WASHINGTON — A national security expert warned Nov. 9 that China’s recent success with its space program poses a growing military threat to its adversaries.
Kevin Pollpeter, an expert on China’s space program for the Defense Group, a U.S.-based defense research and technology company, said China is embarking on a military buildup in space that could rival the United States.
“It is best characterized as politically defensive but operationally offensive,” Pollpeter said during a seminar at the Secure World Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes the peaceful development of space programs.
China succeeded in its first space docking Nov. 3 when the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft linked with the Tiangong-1 laboratory module.
The docking is a crucial step toward China’s plans for a permanent manned space station by 2020.
“Acquisition of the space docking technology is vital for China to implement the three-phase development strategy of its manned space program and to promote the sustained development of its manned space cause,” a spokesman for the Chinese space program said in a statement.
Unlike the United States, China has no independent civilian space program. Instead, China’s space program is operated by the People’s Liberation Army, which often equips satellites for both civilian and military functions.
Chinese military literature indicates “space will become a battlefield,” Pollpeter said. “Right now, we are in the beginning stage.”
Further evidence of the Chinese shift toward a militarized space program is the country’s growing budget for the army to develop space-based equipment, he said. The Chinese military pursues an “active defense strategy,” Pollpeter said.
Publicly, the Chinese describe the strategy to mean they never would be the aggressors in a military attack, he said.
However, the country’s military leaders interpret the strategy so broadly that “it can be pre-emption, it can be surprise attacks,” Pollpeter said.
“What you see in Chinese writings is that whoever controls space, controls Earth,” he said.
Satellites of adversaries would be primary targets, but the Chinese also anticipate hitting ground and sea targets from space, he said.
Pollpeter’s warnings were similar to statements from Republican congressmen at a hearing Nov. 2.
They accused the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama of allowing “dangerous” space-based technology transfers that are creating a national security threat for the United States.
“Our engagement with China has not only empowered the government, failed to change their political system and undermined our economic security, it has fueled China’s military apparatus,” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee, said, “China has aggressively sought our technologies through legal and illegal methods for decades.”
Administration officials countered that having a dialogue with China has benefits in areas such as orbital debris mitigation.
During the Secure World Foundation seminar, Owen Cote, associate director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, said the Chinese military is most likely to emphasize development of low Earth orbit satellites. The satellites could be equipped with radar that targets military ships, among other targets, Cote said.
“It does look like the Chinese are going down this path,” he said.
Other Secure World Foundation panelists downplayed the threat from China’s space program.
“They don’t necessarily have global aspirations,” said Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes international security.
The United States could counter the threat with “some kind of persistent surveillance,” he said.
Brian Weeden, the Secure World Foundation’s technical adviser, said, “These satellites the Chinese are building are vulnerable to the same things that U.S. and [Russian] satellites are vulnerable to.”
Among the vulnerabilities is the fact satellites can be shot down with anti-satellite weapons, such as missiles or high-intensity lasers. China destroyed one of its own aging satellites in early 2007 with a ground-launched missile, creating thousands of pieces of debris in an orbit populated by Earth observing satellites. One year later, the U.S. military used a ship-based missile to destroy an out-of-control spy craft that U.S. government officials said could harm people on the ground if it were allowed to re-enter the atmosphere over a populated area.