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China in Space: Not Time for Bright, Shiny Objects

Posted by Joan Johnson-Freese on


As America’s Space Shuttle program comes to an end, commentators often link that event to the view that the United States is abrogating leadership in space to the Chinese. The Shuttle, however, is one part of a much larger US space program, and replacing it will be part of a new US approach to space, one relevant to the globalized world, recognizing economic realities, and the dual use nature of most space technology which makes military considerations an imperative part of US considerations.

The Chinese are moving forward to replicate human and lunar space feats accomplished by the United States more than 40 years ago. The Chinese are also expanding their military space capabilities. How do Chinese plans impact the United States? The 2010 National Space Policy (NSP) provided new direction for the United States in space. As the United States contemplates implementation of the NSS, the time is right for sorting through what space activities the Chinese are doing that the United States should be concerned with, and what has been a distraction.’

Where the Chinese are concerned, everything they do in space is considered a threat by the United States. After the Cold War ended and before global jihad became the focus of near-term US national security activities, China handily won the audience as the next near-peer competitor to the United States. At a time when defense budgets were shrinking and a military configured for an epic battle against the Soviets was skeptical of humanitarian and police efforts – MOOTWA (Military Operations Other Than War) – as their future missions, the rise of China maintained the rationale for the big-money platforms valued by all militaries.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s nuclear missile fixation and China’s 20-plus nuclear missile arsenal provided a justification for both the US missile defense program and aspirations for “space control,” aspirations substantially boosted by both China’s 2007 anti-satellite (ASAT) test and the stalking-horse intentions attributed to China’s human spaceflight ambitions. The problem is that when everything a country does is considered a threat – as has been the case with China – the real threats may not be adequately addressed.

It’s time to sort out the bright, shiny objects of China’s space activities from the real threats and prioritize consequent US space efforts; prioritization still underutilized since Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld moved the Pentagon to capabilities based planning, where zero risk was acceptable on any issue and all options of redress, regardless of viability, were to be pursued. China is executing a robust space agenda, at a pace simultaneously incremental and accelerated: incremental in its timeline milestones and accelerated in its milestone achievements.

For example, between Yang Liwei’s first-ever piloted flight in 2003 and Zhai Zhigang’s spacewalk in 2008 there was only one other Shenzhou program flight. And China is expanding its capabilities in multiple areas. While China has become more transparent than in the past regarding some areas of its space activities, human spaceflight for example, analysis of intent on any space program is complicated by the dual use nature of most space technology, and exacerbated regarding China because its size and the scope of perspectives found there means that evidence can be found to support almost any hypothesis. Nevertheless, some broad categories of threats and opportunities can clearly be identified.

Much is made of Chinese human spaceflight plans. China developed a three-step plan in 1992 for human spaceflight, has been relatively open about it, and has stuck to the plan: send humans into orbit, demonstrate rendezvous and docking capabilities between two spacecraft to form a small laboratory, and finally, build a large space station. Though the large space station requires and as-of-yet-undemonstrated new heavy lift launch vehicle, the Long March 5, China is moving forward toward an anticipated 2020 completion date.

What has not been officially announced is a piloted lunar mission, though that is clearly intended after all preliminaries are successfully demonstrated through the piloted Shenzhou and robotic lunar Chang’e programs. During the George W. Bush Administration, China’s human spaceflight accomplishments were largely ignored by the administration, used by some members of Congress to try to generate a new lunar race (along with the requisite funding for NASA to execute the Constellation program) and considered evidence by others that China was intending to do what neither the US nor the Soviet Union had been able to do – find a valuable military reason for humans in space.

With President Obama’s 2010 National Space Policy taking the United States in a new, badly needed, direction, China is now racing itself – or maybe India – to the Moon, where the United States triumphantly went more than 40 years ago. Chinese lunar aspirations are a bright, shiny object. While the United States must be cognizant of the negative geostrategic implications of ceding human spaceflight to others, racing China back to the Moon was not the way to retain the important leadership implications that flow from human spaceflight activity.

China is going to the Moon because its authoritarian government recognizes the benefits – including demonstration of technological prowess that has positive spillover effects into global economic reputation and regional leadership, enhanced military capabilities, stimulating educational interests toward science, mathematics, engineering and technology (STEM) fields, bolstering domestic political legitimacy and international prestige – and so regardless of what the US does or doesn’t do, supports it.

The US must set and pursue its own course for space exploration and development, human and robotic, and understand that the biggest threat of the Chinese human spaceflight program is that it will draw partners to it and away from the United States, because we are often considered just too difficult to work with. Inclusion of a provision in the 2011 NASA Appropriations Bill which strictly read directs that NASA basically not talk with or work with China will likely be widely interpreted abroad as the Congressional corollary of teenage “mean girls” stipulating who their groupies can and can’t talk to.

Remember that one of the goals behind the Apollo program was to convince Cold War non-aligned countries that working with the United States, in general and on high-tech issues specifically, was a better bet than working with the then Soviet Union. The United States already has a veto power over who other countries can sell space hardware to if that hardware contains any US parts, through US ITAR regulations, which – accompanied by considerable resentment — has resulted in multiple foreign companies moving from being niche providers to developing full satellite industries. We should want countries to work with us.

Beyond driving other countries away from the United States (and potentially toward China) there are areas – important areas – where the United States should be encouraging both more bilateral and multilateral interaction with China, not less. Debris mitigation is one of them. Space debris is a real threat. China created the biggest space debris mess to date with its 2008 ASAT test, so it behooves the United States to have them at all meetings where the importance of not doing it again and best practices for monitoring and cleaning up the debris already existing is discussed.

Political posturing to demonstrate a willingness to take a tough stance against China isn’t worth risking the future sustainability of the space environment critical to national security needs. China’s 2008 ASAT test was irresponsible in the debris created, and disturbing for the United States in its demonstration that the “space control” or domination of space which had been increasing pervasive in U.S. rhetoric was technically impossible. Though the U.S. protested loudly about the dangers of Chinese ASATs as space weapons, using an SM-3 missile fired from the USS Lake Erie to obliterate the failing US-193 satellite in 2008 provided the modus operandi for others to subsequently follow toward ASAT development, virtually free from censure. Subsequently, China and India both conducted missile defense tests in 2010, demonstrating ASAT capabilities.

Railing against that reality while planning to deploy a global fleet of new SM-3, Block II missiles is feckless and will fall on deaf geostrategic ears. Finally, cutting edge space technology has been the hinge of American military power for the past two decades but is its greatest uncertainty moving forward. The successful raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan was in some ways analogous to General Norman Schwartzkopf’s “Hail Mary” maneuver, marching his troops across the Iraqi desert in 1990 – a risky move possible because of our high tech advantage over a low tech enemy that carried a big payoff. Just as Schwartzkopf’s troops could “see” their way across the desert with GPS and communicate with each other via satellites, the intelligence community and Seal Team Six used communication satellites, GPS, signals intelligence and satellite imagery to find and take out America’s Most Wanted Fugitive.

Space assets have been critical in providing the United States with an edge when it needed it, and that edge must be protected. In the forthcoming article “Space, China’s Strategic Frontier,” in the Journal of Strategic Studies, Eric Hagt and Matt Durnin present a convincing case that China is crossing a threshold, moving from being able to use space for limited strategic purposes to having the capabilities to use space in tactical operations as they happen.

That threat to America’s edge must be a priority. Too much time and resources have been spent worrying about whether China was clandestinely developing a Death Star powered by dilithium crystals as a shashoujian, or “assassin’s mace,” that had to be countered by orbiting Rods from God as part of US space control. And now there is a move afoot to resurrect Reagan-era space-based missile defense interceptors as part of a technical calculation where X + Y = deterrence, though deterrence is as much or more a psychological calculation as it is a technical one. Further, the Chinese (and others) are not as worried about the US technical capabilities associated with space control and missile defense as they are about a political climate in the United States that is obsessed with missile defense and our own bright shiny objects.

Meanwhile, that obsession has given China the time it needed for the careful development of space systems to give it operational military space capabilities akin to our own. Satellites are a globalized industry, within which China plays a growing and maturing role, and space – like it or not – is not exclusive US territory, so we cannot prevent China from developing or launching the same kinds of spacecraft that have proved so valuable to the US military. China has also learned from the US experience that too much dependency on these valuable high-tech assets creates a risk in itself and, determined not to get into that situation, have factored redundancy and back-up capabilities into future plans.

So what can the United States do? It can stay ahead, as it has done in the past. This is not a case of US decline – a drum beat loudly and consistently of late – but of other countries developing. Certainly, given the undesirable effects shown in countries that have not developed, a developing China is a better alternative than an imploding China. But it requires the United States to focus more on its space assets in terms of both upgrading the technology where needed, providing redundancy for the capabilities they provide, and robust research and development far more and better than our track record to date. The New York Times called the 2005 cancellation of the projected $5 billion-plus Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program, intended to provide the next generation of optical and radar spy satellites – described as technologically “audacious” in complexity — “perhaps the most spectacular and expensive failure in the 50-year history of spy satellite projects.” Since then, political and bureaucratic debates over whether to again stretch for new technology, use satellites of a proven design, or rely more on commercial satellites have largely prevailed over purposeful action.

Mismanagement and underinvestment in replacement satellites for the Global Positioning System (GPS) have threatened that system as well. This is simply unacceptable. A May 2011 GAO study on Space Acquisition states that while efforts to address two decades of problems in nearly every military space acquisition program have been “good” there is still a substantial amount to do. And given the increasing capabilities of the Chinese, it is imperative that we not just be “good,” but “the best.” Space systems supporting force enhancement must be kept cutting edge, well-coordinated and able to get information to the warfighters better and faster than anyone else. The administration, Congress and the Pentagon must focus their efforts in a bi-partisan, non-sensationalist manner toward maintaining the military space edge that has repeatedly proven invaluable in operations. The time to be distracted by bright, shiny objects has passed.

What do you think?