China has achieved with the Shenzhou 6 manned space mission what the United States and Russia achieved in the 1960s. Still, China’s success with putting two men in space for several days raises concerns in the United States about the ways Beijing can turn this scientific and technical accomplishment into new military capabilities.
Hu Jintao, along with the rest of the leaders of China’s Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army (PLA), are celebrating the mission with nationalistic pride. The concerns in Washington, however, are not really over what China has accomplished, but over Beijing’s long-term intentions now that China has mastered space travel.
Does Beijing’s success portend a new form of an arms and technology race for mastery in what the PLA has characterized as a “domain of warfare”? Or are China’s leaders simply working to demonstrate that China’s “comprehensive national power” is growing to world-class stature?
The truth is probably somewhere in between these poles. China has pursued this program as part of a more general effort to increase its global diplomatic, military, economic and cultural clout.
The fact of a successful Chinese manned space program does not manifestly change America’s technological lead or advantage in space. However, there are clear military applications from China’s accomplishments. The same technologies that enabled China to put the Shenzhou 6 in orbit would give it the capability to disrupt American satellite surveillance or communications systems in space.
In the Shenzhou 5 launch in 2003, China achieved roughly what the United States did in 1961 when Alan Shepard went into space on the Friendship 7. By 1971, Shepard was commanding an Apollo mission that landed on the Moon. China’s goals are to dock two space vehicles in the 2007-2012 time frame and to conduct a lunar mission sometime around 2020.
Thus there is no reason for alarm or some false sense that “China is overtaking us in space.” Nor should the United States rush to once again “put a man on the Moon” — should that not be a useful goal. Unmanned lunar and space exploration missions to other planetary bodies are quite successful and maintain the capability to put an American back on a planet or the Moon should that be necessary.
Make no mistake though that there are military implications in China’s accomplishments. If one reads the military theory texts published at the PLA’s Academy of Military Science , China’s military strategists talk about the need to be able to have capabilities in five domains (or realms ) of warfare: surface (land and naval warfare), sub surface (submarine and mine warfare), air and atmospheric, electromagnetic , and space.
Thus, although Beijing professes that there is no intent to weaponize space on the part of China, the PLA’s strategists recognize that as long as space is militarized by its use for sensor and communications systems, it will be a domain of warfare. The PLA clearly will develop some capability to operate or function in space.
China’s military and scientific community already is involved in theoretical basic research and applied research that will give China a space warfare capability. There are anti-satellite programs in China that are well documented.
Mark Stokes, in his book “China’s Strategic Modernization,” has documented quite carefully –using Chinese technical and scientific journals — serious work on kinetic and directed energy anti-satellite programs in China.
“China’s Strategic Modernization” was published by the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College in 1999, and is arguably the best-documented study on the subject using all Chinese primary-source materials. The book can be found on the War College’s Web site, www.carlisle.army.mil/ssi/ for those interested in a deeper view on this subject.
Undoubtedly, China’s manned space program and Shenzhou 6 will advance China’s efforts in this direction. There will be other military applications from China’s space program as well. Beijing can already take advantage of the Russian Glonass system for space navigation and for directing cruise missiles, maneuvering ballistic missile warheads and precision weapons. And China will participate in the European Galileo space-based satellite navigation system that will be comparable to the GPS system.
The use of Glonass and Chinese participation in Galileo both are steps along the way to achieving an independent, space-based navigation capability for China. Of course, the more dependent the PLA becomes on space, the more vulnerable it becomes to space warfare and the blinding of its sensors. After all, the same PLA strategists at the Academy of Military Science who discuss space as a natural domain of war once capabilities to exploit it are achieved are aware that the U.S. dependence on space has made American forces vulnerable to asymmetric warfare by a power not as dependent on that domain.
There are also other, less dramatic but equally important gains for the PLA from the foray into space. The advances in operating in space will also help China develop more sophisticated multi spectral sensor systems and space-to-space systems that will advance anti-satellite or anti-missile programs.
Space-based command and control and maneuvering bodies will also be improved for China from these missions. The demonstrated crew survivability technology will improve China’s capabilities in high-altitude manned reconnaissance flight should China reach the point of using its air force for global military surveillance to support power projection, strategic targeting and early warning.
China is moving in this direction with a more active role for its air-breathing platforms in surveillance. Electronic warfare aircraft from China were observed in close proximity to Japan twice in August 2005 and again in September 2005, according to the Japan Times. As China progresses to become a global power with global trade, energy and security interests, Beijing will certainly seek to protect its national interests with a military capable of global action on some scale.
Ultimately, perhaps the closing phrase, above, captures our real problem: Beijing will certainly seek to protect its national interests with a military capable of global action on some scale. Today, with public policy in China coming from what is essentially a black box, neither the United States nor its Asian allies like Japan know the intentions of China’s Communist Party leaders.
In Washington and Tokyo, the Congress and the Diet routinely call in civilian and uniformed defense leaders for public oversight hearings. Thus informed citizens in each country, as well as foreign observers, get some transparency about the strategic intentions and purposes of military power. With Beijing, observers get a tradition steeped in obscurity and secrecy, which only increases speculation and concern about advances like those we saw last week in China’s space program.
Dr. Larry M. Wortzel is a retired Army colonel who served twice as a military attache in China. He is a commissioner on the congressionally-appointed U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission and is a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation.