Commentary | Chinese Space Dependency and Mutual Assured Vulnerability

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Some worry that U.S. military dependency on satellites for communication, navigation, intelligence, targeting and other purposes could lead to a “space Pearl Harbor.” In this scenario, China or another country not nearly as invested in the military uses of space might carry out an attack in this domain. These concerns have grown after a test by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2007 demonstrated a successful capability to target and destroy a satellite, and have been reinforced by subsequent Chinese tests, ostensibly for ballistic missile defense and proximity operations, that could have anti-satellite applications. Because China has less to lose in space — or so this argument goes — Beijing might carry out crippling anti-satellite attacks, leaving the Pentagon unable to respond in kind. Even if the Pentagon were able to respond, China would not be similarly disadvantaged by American counterattacks in space. 

This worst-case scenario is becoming more implausible every year — not because of U.S. anti-satellite tests, but because of China’s ambitious and rapid military modernization programs that increase the PLA’s reliance on space. 

As David Gompert and Phillip Saunders have noted in “The Paradox of Power: Sino-American Strategic Restraint in an Age of Vulnerability,” Beijing has already invested over $10 billion in current, operational space assets — about one-sixth of U.S. spending — a roughly proportional amount to the United States, given disparities in gross domestic product (GDP). Chinese dependency on space is growing at a faster rate than its GDP. China is planning to launch 10 satellites per year, compared with an average of 17 U.S. launches.  

Consequently, the PLA’s apparent interest in anti-satellite capabilities coincides with its growing dependence on satellites to carry out military operations. 

At first glance, the divide in space dependency is immense. The United States operates at least 446 active satellites, including approximately 130 that directly support military operations, far more than any other nation. However, a direct comparison might not be the most accurate method for determining if a nation has crossed the threshold of space dependency. 

China is currently on the same slope toward space dependency as the United States was during the first Persian Gulf war in 1990-1991. According to public sources, during this war, Washington relied on 15 satellites for optical and radar imaging, providing tactical intelligence to warfighters. Sixteen new GPS satellites were instrumental in supporting war-fighting operations, and the Department of Defense relied on 10 communication satellites. The so-called Revolution in Military Affairs concept, backstopped by 44 satellites, allowed coalition forces to rout the Iraqi army in a matter of days. 

The PLA is currently being transformed by its own Revolution in Military Affairs, including fifth-generation aircraft and precision anti-ship ballistic missiles.  

Just as the United States built up its space infrastructure in the 1980s and ’90s to enhance its combat effectiveness, the current numbers of Chinese optical and radar reconnaissance, communications and pinpoint navigation satellites indicate a similar level of commitment and intent to utilize outer space as a force multiplier for terrestrial operations. These capabilities, in turn, depend on backup from space. The DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile requires precision guidance from navigation satellites. The lack of secure long-range satellite communications would decrease the effectiveness of the Chinese navy’s submarines. Beijing could also be handcuffed without space-based intelligence and situational awareness. 

Every year, the PLA will become more dependent on utilizing space assets, and more at risk to U.S. capabilities to impede the functioning of these assets. At present, it is estimated that China possesses 54 satellites specifically for military support, slightly more than the United States relied upon during Operation Desert Storm. 

Chinese satellites are not as advanced as U.S. satellites, but they will become increasingly capable of supporting the conduct of modern warfare, from collecting signals intelligence data to weather forecasting. This newfound dependency will only increase in the future, as the PLA reportedly has plans for 100 additional satellite launches by 2015. 

The implications of these numbers are profound for prospects for deterrence stability in space. A surprise “space Pearl Harbor” attack cannot be dismissed and requires prudent dissuasive steps, but like the “bolt out of the blue” massive Soviet nuclear strikes that were the basis for worst-case assessments during the Cold War, this scenario is unlikely. It is becoming more unlikely every year with growing Chinese dependence on space assets. The more assets China has in space, the less likely it is to behave recklessly.

The notion of a massive, surprise Chinese attack in space is becoming more far-fetched with the passage of time. Reliable access to space is beneficial for all spacefaring nations, especially China. As Chinese dependency on space grows, Beijing is more likely to act as a responsible investor.  

 

Dylan Rebstock is an intern in the Space Security Project at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank that has championed a code of conduct for responsible spacefaring nations since 2002.