April 1, 2008  

China’s space ambitions

Nearly a decade after the U.S. clamped down on the transfer of dual-use American space technology to China, commercial aerospace cooperation between the two countries has all but died. Yet in this period, China’s space and military capabilities, including those designed to defeat U.S. forces in East Asia, have advanced exponentially.

In 2007, the Chinese government conducted its 100th space launch with a Long March rocket, carried out a successful anti-satellite (ASAT) test, commenced operations of the Beidou satellite navigation and positioning system, and launched its Chang’e 1 lunar orbiter. A busy year for Beijing, and one punctuated by the now-regular annual deployment of an additional 100 short-range ballistic missiles on China’s coast.

While these developments reflect China’s rapidly growing defense spending, ongoing transfers of dual-use technology — this time from West European aerospace companies — have played a crucial role in allowing the Chinese defense industry to leapfrog research and development barriers. Indeed, this explosion of China’s military space technology has been aided by rapidly expanding access to European suppliers since the rupture of civilian space relations with the U.S.


The impetus behind China’s drive toward developing military space capabilities lies within the Chinese military’s view of future warfare, with the U.S. as its most likely adversary. The Chinese military, known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has been obsessed with information-age warfare ever since the U.S. leveraged its space-based C4ISR systems to eradicate Saddam Hussein’s military during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. One Chinese military commentator noted with awe afterward: “The United States deployed three defense communications satellites, established 128 defense satellite communications terminals and built an ultra-high frequency network before the assembling of allied troops.”

Indeed, the American advantage in the area of military satellites presents the Chinese government with what it recognizes as an asymmetric disadvantage. The U.S. is so dominant in this sphere of military competition that it seems impossible to win a head-to-head competition. Faced with this dilemma, the People’s Liberation Army has developed a two-pronged response that invests in both its own space assets and in anti-satellite capabilities with which to disrupt American space dominance.

Even if the PLA believes it cannot compete directly with American space power, the necessity to invest in space assets is by no means wasted in Beijing. The Chinese military is developing aerospace networks in pursuit of the technological advantages that the U.S. has come to expect during wartime. A 2004 article printed in the People’s Liberation Army Daily stated: “Information dominance cannot be separated from space dominance. We can say that seizing space dominance is the root for winning the informationalized war.” Indeed, the U.S. Defense Department reports that China plans to launch some 17 satellites in 2008 in an ambitious bid to have a fully indigenous satellite fleet by 2010.

But even as China deepens its own reliance on space-based assets in support of military operations, policymakers in Beijing are fixated on the deficit they face in a conflict with the U.S. and the concomitant requirement to challenge American space power. One PLA analyst recently argued that in modern wars, “seizing space dominance has already become a vital part of seizing information dominance, from which one can then retain the active position in the war.” In a less-subtle argument for the use of offensive capabilities in space, another PLA officer recently proclaimed that China requires ASAT capabilities for “destroying, damaging and interfering with the enemy’s observation and communications satellites.”

The same official concluded that the ultimate purpose of such efforts is to “blind and deafen the enemy, making their command and control retarded.” The U.S. takes this threat seriously. A 1994 war game conducted by the U.S. Navy found that if the PLA opened a war with a sophisticated ASAT campaign, American aircraft carriers would be left vulnerable without having any significant counteroffensive capabilities. In this scenario, U.S. forces were routed.

Of course, jumping from a limited survey of open-source publications by PLA colonels to conclusions about China’s intentions is a leap in the dark. Fortunately, the Chinese government has provided a combination of indicators that should relieve American uncertainty, if not anxiety, about China’s space warfare ambitions. The PLA is testing its ASAT capabilities and preparing legal justifications for offensive space capabilities.

Beijing already has invested in significant space-denial capabilities that will allow it to destroy or disable American satellites in the event of a future conflict. The January 2007 ASAT test — when a direct-assent kill vehicle made a direct hit against a satellite that was traveling at 7.42 meters per second — was the most potent demonstration of this emerging capability. While the PLA was preparing for the ASAT test, then-U.S. National Reconnaissance Office Director Donald Kerr revealed that Beijing had used lasers to “paint” a U.S. military reconnaissance satellite, indicating that the government is investing in technology to either blind the electro-optical sensors of some American satellites or disable satellites with even stronger energy beams. The wartime operational capability of these systems is unknown, but the Chinese government has given no indication that it intends to halt their development or that or other, unpublicized, systems.

An additional indication that space warfare has received serious official attention in the PLA is provided by Larry Wortzel’s recent study on the topic. Wortzel, a former U.S. Army attache in Beijing, concluded in a survey of open-source materials that the PLA General Political Department has prepared numerous legal briefs and articles providing what it calls the “political preparation of the battlefield” for space warfare. These writings argue that China is within its legal rights to defend the “inseparable and integrated” area above ground, airspace and outer space, a clear assertion of China’s legal right to attack foreign satellites in the future.

A final indicator that China is dedicated to developing its military space capabilities is the basic structure of its space complex, which does not include a proper “civilian” sector as Americans may think of it.

China’s largest developer of launch vehicles, including the Long March series that are used for civilian satellites, is the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). Employing some 20,000 people, CALT is also the largest developer of Chinese ballistic missiles, such as the East Wind series that includes China’s intercontinental ballistic missiles. Moreover, CALT is a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., a company that is itself managed by the China’s military defense research and development agency, the Commission for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense. Finishing this incestuous network of relations among military and nominally civilian institutions, the general manager of the aerospace corporation was appointed last fall to be the minister of the commission.

The intersection of military and civilian interests in China’s space program was captured in a study last year by Defense Department analyst Michael Pillsbury in which he quoted a PLA colonel: “We should combine military and civilian technology and integrate peacetime and wartime facilities. Space equipment is costly to develop and maintain, so it is important to have civil-use technology that can also be used in military applications.”


Even as China pours considerable political and financial resources into developing its military space technology, it continues to depend heavily on infusions of foreign know-how as a means of innovation. This practice of integrating and modifying foreign technology to meet Chinese needs is evident throughout the history of the Chinese space program. Qian Xuesen, considered to be China’s “Father of Rocketry,” was a leading American scientist who was deported to China as a victim of McCarthyism in 1955. Qian transformed his U.S. experience and education into the foundation of China’s space and missile programs. The Soviet Union also supported China’s early ballistic missile program, which, coupled with Qian’s guidance, allowed China to launch its first satellite in 1970.

By 1988, China’s space launch capability had matured to the point that U.S. companies began launching their commercial satellites on Long March rockets, and Beijing continued to benefit from international technology transfers. For example, after Long March 2E rockets failed to take off in 1992 and 1995, Hughes Space and Communications International informed CALT that the crashes were caused by the flawed design of the rocket’s fairing, or nose cone. Unfortunately, and illegally for Hughes, this transfer of information not only corrected a crucial design flaw in the Long March rocket, but would have been essential for equipping China’s intercontinental ballistic missiles with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles. An ensuing series of similar scandals raised the specter of a wholesale transfer of vital military space technology to a potential adversary.

In response to these transfers, the 1998 Strom Thurmond Defense Authorization Act mandated that the export of commercial satellites be governed by the U.S. State Department’s Munitions List and made subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). This transfer of bureaucratic jurisdiction meant that satellites, along with their components and software, would be treated as weapons systems that were prohibited from being exported to Beijing under the terms of a post-Tiananmen Massacre arms embargo. A silent monument to these restrictions is Chinasat 8, a Space Systems/Loral satellite that has been shelved in a warehouse since its completion in December 1998.

U.S. export restrictions effectively closed the Chinese market to all Western launches for several years. The international nature of the satellite business in the West meant that no major producer had a model that did not included components affected by U.S. ITAR restrictions. But even as the Chinese civilian launch market stagnated, Europe and China were embarking on a bold new relationship. Bilateral trade relations boomed in the late 1990s, with China emerging as Europe’s second-largest trading partner. The blossoming of Sino-European trade accompanied a desire for an emergent strategic partnership that could serve mutual goals. From the perspective of the European Commission in Brussels, East Asia was a convenient playground for exercising a unified “European” diplomacy. For China, Europe was the perfect partner in its effort to build a multilateral international system in which political power is more equally distributed among Beijing, Brussels and Washington.

The final manifestation of growing ties between China and Europe came in the form of security relations between the two sides, including military sales. This was a tricky subject — the arms embargo barred the sale of “lethal” equipment to the Chinese government. But this prohibition was nonbinding, and the annual value of new arms sale licenses from EU countries to China increased nearly ninefold from $51 million in 2001 to more than $430 million in 2004. Moreover, Chinese purchases focused on electronic equipment, military imaging equipment and software for the design and use of weapons systems, crucial capabilities that the Chinese industrial base is deficient in and that can multiply the effectiveness of PLA forces.

The 2004-2005 period also marked a watershed in Sino-European relations as the European Union committed to lifting its arms embargo on China. When the media reported this effort along with other ambitious moves, such as Franco-Chinese negotiations on the sale of Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft for the PLA Air Force, American politicians took the warpath against perceived European perfidy. Knowing how to land a hard punch, the House of Representatives promptly adopted a resolution threatening “limitations and constraints” on transatlantic defense-industrial ties if the EU lifted the embargo.

Although the EU reluctantly backed off of lifting the arms embargo, it is unclear how much difference this has made. European arms manufacturers continue to sell to China, leveling off at about $438 million in 2006, with the largest sales made in military command and control, imaging, and electronics equipment. Moreover, in the past five years, China and the European Union have launched a space technology partnership far more expansive than that which Beijing enjoyed with Washington during the 1990s. It is also one that conveys far greater access to European technical expertise.


As Europe and China develop their space relationship, the pace with which sensitive technology is transferred to Beijing has only increased. In fact, two recent cases show just how rapidly the transfer of military space technology is undermining the objectives of the post-Tiananmen arms embargo.

If it was American policy to use the ITAR system to prevent China from acquiring sensitive satellite technology from the West, the policy effectively failed in April 2005. That month, commercial satellite launches on Chinese Long March rockets resumed with the launch of the APSTAR VI communications satellite, based on the Thales Alenia Space (then Alcatel Alenia Space) Spacebus 4000 platform.

The Spacebus 4000 is one of a kind. Intentionally developed without any U.S. components, the satellite may be launched on China’s Long March rockets without running into American ITAR restrictions, a cost-saving advantage that Thales Alenia has emphasized in its marketing. According to one of the company’s vice presidents, the compatibility between Thales Alenia’s ITAR-free satellites and the Long March launch vehicle has been a crucial factor behind several recent satellite sales. In all, five Thales Alenia Space satellites, all ITAR-free, have been slotted for Long March launches.

Thales Alenia’s satellite exports are commercial in nature, but they indirectly have provided the Chinese with Western technological know-how, principally concerning kick motors. In civilian satellite launches, these propulsion systems are used to position a satellite in its orbit, using a permanently attached booster to modify trajectory. But kick-motor technology is highly sensitive and dual-use in nature. For example, kick motors are a crucial component of ground-based ASAT weapons that utilize kinetic kill vehicles to strike their target. A kick motor was almost certainly used to propel and maneuver the kill vehicle for the final stage of its flight during China’s January 2007 ASAT test. The U.S. State Department is also concerned that kick-motor technology can be used to refine guidance systems on nuclear missiles with multiple re-entry vehicles.

Moreover, the transfer of technology concerning kick motors raises questions regarding Chinese ambitions to develop an anti-satellite satellite that could be placed in orbit and then maneuvered, at a later time, to intercept a U.S. satellite. Given reports that the same KT-1 mobile rocket launcher that was used in January 2007 could be used to place such a microsatellite in orbit, this is a risk that the U.S. should treat seriously.

While these significant military applications of satellite kick motors are recognized, it is not clear what degree of technology transfer has occurred during Long March rocket launches of Thales Alenia’s ITAR-free satellites. However, every such launch requires that Thales Alenia engineers work with their Chinese counterparts in interfacing the satellite’s kick motor with the rest of the launch vehicle; during this process, technical specifications of the kick motor are exchanged, providing the Chinese government access to a sensitive Western technology with grave military potential.

An additional opportunity for Chinese acquisition of sensitive dual-use technology has arisen from Beijing’s participation in the European Union’s global navigation satellite system project, Galileo. In September 2003, Beijing invested $259 million in the European navigation system in return for a stake in the project and access to the technological architecture of the navigation system. Under the agreement, Beijing is responsible for building Galileo’s ground stations in China, a role that will give Chinese engineers access to Galileo’s technical codes.

Although there are commercial incentives for Chinese participation in the Galileo project, the effort to participate overlaps with Chinese ambitions to develop its own global navigation satellite system, known as Beidou. Indeed, according to some reports, one of the pressing reasons the European Commission ultimately sought Chinese participation in the project was because Beijing was already siphoning off so much technology through industrial espionage that Europe sought to recoup some of its losses in the form of a Chinese investment.

Beijing likely hopes that access to the Galileo architecture will help it resolve the principal weakness in the Beidou system, a lack of accurate positioning. The Beidou system has been dogged by weaknesses in its timing technology, a crucial failing that limits its positioning accuracy to approximately 10 meters. In contrast, Galileo’s target of 1-meter accuracy will involve developing the precise technologies that China seeks.

The difference in such degrees of accuracy could be significant for the military applications of a highly accurate global navigation satellite system. For example, as China ponders the likelihood of conflict in East Asia, one of its primary challenges will be to use its massive conventional missile force to engage relatively precise targets, such as American military bases that are forward located in allied countries. Striking such targets directly could make the difference between disabling U.S. forces and intimidating American allies, or incurring civilian casualties and additional foes in an escalating regional conflict.

Beidou’s potential for use as a force-tracking mechanism for logistics and friend-or-foe identification could also be vital in a future conflict. The benefits of such a force-tracking mechanism were demonstrated during the opening stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when coalition soldiers wore uniforms containing integrated GPS technology. Indicating the potential for such a military use, a recent report by Xinhua, the official Chinese state-run news agency, boasted that Beidou already was capable of tracking and monitoring vehicles transporting dangerous chemicals throughout the country.

Even though Beidou’s military applications are readily recognized by the Europeans, they insist China’s participation in Galileo will not result in the transfer of sensitive dual-use technologies.

Acknowledging this divergence between Chinese and European interests, Pedro Pedreira, the European Commission’s director for the Galileo program, recently admitted that “technology transfer is an important consideration” behind China’s continued participation in Galileo and that European officials knew “when we started with China that they wanted to build their own military system.” He is nonetheless confident that a strict technology control regime and the encryption of the Galileo system’s most accurate signals will prevent either outcome from occurring. Both historical experience and the vulnerabilities that necessarily accrue from placing ground stations in China caution otherwise.


After a decade of fighting the tide, it appears that American attempts to frustrate China’s growing military space capabilities have reached a critical point of failure. This dilemma has no easy solution. A combination of European arms manufacturers and aerospace firms appear to have decided to provide China with arms and dual-use technology so long as they can avoid providing Beijing with the lethal tip of its military hardware. Faced with this defeat, the U.S. must retake the initiative in its dealings with both the Chinese and the Europeans in this critical matter.

In its relationship with China, the U.S. must recognize that the militarization of space inspires the most revisionist elements of Chinese strategy. Beijing appears to have made the long-term decision that it is in a struggle with the U.S. over a variety of security issues in East Asia and that preparing for potential military conflict will require the ability to cripple the U.S. military satellite system.

There should be opportunities to engage China on military space issues, even if it has already made this fundamental calculation. It would be worthwhile to develop a Sino-American strategic dialogue on space in which the U.S. could explain its self-imposed restrictions on the militarization of space, and how more provocative steps by China may result in the erosion of those restrictions. Such a dialogue would also provide the U.S. with the opportunity to present nonsensitive areas for cooperation, such as the standardization of spacecraft docking hatches, a move that helped to decrease tensions during the Cold War. Likewise, as China’s military lawyers analyze the terms under which the PLA could conduct ASAT and other space operations against the U.S., Washington should demarcate some red lines for Chinese behavior.

Further, recognizing the potential for long-term competition with China over the future control of space, the U.S. must take steps to mitigate its potential losses and guarantee that it retains escalation superiority in any future conflict. Investing in a hardened, robust satellite system is the obvious first step in any such effort. Developing redundancy through additional layers or C4ISR capabilities is another necessary step in this regard. Rapid improvements in unmanned aerial vehicles promise to facilitate such an effort, and would push the Sino-American competition to a cutting-edge field in which the U.S. retains a clear technological lead.

The relationship with Europe presents no less thorny a problem. After more than a half-century of allied transatlantic relations, the tools of engagement and compromise should be readily available. The State and Defense departments already have launched enhanced dialogues with European allies to discuss concerns with regard to China’s military modernization and the concerns it raises for the U.S. This dialogue should be expanded to include space issues.

Also, it seems that the European Union ultimately will have to address the question of its arms embargo and code of conduct with regards to China. The code of conduct should be made mandatory and its contents devised in consultation with the U.S. Particular issues that should be discussed include such components as military electronics and software that now flow freely between Europe and China. Although nonlethal items in the strictest terms, they may greatly enhance the lethality of Chinese weapons systems deployed against the U.S or its Asian allies in the future.

If European arms manufacturers and aerospace companies continue to sell weapons systems and permit the transfer of sensitive space technology to China, the day may come when Washington recognizes that the shared strategic vision underlying U.S.-European defense-industrial cooperation has passed. The only rational consequence to such a development will be for the U.S. to reassess its defense-industrial relationship with Europe, accept that we can no longer afford to subsidize the arming of an adversary, and accept that the transatlantic partnership has reached the end of its natural life.