Tuesday, June 06, 2006

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.


usually mellow said...

Being a cynic, I have to wonder if China's leadership enjoys watching us fight the GWOT and devote our national attention on that endeavor and not paying much attention to them.

I can't help but think back to the Clinton years where there were some...shall we say questionable transfers of space, rocket, and satellite technology to...China.

Hopefully our recently cemented agreement with India passes the Senate....

Chris said...

Robotic missions are the way forward in space development for the foreseeable future, or until we have Star Trek style deflector shields that can protect crews from the lethal radiation of open space. The way for America to win the next space race is to go for smart elegant unmanned solutions, and let the Chinese expend resources on superficially more glamourous manned missions.

C. Owen Johnson said...

Hmmm... Have they cleaned the grease off the floor yet?

Catfish 'n Cod said...

Pardon my naivete, but if they are jamming one system and using four themselves, why can we not do the same? Electronics are low cost (once you get over the hump of design), low weight, and low power compared to most anything else.

Why can we not also use GPS/Galileo/GLONASS/commercial sats/etc.? In such a case, the only way to knock out either side's precision capability would be to EMP and knock out all the satellites, period... ruining everyone's day until replacement sats could be lifted.

Wanderlust said...

Recall that there were a few ABM N-tests in the late 1950's where nuclear warheads were detonated at altitudes of 22mi to 466mi (Operation Hardtack I - shots Teak and Orange; Operation Argus, shots I-III; Operation Dominic, shot Starfish Prime, Checkmate, Bluegill Triple Prime, and Kingfish).

When Argus was conducted, the result was the creation of an artificial Van Allen radiation belt at the detonation altitude (see the Operation Argus notes on the Nuclear Archive website for the following quote: "The motivation for this secret series was a theory developed by the brilliant but eccentric physicist Nicholas Christofilos at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (LRL). He had predicted that military significant effects would be produced by injecting charged particles from nuclear explosions into near space to create artificial Van Allen belts. This series sought to prove (or disprove) his theory by actually creating such a belt. Operation Argus has been termed the 'world's largest scientifc experiment' encompassing as it did the space surrounding the entire Earth. The tests essentially confirmed his predictions.").

I recall reading elsewhere (Google is your friend) that these shots knocked out satellites at the detonation altitude. There are reports available online that suggest an LEO N-shot would fry all satellites in orbit at the detonation altitude and prevent manned flight (Space Shuttle, Space Station) from occurring for at least two years.

Since the mid-1990's, China has been heavily researching asymmetric warfare. An LEO N-shot would be an easy way to level the playing field.