In this European Space Agency illustration, a satellite breaks up, adding to the growing population of orbital debris. Debris-clearing spacecraft the U.S., China and others have in the works could double as anti-satellite weapons. Credit: ESA

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

China’s counterspace strategy is based on taking advantage of not only its own strengths but also the weaknesses of its potential adversaries. Such a strategy can reinforce the United States’ inertia in following essentially the same national security space strategy since the dawn of the space age that can only deal with traditional threats. Thereby, China can use a new threat to achieve its ultimate goal of deterring U.S. military intervention in the Asia-Pacific theater and can accomplish this without firing a shot.

In 2007, China successfully tested its ground-based direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) ballistic missile. Seemingly, China did not expect the worldwide outcry over the space debris created by the test. Mallory Stewart, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for emerging security challenges and defense policy called the 2007 event a “remarkable incident of irresponsible behavior,” as the test created one-sixth of all radar trackable debris. Moreover, SpaceNews reported hat “other government estimates say the event led to 3,400 pieces of [radar trackable] debris, more than half of which is expected to still be in orbit in 2027.” The world was justifiably concerned about the large number of enduring debris generated, especially when this event could set a dangerous precedent for ASAT testing.

However, did China actually anticipate the space debris and consider the world condemnation a price worth paying? After all, the display of the explosive remnants of a satellite kill would be far more intuitive and dramatic than a virtual kill to convince and demonstrate to the world the first success of its ASAT program, which has been under development since 1960s. This successful ASAT test is only one part of China’s counterspace strategy, which goes far beyond the customary goal of developing better and new ASATs. It also includes the shaping of China’s public image as a peace-loving and contributing spacefaring nation and of public opinion as China’s counterspace strategy being within its right and justifiable. Therefore, it is no small feat to craft a strategy and program to accomplish all these purposes.

On the heels of the 2007 ASAT test, there have been four major continuing developments that constitute the pillars of China’s coherent counterspace strategy going forward.

1. The International Space Station had to perform multiple debris avoidance maneuvers to avoid some of the 2007 test’s debris. A Russian laser-ranging retroreflector nanosatellite was hit and disabled by a piece of these debris, confirming the urgency of reducing the growth of space debris. China gained credit by switching to non-destructive, and thus no or little debris-generating, tests for its subsequent direct-ascent ASAT developments occurring in 2010, 2013, and 2014. When U.S. Air Force Gen. Jay Raymond (now the head of Air Force Space Command) commented on the 2014 test, he confirmed that it was successful. China achieved a win-win solution by pacifying outcry over the “irresponsible behavior” of debris generation without sacrificing successful ASAT testing.

2. In November 2015, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission released its annual report to Congress stating that “since 2008, China has tested increasingly complex space proximity capabilities,” and “China’s recent space activities indicate it is developing co-orbital antisatellite systems to target U.S. space assets.” The Commission also confirmed that, in 2013, a “satellite with [a] robotic arm grappled” another Chinese satellite.

Clearly, the same type of satellite could grapple a U.S. satellite instead. With a bit more force, the U.S. satellite could be destroyed. Activities in space rendezvous proximity operations (RPO), which have both ASAT and civil, or non-ASAT-military functions, continue to grow. In June 2016, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency  reported that onboard the inaugural launch of a new-generation Long March 7 rocket was an “Aolong-1” space debris clearer. stated that “the technique demonstrated by Aolong 1 requires the spacecraft to have the capability to identify, rendezvous, and perform proximity operations with a non-cooperative target.” Spaceflight reported, “according to Chinese space officials, Aolong-1 is only the first in a series of satellites tasked with the collection of space debris as the country develops the technology needed to retrieve small debris up to [an] entire spacecraft to be safely brought to a destruction re-entry.” Obviously, this capability once developed could be used to wreak havoc on U.S. satellites, if China chose to do so. At the same time, the world is justifiably concerned about the growing amount of space debris from not just ASAT tests, which account for about 25 percent of the total, but also routine space activities (such as spent upper stages, inoperative satellites, and in-orbit explosions related to residual fuel in discarded rocket stages and satellites) accounting for the remaining 75 percent. Thus, it would be ideal to keep the beneficial space debris removal, and satellite maintenance and repair capabilities of dual-use RPO-satellites but prevent them from being used to harm or kill satellites. In a recently published article, “Stalkers in Space: Defeating the Threat”, appearing in the May 30 issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly, the Strategic Journal of the United States Air Force, I suggest how this ideal is attainable.

3. In 2008, Russia and China submitted their draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) and followed with a new version in 2014, which differs little in substance from the earlier draft. The PPWT defines weapons in outer space as “any outer space object or its component produced or converted to eliminate, damage or disrupt normal functioning of objects in outer space, on the Earth’s surface or in the air.” Defining a space weapon so ambiguously is another win-win for China. If their proposed draft becomes codified as a treaty, China can still circumvent it by placing in orbit in peacetime RPO-capable ASATs disguised as space debris clearers or space service satellites.

Alternatively, and more “elegantly,” since its military runs all space programs, China could simply switch its RPO-capable satellites between civil and military functions, including ASATs, at will. In contrast, being a democracy, the U.S. military would not be able to coerce the civil counterpart of the RPO-capable satellite owners to perform ASAT missions.. If the draft does not become a treaty, China still benefits from being the first, with Russia, to pursue the noble dream of no weapons in space. Such a public relations win will help the international community line up behind China even as China and the United States have diametrically opposed interpretations of which party is the aggressor: the one poses an imminent threat or the one fires the first shot to neutralize the threat.

4. In 2013, China fired a ballistic missile reaching an altitude of possibly over 32,000 kilometers, a few thousand kilometers short of geostationary orbit where many critical U.S. satellites reside. In a paper requested by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Cray Murray, senior policy analyst at the commission, stated, “available data suggests it was intended to test at least the launch vehicle component of a new high-altitude ASAT capability.” An aggressor only needs to attack some critical satellites to be successful, while a defender has to protect all. Thus, by signaling that the traditional threat of a direct-ascent ASAT will reach and disrupt the GEO sanctuary that the United States has long been counting on, China might purposely encourage the United States to pour more and more money into traditional programs to deal with the rapidly rising traditional ASAT threats. Overwhelmed by the rapidly rising traditional threat, it is easy to ignore this new threat from RPO-capable satellites— or unrealistically hope that the new threat is immature and can be dealt with later. Instead, the United States needs to understand that this new threat can be used to deter U.S. intervention. Moreover, the United States should realize that it takes time and money to prepare for effective deterrence and defense against this emerging threat, which could turn into a space Pearl Harbor. The United States should act now to defeat this new threat.

In a scenario where China decided to take Taiwan by force, China could preposition in orbit these RPO-capable satellites equipped with robotic arms or other weapons. When the military confrontation was looming, China could maneuver them to tailgate some U.S. satellites that are critical to supporting military operations. At a moment’s notice, these space stalkers could simultaneously attack our satellites from such close proximity that we would not have time to defend them. Gen. John Hyten, the former head of U.S. Air Force Space Command, has said without space assets the United States would be forced to revert to industrial age warfare: “It’s Vietnam, Korea and World War II”—no more precision missiles or smart bombs. That kind of warfare, at best, would significantly prolong the war and make the fighting even bloodier on both sides.

The current U.S. National Security Space Strategy established in 2011 is essentially unchanged from the 1960s when Russia began to test its ASAT weapons. The strategy says the United States will “retain the right to respond, should deterrence fail,” which means after the attack has already occurred. This deterrence in space strategy borrows from that of mutually assured destruction to avoid a nuclear war, which in turn is based on the premise that no nuclear weapon state would mount a first nuclear strike, because it would not want to suffer a nuclear reprisal of any size, no matter how much gain it could get from its first blow.

Mutually assured destruction will not work against space stalkers. China could reason that the strategic and military benefits of taking out some critical U.S. satellites would outweigh the damage of U.S. retaliation and that space stalkers would be the best type of ASATs to present the United States with two bad choices. First, the United States could preemptively destroy the space stalkers in order to save the targeted satellites.

However, without discussing the sensitive issue of such a preemption with the international community in peacetime, the United States could be condemned as the aggressor who fired the first shot and started a war in space. After all, there is no agreement or even understanding that a country cannot tailgate another country’s satellites.

Alternatively, the United States could accept that it might have to fight impaired by the loss of critical satellites. Facing these two bad choices, the United States might end up not intervening at all. This would be the perfect outcome for China: preventing U.S. intervention without firing a single shot.

China has been steadfastly developing its well-crafted counterspace strategy and program. The U.S. needs to deal with this new ASAT threat of space stalkers, even while we are dealing with the rapidly growing traditional ones as well as other new ones such as the cyber threat.

Brian G. Chow is an independent policy analyst and the author of “Stalkers in Space: Defeating the Threat,” appearing in the current issue of the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Studies Quarterly.

Brian Chow (Ph.D. in physics, MBA with distinction, Ph.D. in finance) is an independent policy analyst with more than 170 publications.