Op-ed | Are we ready to meet the Chinese space challenge?

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This commentary originally appeared in the June 19, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

This month, the U.S. Department of Defense released its annual report to Congress on Chinese military and security developments. The report, mandated in the FY2000 National Defense Authorization Act, reflects the official views of DoD and the U.S. intelligence community on the state of the Chinese military and Chinese security activities. Its issuance has been protested annually by the People’s Republic of China as furthering perceptions of a “China threat.”

In some ways, the Chinese are correct, because anyone reading the report is likely to be disturbed by its contents. What is clear is that the capabilities of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are steadily expanding, in every facet. China’s air force is fielding two fifth-generation fighters, air-launched cruise missiles, and a host of support aircraft including airborne early-warning platforms and electronic warfare systems. The PLA Navy is not only introducing several new submarine classes, but also amphibious assault ships, and even a new series of cruisers — a type of vessel that only the United States has hitherto fielded. The ground forces are getting “tracked and wheeled artillery systems, self-propelled anti-tank guns, anti-tank guided missiles, wheeled and tracked armored vehicles, and air defense systems with advanced target-acquisition capabilities.” Meanwhile, the newly established PLA Rocket Forces (PLARF), the successor to the previous “super-branch” of the Second Artillery, is fielding a variety of new ICBMs, as well as medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles that can reach Guam and the central Indian Ocean.

But the PLA is not just gaining a sharper set of physical spearheads for its traditional services. As the report makes clear, a substantial effort is underway to improve the PLA’s ability to both exploit and deny space and cyber. This is central to the PLA’s focus on fighting and winning future “informatized local wars,” and both are part of the PLA’s effort to be able to establish dominance of the key domains of outer space, cyber space, maritime, and nuclear.

To this end, this is the first time the report has discussed at length the massive PLA reorganization that was announced on Dec. 31, 2015. This is a thorough revamping of the PLA’s structures. It includes reorganization of both the military regions (into war zone commands) and a revision of the Central Military Commission,which exercises overall control and administration of the entire PLA. It also has entailed the creation of new services—not only the PLARF, but the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF).

Specifics regarding the roles and missions of the PLASSF, as the report notes, are still sparse. However, Chinese writings and reports indicate that the PLASSF is responsible for electronic warfare operations, network warfare (including cyber warfare) operations, and space operations. This brings into a single service disparate elements from across the PLA, likely creating efficiencies and, more importantly, facilitating the creation of new doctrine. By combining these elements, this new service is, in effect, China’s information warfare force, bringing together the operational specialties most involved with the gathering and exploitation of information—or denying an adversary the same.

The implications of this new PLASSF, and the broader PLA modernization effort, are significant. The report discusses China’s disregard for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the associated Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) rulings on the territorial disputes with the Philippines in the South China Sea. The Philippines, a member of UNCLOS, had filed the complaint with the PCA, under the terms of UNCLOS; Beijing ignored both the filing and the subsequent findings, which were overwhelmingly in favor of Manila. Indeed, China is now fortifying many of the artificial islands it has built in the area. China’s decision to ignore the decision makes clear that it will act as it sees fit to defend its perceived national interests, even when they infringe upon international common spaces and are covered by international agreements. This may not be very different from other states’ behavior, but it clearly suggests that such agreements are a frail reed to rely upon.

Moreover, as the report notes, the PLA sees space and cyber as integrated into all likely future PLA operations. This makes separating space operations from other military activities in event of a conflict unlikely, if not impossible. The idea of space arms control measures, much less U.S.-Chinese space cooperative ventures, as some kind of means of insulating space from the exigencies of wartime is therefore more unrealistic than ever. Instead, it places a premium on the ability to preserve access to space, while also minimizing over-reliance.

Indeed, improving both resiliency and redundancy is likely to become more pressing in the coming years. The PLA is not only becoming more capable terrestrially and in space, but is also developing a growing range of power projection capabilities. The potential for friction, and conflict, is also therefore mounting—and not only with the United States. As Chinese naval and air forces operate farther and farther from its shores, encounters with Japan and India are also likely to rise; Chinese anti-access/area denial capabilities are already extending into those nations’ security peripheries. China will not only be more reliant on space to support its own operations, but will be ever more intent on denying space to potential adversaries, in order to safeguard those same forces and activities.  For the United States, then, the space situation will only become more central to its broader national security. Focused Chinese efforts on achieving space dominance demand better integrated American responses.

Part of this will require rethinking the American approach to deterrence. China, and other nations, do not appear interested in “deterrence in space,” i.e., deterring an adversary from acting in the space domain or acting against space assets. Instead, they are focused on “deterrence through space,” integrating space activities with conventional, cyber, and even nuclear in order to influence an adversary. It is unclear whether our own leadership grasps the distinction.

It is possible that the expected reorganization of key Air Force and DoD offices will help. It is especially important that the new A11 office lay out career paths for space-oriented officers. Such officers will hopefully think about space in this broader manner. But smart,  ambitious officers must have reasons for pursuing space as their area of specialization.

Historically, organizational changes, including delineating career paths, are vital for sustaining innovation. Career development, in particular, must be institutionalized. The rise of American naval aviation was not only through the development of certain technologies, but also the hard work of specific pioneers. Moreover, it could be sustained only because the Navy as an institution created billets and opportunities for those pioneers and their successors to rise. Space requires the same commitment from the Air Force’s leadership, which must go beyond acquisition reform to include organizational and bureaucratic commitment.

The Chinese are clearly intent upon securing space to support their own operations. What will America’s response be?

Dean Cheng is a Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center, Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.