Last month, U.S. and Chinese officials met on the sidelines of the International Astronautical Congress and talked about coordinating space traffic safety. Following on from complaints about poor communication regarding potential collisions, such discussions are a reminder that even at the height of tensions between the U.S. and China, space was not at the forefront of the argument. When China broke off dialogue with the U.S. in a number of areas following former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year, space was notably not on the list.
However, none of this should obscure the fact that major tensions exist in and around space policy. They do. And the U.S.’s latest China Military Power Report explicitly draws out why it believes space is in no way separate to ongoing geopolitical battles elsewhere. In particular, it repeatedly draws out their relevance to potential conflict over Taiwan.
Released at the end of October, the report highlights three areas of U.S. focus on China’s activities in space. It says that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) views space superiority as critical to modern information warfare. It says that China is investing in intelligence-gathering satellites with applications that could be used in potential flashpoints that include Taiwan. And it says that China is investing in a range of counterspace capabilities, again believed to be potentially useful in hypothetical conflict over Taiwan.
Counterspace capabilities are defined as weapons launched from Earth or placed in orbit that can “contest or deny” adversaries’ access to space operations. The most obvious application of these capabilities is blocking out satellite functions, either by destroying satellites or jamming their signals, and the report says explicitly that the “PLA sees counterspace operations as a means to deter and counter a U.S. intervention during a regional military conflict.” The implication here is within a conflict across the Taiwan Strait.
Within this scenario, the report cites the PRC claim that “destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors” would “make it difficult for the U.S. and allied militaries to use precision-guided weapons” as evidence for the claim that these weapons could play this role. It also cites Chinese defense academics in suggesting that intelligence capabilities of satellites could also be blocked.
However, while counterspace capabilities “get the headlines,” the intelligence-gathering capacity of China’s satellite infrastructure should be seen as the “most important” aspect of the report, according to Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation.
“By all public accounts, China now has FAR more [reconnaissance satellites] in orbit than the U.S. govt owns/operates and is updating/replenishing those platforms at a rate U.S. planners have been dreaming of for nearly 20 years,” Weeden wrote on X in response to the U.S. report. This, he says, represents a key disparity for two reasons.
First, because the scale means the U.S.’s satellite destroying weapons are “pretty pointless.” As the report points out: “The PLA owns and operates about half of the world’s [reconnaissance satellite] systems, most of which could support monitoring, tracking, and targeting of U.S. and allied forces worldwide, especially throughout the Indo-Pacific region.” The suggestion is that these are too numerous to be destroyed.
Second, because unlike counterspace capabilities where the U.S. is already leading, the disparity in reconnaissance satellites presents a key challenge to the U.S. in building up its own capabilities in the same area. Here, the report points out that the line is moving: “Recent improvements to the PRC’s space-based [reconnaissance satellite] capabilities emphasize the development, procurement and use of increasingly capable satellites with digital camera technology as well as space-based radar for all-weather, 24-hour coverage,” it says. And crucially: “These improvements increase China’s monitoring capabilities — including observation of U.S. aircraft carriers, expeditionary strike groups and deployed air wings.”
The implications of these technology matchups are, at this point, not simply hypothetical. Some of these issues are already live in Ukraine. Increasing incidents of GPS interference have shown up in fighting there and in military exercises across multiple countries, according to 2022’s Global Counterspace Capabilities Report from the Secure World Foundation.
The use of these kinds of capabilities is only likely to proliferate from here, because there’s no regulatory framework to stop or mitigate it. The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty, the largest and most notable space treaty to date, contains principles such as preventing states from placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit around the Earth, but by now much of its content has been left behind by vast developments in technology.
Photo: CNS/AFP/CHINA OUT