‘Outspending’ US By $200 Billion, China Not Russia Emerges The Biggest Threat To Pentagon In Space

Americans may express their worries over the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons in space to destabilize their assets, but it is China that seems to pose the real challenge to the U.S. by emerging as the world’s most dominant global space power economically, diplomatically, and militarily by 2045, if not earlier.

Though Russian President Vladimir Putin has categorically denied the U.S. assertions and said that he opposes nuclear weapons in space, unnamed sources have been said to be given prominence by the American media and a section of decision makers that Moscow is about to send nuclear weapons into space to destroy U.S. satellites.

Apparently, leaders in the U.S. Congress were briefed last week in a highly secret session about the possibility of a full-scale war in space.

“Militarisation of  Space” is not a new phenomenon. Many countries, including even India, use space for military purposes on the Earth. But the “weaponization of space” is different.

“Militarisation is considered an essential step for furthering one’s strategies of deterrence by acquiring limited capabilities that enable offensive military operations across domains (land, maritime, and air). On the other hand, weaponization directly involves the development, deployment, and use of weapons positioned in space against targets located in space and on the ground. Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) and satellites with offensive capability (which can destroy enemy’s satellites or space vehicles) fall in this category”, observes military historian and aerospace strategist Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam (Retd).

After China placed its military space assets under the Strategic Support Force (SSF) in 2015, the U.S. created a Space Force in 2019. In India, the present Air Force Chief, Chief Air Marshal V.R. Chaudhari, is now asserting that the Indian Air Force is no longer the Air Force alone but is the “Indian Air and Space Force.”

The militarisation of space has seen assets like satellites that have sensors, radars, arrays, transponders, etc. These satellites support and enhance secure communications, aid in navigation in the air and on the surface, collect intelligence through surveillance and reconnaissance using different mediums (photo, infrared, and hyperspectral are the most common), and provide last-mile connectivity through data relays and links that have made targeting accurate.

As Subramaniam says, “It is all because of space assets that militaries are finding, fixing, engaging, and destroying targets with extreme accuracy.”

When it comes to the militarization of space, American policymakers were more concerned about China than Russia until recently. China’s recent emergence as a capable competitor in the space domain and its competing vision to displace the U.S. permanently as the leading economic and military power on Earth and beyond has disturbed Washington a lot.

In its last annual report to Congress. Pentagon pointed out how China is investing “in improving its capabilities in space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), satellite communication, satellite navigation, and meteorology, as well as human spaceflight and robotic space exploration,” acquiring and developing “a range of counter-space capabilities and related technologies, including kinetic-kill missiles, ground-based lasers, and orbiting space robots,” and “expanding space surveillance capabilities, which can monitor objects in space within their field of view and enable counter-space actions.”

Incidentally, China established what was said to be the Strategic Support Force (SSF) in 2015 to centralize the PLA’s strategic space, cyberspace, electronic, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities. Beijing is said to have devoted significant resources to growing all aspects of its space program, from military space applications to civil applications such as profit-generating launches, scientific endeavors, and space exploration.

According to the Pentagon report, the SSF oversees two deputy theater command-level departments: the SSD, sometimes referred to as the ASF, is responsible for military space operations, and the NSD, sometimes referred to as the CSF, responsible for information operations, which includes technical reconnaissance, E.W., cyberspace warfare, and psychological operations.

At the headquarters level, the SSF has a four-department administrative structure that includes the Staff, Equipment, Political Work, and Logistics Departments. As a strategic organization, the SSF is directly subordinate to the CMC  (Central Military Commission), headed by Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader who is President of the country and the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

The SSF is said to perform its tasks connected to the PLA’s concept of “Three Warfares”:  psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare. The SSF’s Space Department, known as the SSD, sometimes referred to as the ASF is responsible for nearly all PLA space operations, including space launch and support, space surveillance, space information support, space telemetry, tracking and control, and space warfare.

According to the Pentagon Report, the SSD operates at least eight bases, including those whose core missions are the launch, tracking, R&D, and operation of the satellites vital to the PRC’s overhead C4ISR architecture. The SSD operates tracking, telemetry, and command (TT&C) stations in multiple locations worldwide to guide space missions around the Earth as well as in cislunar and deep space. The SSD also operates Yuanwang space support ships that track satellite and ICBM launches.

The SSD’s China Launch and Tracking Control (CLTC) operates all four fixed launch sites in China, in addition to Yuanwang space support ships (SESS), two major satellite control centers—Xi’an Satellite Control Center (XSCC) and the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC)—and the PLA TT&C system for all Chinese satellites.

In order to promote the country’s policy of  “fusion” of civilian and military technologies, China’s space program comprises organizations in the military, civil, defense-industrial, and commercial sectors. The idea is to support both civilian and military interests. SSF works with civilian organizations, such as universities and research organizations, to integrate civilian support into military efforts.

Strategies are made accordingly that include strengthening and investing in its science and technology sector, growing international partnerships, and improving China’s capabilities in space-based ISR, SATCOM, satellite navigation, human spaceflight, and robotic space exploration.

“The PRC has extensive civil space cooperation agreements around the world and is an exporter of satellites and space technology. It has more than a hundred cooperative space-related agreements with more than three dozen countries and four international organizations. The PRC is inviting countries to participate on the Chinese space station or International Lunar Research Station, which is jointly led by China and Russia, and has sold satellite launching services and ground stations to countries around the world”, says the Pentagon report.

Apparently, China has promoted the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), a multilateral organization with rotating leadership whose members include Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, and Turkey, with Egypt, Indonesia, and Mexico as associate members. APSCO oversees a network of space surveillance telescopes and tasking information, and the observation data it collects is funneled through the Chinese Academy of Science’s National Astronomical Observatory of China.

US China space race
US-China space race/Representational Image

The organization is planning to improve optical system capabilities, coverage, and redundancy, as well as data-sharing networks.

All this involves heavy investments, and China is leaving no stone unturned in this regard. As a result, China is said to be making steady gains in innovation. Lately, it has filed an increasing number of patents. As assessed by a RAND study, China has made steady gains in Quality-Adjusted Military Patents, surpassing the U.S. since 2018.

Similarly, if former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Contracting, Maj. Gen. Cameron Holt is to be believed that China is to be fielding new systems “five to six times” faster than the U.S. Holt has also noted that  “In 61 purchasing power parity, they spend about one dollar to our 20 dollars to get to the same capability,” and “We are going to lose if we can’t figure out how to drop the cost and increase the speed in our defense supply chains.”

Incidentally, an important study, which was jointly sponsored by the U.S. Space Force, Air Force Research Laboratory, and Defense Innovation Unit, points out that unless Washington takes proactive measures to sustain its space leadership across all instruments of national power, China will close its technology gap with the U.S. and overtake it by 2045.

The study warns that China has rapidly advanced to challenge U.S. leadership in global research and development (R&D) expenditures and is on track to spend more than $200 billion a year more than the U.S. in R&D by 2030.

“Specifically, the U.S. lacks a clear and cohesive long-term vision, a grand strategy for space that sustains economic, technological, environmental, social and military (defense) leadership for the next half century and beyond,” it says and suggests that “ a North Star vision for economic development and human settlement in space should be bi-partisan, multi-generational, and inspirational to all who embrace America’s values.”

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com