China’s space race: Careless military whispers


The space debris generated by China’s Long March 5B re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere on 8 May 2021 is actually far from being the only instance of China being pointed at for spacefaring carelessly. The first consequential event of the kind occurred on 11 January 2007, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) successfully conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test, destroying an inactive weather satellite with a kinetic kill vehicle launched on board a ballistic missile.

The test produced no fewer than 3 000 items of debris in low-Earth orbit (LEO)—threatening the safe operation of several satellites, including the ISS—and caused an international uproar as international governments expressed their concern over the possibility of a space arms race.

Although Beijing firmly claims it does not want to engage in any kind of space weaponization, the country has made considerable progress in terms of counter-space capabilities and enjoys a sizable arsenal of kinetic, electronic and cyber weapons.

Kinetic and non-kinetic physical weapons

Kinetic physical counter-space weapons attempt to strike directly at a satellite (via direct-ascent or co-orbital ASAT [anti-satellite] weapons) or a ground station. These attacks not only cause irreversible damage to the systems affected, but they also produce orbital debris. On the other hand, non-kinetic physical counter-space weapons—like laser beams, high-powered directed microwaves, electromagnetic pulse—have physical effects on satellites or ground systems without making physical contact.

The 2007 ASAT test surely provides the most significant evidence that China has, for quite some time already, achieved strong counterspace capabilities in terms of physical weapons. The 2021 “Space Threat Assessment” report from the Centre of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) therefore mentions that China continues to conduct tests of its operational SC-19 ballistic missile systems, although it no longer needs to prove that its robust direct-ascent ASAT capabilities can threaten any satellite in LEO, and probably beyond.

Incidentally, China launched in 2013 a new type of ASAT system, and although Beijing claimed the test used an SC-19, experts inferred that the altitude reached was far beyond the system’s capability. Following this, the US suggested that the new ASAT system could likely reach geostationary orbit (GEO), in which satellites used for missile warning, military communications, navigation and reconnaissance operate. US intelligence experts are in fact many to believe that although it does not publicly acknowledge it, China is developing increasingly sophisticated direct-ascent and co-orbital weapons. A report from the Department of Defence published in September 2020 thus drew attention again to Beijing’s progress on the development of missiles and electronic weapons despite its rhetoric against space militarisation.

Electronic weapons

On the other hand, electronic weapons have no physical effects on space systems but rather target the electromagnetic spectrum through which they transmit and receive data. For instance, jamming devices interfere with the communications to or from satellites by generating noise in the same radio frequency band. Chinese authorities claimed as early as 2005 that the PLA had acquired the ability to blind satellites and other strategic sensors using laser beams. Several years later, in April 2018, US officials brought forward satellite imagery evidence showing that two islands on the Spratly Island chain (South China Sea) were equipped with jamming systems targeting communications and radar, thereby confirming that China has acquired the ability to jam common satellite communication bands and GPS signals from the ground.

The 2015 annual report from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission had already noticed that Beijing has been committing substantial resources to developing directed-energy weapons, which can deliver atomic or subatomic particles along a trajectory at (or near) the speed of light to damage and possibly destroy orbiting infrastructures and equipment. And indeed, in June 2018, the South China Morning Post reported that China was building on Hainan Island a powerful radar system, capable of generating rapid pulses of electromagnetic energy and beaming them into the ionosphere—on a distance of over 2,000km, as far away as Singapore. Although Beijing officially stated that this new device would be used for scientific purposes, many experts agree that it might have more military-oriented applications—all the more so given that Extremely Long Frequency radio waves, which can be disrupted should the ionosphere be disturbed, can travel through seawater and reach submarines in the deep ocean, according to expert David Hambling writing in Popular Mechanics in June 2018.

Cyber weapons

Finally, cyber-attacks target systems that use, transmit and control the flow of data, or corrupt the data itself. Such an attack can result in the loss of data or services provided by a satellite, which can have serious effects if used against a system such as Global Positioning System (GPS). Cyber weapons allow any military body to jam communication bands and signals of PNT (Positioning, Navigation, Timing) satellites that are crucial for naval, air or ground military forces.

Many PLA writings confirm that the service’s Strategic Support Force (SSF) allegedly has highly advanced capabilities in cyber-warfare, seen as essential in the context of a modern conflict. Although there has been no recent publicly acknowledged cyber-attack from China against any other nation’s space systems, the country has already been suspected of being involved in such attacks, namely against US satellites in October 2007 and July 2008. Two environment-monitoring satellites were interfered with via a ground station in Norway, but Beijing denied having any responsibility in the incidents, Reuters reported at the time.

Dual-use capabilities & Spaceplane programme

Last but not least, a significant issue is dual-use capabilities, i.e., technologies normally used for civilian purposes but that can have military applications. China is one of the most technologically advanced nations in this matter, thanks to its civil-military integration (CMI) program that encourages knowledge and skills transfer between the military and the civil/commercial sector.

Heavy investment in dual-use technologies is also a way for Beijing to build and test counter-space weapons under the pretext of developing its civil space program. And as suggest by an ISS report from 2018, some space devices and systems may thus be categorized as government-owned when they are in fact PLA-operated.

The Chinese have also developed their own spaceplane, similar to the US’ X-37B manufactured by Boeing. The reusable experimental spacecraft, about which little is known, was reportedly launched on 4 September 2020 by a Long March 2F rocket and returned to Earth after orbiting two days in LEO. Between those who are suspicious about the secretive spacecraft’s doings while it was flying over the Gobi desert and those who say that Beijing may only want to duplicate US capabilities, the only thing certain is that China’s true motivations behind this new spaceplane do at least give rise to perplexity.

Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.