The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

NSRC 2023

Long March launch
A Long March 4B rocket lifts off last week, carrying the Yaogan 12 imaging satellite. (credit: Xinhua)

Staring into the eyes of the Dragon

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Last Wednesday China launched an observation satellite. Although the media has noted that China has launched a lot of rockets in the recent past, they have devoted less attention to what they’ve actually carried. What the rockets have often been carrying are imaging reconnaissance satellites and ocean surveillance satellites, as well as navigation and meteorology satellites. China has been rapidly building up constellations of dual-use and military satellites that extend its military’s ability to operate beyond its own borders, including its ability to monitor the oceans and to spot—and eventually target—US Navy vessels at sea.

On November 9 the Secure World Foundation sponsored a panel discussion of experts on China’s space-based surveillance capabilities, doctrine, strategy, and their implications. The panelists discussed the systems that China was fielding, how the Chinese refer to them and conceive of their use, and the implications for the world in general and the United States in particular. They generally agreed that the Chinese are rapidly acquiring a capability that the United States should be concerned about, but explained that the threat is more nuanced, and complex, than it first appears.

Politically defensive, militarily offensive

The first speaker was Kevin Pollpeter, China Project Manager of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis of Defense Group Inc. Pollpeter started with a discussion of Chinese doctrine, noting that they pursue what is best translated from Chinese as an “active defense strategy.” Officially the Chinese state that they will not be the first to attack, but will actively defend themselves. But Pollpeter said that although this is commonly interpreted in the West as meaning that the Chinese will not attack first, what they say to themselves is something different. Their doctrine is “politically defensive and militarily offensive,” Pollpeter explained.

According to Pollpeter, a common theme in practically every Chinese book and magazine article about space is that “whoever controls space controls the Earth.”

The Chinese have a term that means “gaining mastery by striking first.” Modern wars are violent and quick, finished very rapidly, causing a lot of damage up front. According to Pollpeter, the Chinese have studied numerous examples of the United States attacking other countries such as the first Gulf War, the Bosnian action, and the 2003 Iraq invasion, and determined that if they wait for the United States to build up its forces it is already too late. They need to gain the initiative from the outset. Their strategy is to conduct targeted strikes against vital American targets. Most of their focus is on achieving “information control” for a specific time and location. They would hit decisively and get out before their enemy could recover. The Chinese don’t want to be Iraq, sitting by waiting for the Americans to attack.

To the Chinese this includes hitting American space assets. Pollpeter explained that the Chinese consider American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites, and even meteorological satellites, to be “space weapons” and therefore legitimate targets.

According to Pollpeter, a common theme in practically every Chinese book and magazine article about space is that “whoever controls space controls the Earth.” “It’s almost obligatory to put this in a book or article,” Pollpeter explained.

The Chinese believe that 70–80% of US intelligence information is collected by satellites. They often tend to ascribe almost mythical powers to American intelligence satellites, assuming that the Americans can see and hear everything with their satellites.

The Chinese also believe that space will inevitably become a battleground, no different than the oceans or the air. Their strategy is to take down American satellites at the outset of any conflict.

Pollpeter said that Chinese writings have been heavily influenced by American writings on “network-centric warfare,” which dates from the late 1990s. The general definition of network-centric warfare is connecting all battlefield systems to provide a common battlefield picture. Doing so, according to its advocates, increases the responsiveness and rapid response of American forces. The Chinese therefore are seeking to attack the nodes in the network in order to deny this capability to the Americans. But they are also seeking to emulate network-centric warfare themselves.

US space forces are both an American strength and a vulnerability. But, Pollpeter noted, the Chinese have not yet seemed to recognize is that as they develop their own space systems they are inheriting the same vulnerabilities as the Americans.

Persistent surveillance

Mark Stokes, Executive Director of the Project 2049 Institute, was the next speaker. According to Stokes, the Chinese don’t have global aspirations. Stokes explained that recent Chinese space launches indicate that they are seeking to develop “persistent surveillance” of the oceans within the range of their weapons—approximately 2,000 kilometers out to sea, sometimes as far as 3,000 kilometers.

To achieve this capability the Chinese are embracing a number of surveillance platforms, not only satellites but also some concepts that the United States has investigated but abandoned, like high-altitude airships that operate in “near space.”

Stokes described the organization of the Chinese military space forces. Most of the operational requirements are established by the Chinese equivalent of their Joint Chiefs of Staff. They have departments for reconnaissance, communications intelligence, electronic intelligence, and jamming. The same department for conducting reconnaissance is also responsible for ASATs. There are two major corporate enterprises, the China Aerospace Technology Corporation and the China Aerospace Industry Corporation. These are in turn broken into academies.

“The tough part is not the imagery satellites,” Coté said.

Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance has five aspects. The first is imagery, and the Chinese have a requirement for imagery with ground resolution of approximately 0.25 meters. However, they may not have achieved that yet. The second is synthetic aperture radar to provide imagery at night and in adverse weather. The third is electronic intelligence, or elint, and the Chinese have a long history of launching experimental elint payloads into orbit. The fourth is communications intelligence, and there are rumors that China has launched an experimental communications intelligence payload on one of their weather satellites. Finally, there is infrared surveillance, which can spot the launch of ballistic missiles. Although the Chinese have expressed significant interest in such a capability, there is no indication that they have actually launched any infrared warning payloads yet.

In addition to the satellites, the Chinese also have an interest in developing solid-fueled rockets for launching satellites quickly in emergencies. However, despite having announced plans to develop such rockets years ago, they have not made much progress, apparently because they have not designated a military unit for integrating this capability into their forces.

Blob detectors

The next speaker was Dr. Owen Coté, Associate Director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Coté said that the Chinese are very interested in what is currently called anti-access area denial, or A2AD, previously referred to as “sea denial.” Coté said that by now a lot of people are familiar with China’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile. But such a weapon is only useful if the Chinese can locate their targets in a vast ocean.

China is currently investing heavily in electro-optical imaging systems and now synthetic aperture radar. However, imagery satellites are not very useful for finding ships because they have too narrow a field of view. “If you want to solve this problem on an ocean-wide basis you have to go to radar,” Coté said.

“If you want to search the Philippine Sea, the best way to do that is with five airplanes,” he said. This is traditionally how the United States has done it, and it remains the best method. However, the Chinese have decided to rely more heavily on satellites in low Earth orbit. He mentioned that during the Cold War the Soviet Union had two types of satellites for conducting ocean surveillance: passive electronic intelligence satellites, and radar satellites known as RORSATs. The RORSAT sent a radar beam looking for ships sticking up over the horizon. The satellites were essentially “blob detectors.” So far the Chinese have developed a set of triplet electronic intelligence satellites that “is similar to what we did when we got into this,” Coté explained. “The next step would be to try and develop a radar satellite,” he added. But so far there is no evidence that they have done so.

Launching all of these different satellites, getting them to work properly, and integrating them so that their data is useable by commanders who want to do things like target American aircraft carriers, is difficult. “The tough part is not the imagery satellites,” Coté said.

Coté, like Pollpeter, noted that once the Chinese acquire this capability, they acquire the vulnerabilities as well. “This great investment… could indicate that they’ll get more wary of starting stuff.” They are developing their own assets, which means that they are acquiring something to lose.

Internal disorganization limits China’s space capabilities and their ability to interact internationally. They do not have good interagency coordination and various groups are unaware of what others are doing.

“My second point is to not get too excited yet,” Coté said. He noted that the US Navy actually makes relatively little use of low Earth orbit. It’s not useful for anti-submarine warfare or missile surveillance. Low Earth orbit is essentially the domain that you use for peacetime intelligence collection and losing LEO assets would not dramatically cripple the US Navy. He also added that persistent surveillance—viewing a battlefield for long periods of time—is what the Navy considers most useful. But that introduces new vulnerabilities. The United States is increasingly exploiting unmanned aerial vehicles, particularly lower altitude ones. “Predators can be shot down,” he added, and the way to eliminate the vulnerability is to go to higher altitude. So the picture is always evolving, with new capabilities, opportunities and new vulnerabilities.

Lack of dialogue, externally and internally

The last speaker was Brian Weeden, Technical Advisor at the Secure World Foundation. Weeden asked what all of these new developments meant for the big picture. He said that the United States increasingly sees Chinese space capabilities as a threat to the US. But the reverse is also true—Chinese satellites are also vulnerable to attack. The United States demonstrated an ASAT capability several years ago when it shot down one of its errant spy satellites with an Aegis weapon system aboard a Navy cruiser. The Chinese have to consider the Aegis threat to be real, even if the United States claims that it is not an operational capability.

Weeden warned that it is simplistic and a mistake to think that the current situation means that China has nothing to lose and the United States has everything to lose. The United States still has strengths, and China has weaknesses.

Weeden also noted that the Chinese lag behind the United States and the West in how they conceptualize space. In the West there is a growing trend to think of space as “an environment that needs to be protected so that we can continue to use it.” This has led to working groups within the United Nations’ Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) on space debris mitigation, space weather, and other topics.

But the Chinese are in many ways limited by their own institutions, Weeden said. Although the Chinese foreign ministry is involved in COPUOS on “long-term sustainability” issues, “the Peoples’ Liberation Army may not know it is happening.” The PLA is still looking at space like the United States did fifteen years ago, solely as a battlefield, and not as a place that spacefaring countries need to protect and preserve for their own purposes. The United States has since shifted its thinking, but the Chinese have not. Things like space debris mitigation are new topics in China, and they are still lagging compared to the United States, Europe, and Russia.

This limited worldview in China not only limits the Chinese, it is bad for the West as well. Weeden noted that 30% of the space debris currently in orbit is Chinese, but they did not attend multiple conferences where topics like active debris removal have been discussed.

“It is possible to have a dialogue with an adversary and you do get something good out of it,” Weeden explained. Then he added “It’s a good way to collect intelligence.”

Internal disorganization limits China’s space capabilities and their ability to interact internationally. They do not have good interagency coordination and various groups are unaware of what others are doing. Weeden also noted that one of the strengths of the American system is that there is constant churn between agencies, disciplines, and organizations—engineers go into policy, lawyers and policy people mix and trade jobs, et cetera. But in China they are restricted to “stovepipes” and do not trade jobs and intermix and, as a result, the engineers may not understand the policy groups and vice versa.

During a question and answer session the panelists reemphasized this fact. Stokes noted that China has no NASA equivalent. Pollpeter added that the Chinese themselves bemoan that they have too many organizations and this limits them. For example, during a 2008 earthquake the people leading disaster response did not know which agencies were in charge of what, making it difficult, for instance, to obtain current satellite imagery of damaged areas.

Threats and opportunities

Several questions from the audience were about negative actions by China. One questioner asked about a recent report that computer hackers had taken over two NASA remote sensing satellites and suspicions that China was responsible. Weeden noted that these were old satellites and that the hacking reportedly took place via a ground station in Svalbard which is heavily used, making it difficult to determine who was actually responsible for the hacking. Coté added that if the satellites were not specifically designed to be protected against such attacks it would not be difficult to accomplish. More modern satellites have safeguards.

Spaceflight is held in high esteem in China. One speaker noted that virtually the entire Chinese leadership attended the recent launch of the unmanned Tiangong-1 spacecraft. How many American presidents have attended human spacecraft launches? How many have attended robotic spacecraft launches?

Weeden also asked a rhetorical question: how much of Chinese thinking about space is actually their own ideas rather than something they learned from observing the United States?

In some ways the Chinese have proven to be their own worst enemy. They want to be taken seriously as a space power but they keep making mistakes that prevent this from happening. Nevertheless, the Chinese are interested in international cooperation and already cooperate with Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, France, and even Australia. One panelist noted that the leading Chinese trade publication “China Space News” recently stated that one benefit of China successfully operating its own space station is that it would make China able to participate in the International Space Station program. This is something that they clearly desire because it would indicate that they were a major player. However, China wants to be approached as an equal and would react badly to any approach that implied that they were in need of help.

Impediments to cooperation exist on both sides. Weeden noted that both the United States and China have domestic political concerns that override those advocating cooperation. And sometimes it is the organizations themselves that stand in the way—for example, the United States’ lead organization for providing space situational awareness, i.e. tracking objects in space, is US Strategic Command. Stratcom is interested in mitigating debris and preventing collisions in space that can increase debris. But Stratcom is also responsible for US nuclear weapons, and therefore it is difficult for the Chinese to cooperate with the US on these issues.

Weeden also asked a rhetorical question: how much of Chinese thinking about space is actually their own ideas rather than something they learned from observing the United States? They could be mirroring us.

The more things change…

Only a few days after the panel, David F. Gordon, the head of research and director of global macro analysis at Eurasia Group, wrote in the Washington Post about the opportunities the United States currently has in Asia as a result of Chinese aggressiveness. For years various countries in Asia were sidling up to China with its booming economy. But in recent years China—apparently because of leadership struggles—has become more aggressive towards its neighbors, asserting sovereignty in places like the South China Sea. Now China’s neighbors have become wary of the emerging power. This has reversed the political dynamic, giving the United States the opportunity to improve its ties with these countries, and seek better terms. The lesson is that the situation is not fixed, and China’s increased capability does not always work to the country’s advantage. Space is no exception.