For the Chinese military, space is not about space at all. It is about information — how to ensure the [People’s Liberation Army] gets it, as well as how to ensure that an adversary does not. Credit: Kremlin.Ru photo

This op-ed originally appeared in the Nov. 12, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

On Oct. 23, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and the National Space Council unanimously recommended the establishment of a U.S. Space Command, followed by a U.S. Space Force. A key factor behind this recommendation, as Pence noted in his remarks, is the rise of counterpart space forces in key potential adversaries, including Russia and China.

What both of these space forces reflect is a shifting view of the nature of future conflict, and the place space has within that view. For the Russians, the Russian Aerospace Force is responsible for Russia’s air force, missile defense troops, as well as space forces, including space tracking and anti-satellite capabilities. This reflects Moscow’s view that future space operations will be part of a continuum of activity above the Earth, whether a few thousand feet or several thousand miles.

For the Chinese, on the other hand, the new People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) suggests a radically different view of future warfare. Part of the massive overhaul of the entire PLA unveiled in late 2015, the PLASSF marks the merge of the Chinese military’s electronic warfare, network (cyber) warfare, and space warfare capabilities.

Notably, these forces had often reported to very different, higher level headquarters within the PLA prior to the reorganization. The infamous Chinese cyber contingent Unit 61398, for example, was part of the PLA General Staff Department 3rd Department, responsible for signals intelligence; it is now believed to be part of the PLASSF. Space operations had been the responsibility of the General Armaments Department, which controlled Chinese space launch and SSA facilities. They, too, have been reassigned to PLASSF.

This approach means that the Chinese have solved (or are trying to) the question of how to shift what had not been combat functions to a more frontline role, while managing the inevitable bureaucratic opposition that would have gone with some service winning or losing. They created an entirely new service and moved the forces that operate in these new domains of electronic, network, and space warfare into it.

More to the point, however, the PLASSF also reflects the Chinese view that space operations are not just about space. It is about information. The PLASSF control forces who operate in the domain of hardware (electronic warfare), software (network and cyber warfare), as well as space, which is seen as a conduit and generator of information. It has both offensive and defensive responsibilities, to help assure that the PLA can secure and maintain “information dominance (zhi xinxi quan).” Information dominance, the ability to gather, analyze, transmit, and exploit information more rapidly and more accurately than an adversary, is central to the PLA’s conception of future warfare.

That the PLASSF also controls a unit previously assigned to the General Political Department, one responsible for waging political warfare, including the “three warfares” of legal warfare, public opinion warfare, and psychological warfare, underscores the Chinese view that information-space is a strategic as well as operational and tactical domain. The PLASSF might be better termed China’s Information Warfare Force.

These various steps reflect the more holistic view the Chinese seem to have about future conflict. PLA military writings have long made clear that space is not just about orbiting systems, but also include the terrestrial segment (mission control facilities, TT&C sites, launch centers), as well as the data links that bind them together. For the PLA, a counter-space weapon can be a cruise missile or a special operations team as much as a direct ascent anti-satellite missile.

The creation of the PLASSF takes this one step further. It makes clear that, for the Chinese military, space is not about space at all. Rather, for the PLA, it is about information—how to ensure the PLA gets it, as well as how to ensure that an adversary does not. The PLASSF has within its portfolio a range of capabilities to disrupt information flows, including jamming electronic hardware and hacking both operational and observational software.

This organizational shift is only the capstone of a long process, where the PLA analyzed foreign military experiences, shifted its doctrine, and began to re-equip itself accordingly. It is also consistent with a growing emphasis on realistic training, as well as efforts to improve civil-military integration and fusion. This process has been underway since at least the early 2000s; the creation of the PLASSF in 2015 merely formalized it.

It is therefore badly mistaken to believe that the U.S. Space Force somehow marks a radical step forward in militarizing the heavens. Instead, it is an overdue counter to Russian and Chinese actions, spanning equipment acquisition, doctrinal evolution, equipment testing, and fundamental reorganization, to establish space dominance in event of conflict.

The real question is whether it is enough, and in the right direction, to counter these more comprehensive views of space and future warfare.

Dean Cheng is the senior research fellow for Chinese political and security affairs with The Heritage Foundation. He is also a member of the Users Advisory Group to the National Space Council. His views here are solely his own, and do not reflect the views of the Council or the UAG.