Commentary | China Situational Awareness is a Key Part of Space Situational Awareness

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On Jan. 28, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee held hearings investigating the extent and nature of China’s counterspace capabilities. Testifying before the committee, longtime space analyst Robert Butterworth, arms control advocate Michael Krepon and Asia specialist Ashley Tellis were remarkably consistent in their assessments:

  • China possesses and is developing a counterspace capability that threatens America’s longstanding ability to exploit space for military purposes.
     
  • China is pursuing a wide range of capabilities, ranging from kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) systems to directed energy weapons, as well as potential electronic and cyberwarfare capabilities.
     
  • Space situational awareness is an essential element of any American ability to counter this growing array of Chinese ASAT capabilities.
     
  • The United States needs to develop a more resilient military satellite architecture that would be able to survive attacks. 

This convergence is quite remarkable, considering that at the time of the Chinese ASAT test in 2007 there were questions about whether China was even interested in anti-satellite capabilities at all. In less than a decade, China’s military space developments have progressed to the point that observers and analysts from across the political spectrum now do not really question that China is, in fact, developing the capability to engage in space warfare. 

In many ways, this is a natural development, given China’s demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities, embodied in not only the 2007 ASAT test but also two missile defense tests that closely resemble the U.S. shoot-down of an errant satellite, and deployment of various small satellites that have subsequently “bumped” each other (SJ-6F and SJ-12 in 2010) or have mechanical arms that can retrieve, or rend, other satellites (Chuangxin-3). Coupled with Chinese military writings that have emphasized the importance of establishing space dominance as part of a larger effort to establish information dominance, it would be difficult to sustain the argument that China isn’t actually interested in ASAT capabilities. 

Nor is it simply a matter of China’s behavior in space. Taken in conjunction with China’s increasing assertiveness across the East Asian littoral and its comprehensive military modernization effort, there is a broadening skepticism about China’s intentions. 

Like the broader China-watching community, however, the witnesses differed on how to respond to the growing array of Chinese counterspace capabilities. In particular, Mr. Krepon suggested that there was a need for more diplomatic outreach, such as a space code of conduct (an approach he has long championed) that would help guide Chinese behavior, in the absence of a space arms control treaty. 

Such interactions, Mr. Krepon suggested, are important because China, in his view, doesn’t understand the potential consequences of attacking American satellites. China’s leaders might be interested to know that, in Mr. Krepon’s view, there is “dysfunction in China between the political leadership and the military,” which presumably feeds into this lack of understanding. 

Ironically, if Mr. Krepon’s presumption of a military that was somehow acting independently of the civilian leadership in China were correct, then pursuing diplomatic outreach might be the worst possible response. After all, the People’s Liberation Army, in this scenario, might well interpret this as American weakness — kowtowing, if you will. 

This rather startling conclusion of a riven Chinese civil-military structure reflects a deeper problem in much of the debate about China and China’s growing military capabilities, not just in space but terrestrially as well. It is unfathomable where this assumption of a “dysfunction” between the military and civilian leadership comes from. The “evidence” to reach this conclusion appears grounded in assumptions of a civil-military split, which defies the reality that China’s officer corps are all members of the Chinese Communist Party and that civilians are by definition conciliatory while military leaders must be bellicose. That the People’s Liberation Army has followed the orders and instructions of the top leadership, whether it was to clear Tiananmen Square in 1989 or give up its industries and businesses in 1999, appears to have been glossed over. 

More realistically, however, one should consider the likelihood that China’s military is following orders, that there is a comity of views between China’s civilian and military leaders that regards the United States with skepticism (although not necessarily outright hostility). The Chinese military and civilian leadership, moreover, might also agree that preparing to defend China’s “core interests” might entail engaging neighboring states, many of whom are allies or friends of the United States. In this context, then, the People’s Liberation Army is likely doing what militaries, even party armies, do — prepare to fight and win any possible conflict. 

In that case, the People’s Liberation Army would be expected to analyze how the United States (and other states) has waged wars over the past several decades, especially given that China itself has had no combat experience since 1979, in order to identify potential shortcomings, and then strive to exploit them. It might even conclude that the American military relies on space in order to conduct joint operations across vast battle-spaces, coordinating forces, guiding weapons and engaging in battle damage assessment. 

Not surprisingly, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, has testified that Chinese (and Russian) military leaders understand the information collection, transmission and exploitation advantages offered by space systems, and are therefore interested in disrupting the American ability to use space in event of conflict. This would suggest that the Chinese may well have a better understanding of both the United States and how it views space than we do of them and their view of space. 

As China’s military continues to modernize, benefiting from ever-increasing defense expenditures, China situational awareness will be an essential part of understanding why Beijing is acting as it does, as much as space situational awareness will be an essential part of knowing what Beijing is doing. 

 

Dean Cheng is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.