At a recent conference at The Heritage Foundation, a panel of distinguished experts considered some important issues for future U.S. military planning that should be addressed by the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) even though they appear to be “unmentionable” among policymakers.

As required by law, every four years the U.S. Department of Defense conducts this review of its forces, resources and programs and presents the findings to the president and Congress. The QDR provides a basic strategy for addressing critical issues like budget and acquisition priorities, emerging threats and Pentagon capabilities for the next 20 years.

The 2005 QDR, which is under way, should address these unmentionable topics: How should the QDR reflect the long-range planning that must be in place should China, for whatever reason, decide to use its rising economic and military power to pressure the United States? And where should military space fit within QDR deliberations? What roles will space play in future U.S. military planning and operations?

Military Modernization and U.S. Response

Since no nation directly threatens China, to what ends are its continued escalation in arms purchasing and military spending intended? This is a question to which more and more attention is being directed. China has a different view of the post-Cold War world order than either the United States , Russia or the European Union. China’s recently released Anti-Secession Law, its reaction to the recently published Report on Chinese Military Power , and the reform and modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) all provide necessary context for analysis.

Much of what U.S. officials are discussing as new or enhanced PLA capabilities is actually the result of a decade-long modernization push. The first Gulf War galvanized the PLA and forced it to confront the fact that it was almost 20 years behind any other developed military. This provided the impetus for reform and modernization efforts, which (even before the term came into vogue in the Pentagon) the Chinese referred to as “transformations.”

Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin enjoined the PLA to undergo a metamorphosis: from local war under ordinary conditions to local war under modern, high-tech conditions. The PLA would be transformed from a military based on quantity to one based on quality.

Since the inception of this focus change, which is in line with America’s “capabilities-based” construct, almost every part of the massive Chinese defense establishment has been affected: new operational concepts and war-fighting doctrines; modernization of weapons systems; acquisition and integration of new technologies; rethinking command and control relationships; rationalization of R&D and procurement systems; changes in personnel recruitment, retention and management; new standards for training of units and individuals; and an enhanced professional military education system.

Even if there were no Taiwan contingency, the basic thrust of the PLA’s reforms, which are impressive given the institutional challenges they have faced, would still be on the same trajectory. Chinese military transformation has five ultimate goals: maintain the decisive advantage in any cross-Straits crisis; deter, delay or disrupt any third-party intervention in a cross-Straits crisis; protect the growing political and economic interests along China’s periphery and in Central Asia; complicate or disrupt attempts to use military force against the mainland; and maintain order and improve counter-terrorism capabilities.

It would be imprudent for the U.S. Department of Defense not to consider China’s place on the world stage and its future military power. Concern about China always has been at the forefront of military thinking and is addressed in numerous strategic planning processes and documents. China looms large in the strategic landscape, an “unmentionable” by virtue of size, complexity and political sensitivities. An important measure of success for the QDR will be how well it addresses the long-term challenges posed by China’s growing military and economic power, while addressing the near-term challenges of the global struggle against violent extremism, rogue states and other operational commitments.

The United States must maintain the ability to operate in near-mainland waters and airspace or be able to overcome any PLA access denial capabilities and to deny, on a selective basis, the advantage of any mainland “sanctuary.” A conflict with China would be a contingency of major proportions, and certain capabilities would be required by the United States and should be considered in the QDR: long-range precision strike capability, especially stealth strike capability; high-technology capabilities and advanced electronics; theater and homeland cyber defense; naval capability to enter and remain in contested waters; and ground forces capable of taking the conflict to China.

Investment in such capabilities, which are also useful in the continuing war on terror, would ensure that American forces 10 to 15 years in the future are adequately prepared.

Space: Contentious Frontier

With regard to military utilization of space, the U.S. lead has never been greater than it is today. Space applications and satellite technology saves lives every day, not only in the military but also across the spectrum of human activity. How do we maintain, protect, and expand our current advantages in space?

Currently, satellites are expensive and fragile and can be disrupted by relatively inexpensive weapons. Although several countries possess the latent capability to engage in space warfare, this option has never been exercised. A direct attack against a satellite would be a first and would be unlikely to be an isolated attack.

The consequences of engaging in such a conflict would likely be severe. Depending on the scale of the exchange, it is possible that many low Earth orbit assets could be affected, thereby denying both military and civilian users these resources. This is precisely why the United States must work to dissuade hostile parties from further developing these capabilities, deter them from using them if they do develop them, and be prepared to both respond and minimize the consequences should deterrence fail.

Satellites are especially important for nuclear forces, which depend on them for early warning and targeting. Mutual recognition of this linkage was one of the reasons that the United States and the Soviet Union were so careful to avoid interference with each other’s satellites. Although this circumspection has not ended with the Cold War, it is unlikely that future potential adversaries would play by these rules.

The U.S. must recognize that space operations could be critical to assuring victory in future conflicts and take whatever steps, programmatically and in policy, to prepare for this future.

Some have charged that such a policy would lead to the “weaponization of space.” Some participants in the debate over military use of space say that we should protect this threshold and not cross it. In current QDR deliberations, these critics express concern about the Department of Defense’s vision for military applications in space.

Others realize that the threshold has already been crossed technologically and that space was a major focus of military planners in the 2001 QDR, the 2002 Joint Doctrine for Space Operations, the 2004 Air Force Doctrine on Counterspace Operations and the 2005 National Defense Strategy.

The debate — when space is not regarded as so contentious as to be “unmentionable” — has been reduced to one over competing definitions. This debate is not readily subject to compromise or policy solutions. As a measure of the complexity of this issue, the competing definitions are: space is not now weaponized v s. space is weaponized; U.S. space policy as a choice of dominance or reassurance, or one of reassurance through dominance; space as a value (sanctuary), or simply as a place (the geographic constant in military policy); t he United States as the initiator of a space arms race, or the United States dissuading others from engaging in such an arms race; and stand-by counterspace capabilities (what we have now) as adequate, or the necessity for on-hand capabilities.

The side whose definitions prevail will win the debate. Space — especially the military use of space — is an extremely technical issue, the specifics of which are sure to be addressed in the QDR. However, the issue of space also provides an excellent example of how the discussion over fundamental capabilities sometimes requires a greater breadth of intellectual and philosophical engagement.

Jack Spencer is senior policy analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation. Kathy Gudgel, research assistant in Defense and National Security, contributed to this piece. This paper is based on presentations given at “The 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review: China and Space – The Unmentionable Issues,” held July 7, 2005, at The Heritage Foundation.