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China is determined to replace the U.S. as the dominant power in space. While proclaiming its peaceful intentions, Beijing’s doctrine considers space a military domain, and it is investing heavily in space infrastructure designed to secure both economic and military advantages. To ensure that it continues to compete from a position of strength, the U.S. must invest sufficient resources in preparing its new Space Force to defend America’s national interests and security in space.
Beijing’s rapidly improving capabilities are clear to see. On May 5, China successfully launched the Long March-5B rocket designed to eventually transport astronauts into space. This was the first successful launch of any Long March rocket this year after failed attempts to launch the Long March-3B in April and Long March-7A in March.
Three weeks later, China completed back-to-back launches from two separate launch facilities placing Earth-imaging and technology demonstration satellites into orbit. China plans to launch more than 60 spacecraft in over 40 launches in 2020, and has led global launches over the past two years.
Currently, China is second only to the U.S. in the number of operational satellites in orbit, with 363 as of March 31, 2020.
These capabilities are a cause for concern because of Beijing’s concurrent investment in space weapons. The Pentagon recently warned China has developed and fielded ground- and space-based anti-satellite, directed-energy, and electronic warfare capabilities that place the peaceful use of international space at risk.
Evidence suggests China could be developing up to three different anti-satellite systems. China launched its first successful ground-based direct ascent anti-satellite missile, the SC-19, in 2007, and spent the last decade improving follow-on versions. In 2018, the People’s Liberation Army formed military units that began initial operational training with anti-satellite missiles. The SC-19 is now assessed operational and capable of targeting low-Earth orbit satellites.
China also fielded sophisticated on-orbit capabilities, such as satellites with robotic arm technology for inspection and repair, which the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assesses could also function as a weapon.
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Because destruction of assets using anti-satellite technology is easily attributable, China is also pursuing a broad range of nondestructive directed-energy and electronic warfare weapons like lasers for blinding commercial and military imaging satellites. It is also working on radio frequency-jamming technologies capable of degrading or denying satellite communications and global navigation satellite systems like GPS.
China’s counter-space efforts have forced the U.S. to take measures to protect itself against what Secretary of Defense Mark Esper accurately labeled the weaponization of space. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act established the United States Space Force as the sixth independent branch of the military to meet the threat posed to American space-based assets by potential enemies. U.S. Space Command, the Defense Department’s 11th combatant command, recently finalized its campaign plan with a new mission statement emphasizing “defending against and deterring threats.”
However, China is launching capabilities into space at a pace that is becoming increasingly difficult for the U.S. to match amid the current pandemic. Despite the recent success of the SpaceX launch from U.S. soil to the International Space Station, the U.S. has delayed several launches due to COVID-19.
In March, California-based Rocket Lab postponed the launch of three U.S. intelligence payloads from its launch complex in New Zealand. In April, the U.S. Space Force delayed a GPS satellite launch to no earlier than June 30 in order to minimize personnel from COVID-19 exposure. And delays caused by the novel coronavirus also ensured the first launch of NASA’s Artemis program will not happen until late 2021.
Meanwhile, China is already preparing for its next launch, the Tianwen-1 Mars mission, scheduled for July.
Space is the new high ground in great power competition, and the U.S. must secure and maintain its superiority there. It would be less expensive to rely on multilateral organizations and international norms to prevent aggression in space, Beijing’s track record of deviation from international norms leaves the U.S. no choice but to prepare to defend itself. The fiscal 2021 U.S. Space Force budget request for $15.4 billion is a critical first step to combat emerging threats, especially from China.
Although the U.S. cannot dismiss the severe economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, cutting the defense budget cannot repair the economy. Failure to deliver on key capabilities in space opens the door for China to undermine U.S. strategic advantages, which will be far more costly in the long run.
Maj. Liane Zivitski is a visiting military analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Military and Political Power. Views expressed or implied in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Department or any other U.S. government agency.