China’s Rapid Space Ascent

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A recent revelatory study by my colleagues Eric Hagt and Matthew Durnin to be published in the Journal of Strategic Studies (October 2011 Vol. 34) describes China’s rapid expansion of its space satellite network from humble beginnings only one decade ago. It’s constellation of reconnaissance, data-relay, navigation and communications satellites provide global as well as regional capabilities in support of China’s power projection.

Having acquired significant real-time space support of real-time military operations, China has moved substantially closer to its paramount goal of acquiring the ability to prevent the United States from operating with near-impunity close to China’s shores. And it has laid the spacework for further expanding military operations to wider swaths of Asia and beyond.

China can now peer down from space at stationary targets in and around Taiwan for a significant chunk of the day – some five hours of daily live surveillance. This coverage practically matches U.S. capacity, a stunning advance that doubles China’s coverage in only 18 months and pushes its military capability into a new era in which tactical war-fighting missions can be carried out with timely support from reconnaissance platforms in space. This newfound capability brings China to the threshold of fulfilling its ambition of acquiring the ability to target moving platforms, notably U.S. aircraft carriers and their escorts. China lags the United States in the ability to find and monitor moving targets but is fast catching up as a result of progress it has made in radar and electronic intelligence satellites.

China’s rapid ascent in space militarization, particularly in spy satellite operations, builds on its exploitation of mature technologies and serial production, a formula that emulates China’s broader strategy of technological innovation. The United States still dominates the high-tech frontier. China has concentrated on proven ‘good enough’ technology that can be reliably and affordably put into mass production. While China’s states military ambitions are largely focused on regional contingencies, its space revolution is conferring capabilities to expand its horizons and support global military missions if that becomes necessary, or just desirable.

Meanwhile (this commentary is my own, not my colleagues’), China remains the target of very active air- and sea-based U.S. close-in surveillance, as well as space surveillance. This reconnaissance business is a two-way street. In my view, it’s in fact gotten out of hand. The Chinese frequently complain bitterly (though privately) about the close-in tactical reconnaissance activities of the United States, which conveys visceral enmity that belies the intertwined, mutual inter-dependence of the two largest economies in the world. It’s time to‘re-set’ our relations with China, and stop treating each other as the next designated enemy. It’s a good thing that the two sides’ militaries are once again talking to each other, and seeking new ways to stabilize their relations. A good step to begin anew: take each side out of the other’s nuclear war plans.