (namely in the technical capabilities of the Beidou system), development of this NAVWAR strategy illustrates how far China's space program has come over the past decade.
More disturbing is China's efforts to field anti-satellite systems, capable of targeting adversary platforms in low earth orbit (LEO). That's the arena where many U.S. spy satellites operate. And while our reconnaissance platforms are technical marvels, they are also limited in terms of numbers, and it's extremely expensive and time-consuming to manufacture them. With a robust ASAT system, China could develop the ability to disable or destroy much of our LEO intel constellation, leaving the U.S. with no short-term options for replacing them. Bowing to political pressure, the U.S. essentially abandoned its ASAT program back in the 1980s; meanwhile, Beijing has plowed ahead, and is developing capabilities that could have grave implications for our space-based collection systems.
Predictably, some on the left (notably Harvard's Jeffrey Lewis) have dismissed the report as little more than "a laundry list of Chinese space activities." I would argue that Mr. Lewis can't see the forest for the trees. Beijing clearly has a space plan, designed to challenge U.S. supremacy in that arena, and advance its own interests at the same time. China's NAVWAR strategy and ASAT efforts aren't isolated "science projects," they are integral parts of a comprehensive scheme that should be closely monitored by the U.S. intelligence communities.
How worried should we be about China as a space power? In recent weeks, senior Congressional leaders and the Director of National Intelligence have been briefed on some of the topics outlined in the space report. Thankfully, there are some leaders in our national security establishment who can see the big picture, and view China's space endeavors as an over-arching plan, and not a series of isolated efforts.