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The debate over U.S. military presence in Asia usually centers on traditional areas like water or air. Yet Chinese President Xi Jinping has provided evidence that military competition may be shifting from ships and planes to space. He showcased China’s military priorities when last week he encouraged his country’s air force to better integrate its air and space capabilities. Although not as dramatic as President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 call for a U.S. mission to the Moon, the Chinese leader’s desire to expand the realm of military competition are clear. Washington should prepare for crippling attacks on satellites and other communications systems before it is too late.
China’s plan to militarize its space activities has been in development for years. Its space program is controlled by its military, unlike in the U.S., where military services and NASA have separate agencies and leadership. Repeated Pentagon reports in recent years on China’s military activities have noted the country has built up the means of disabling foreign satellites. And technological advantages have been growing steadily.
China shocked the world in 2007 by successfully destroying one of its aging weather satellites, demonstrating an anti-satellite capability that few nations can match. That test created a cloud of debris that continues to bedevil satellites and the International Space Station. Beijing also tested what is widely believed to have been a new, mobile-launched anti-satellite missile last May.
By comparison, the Pentagon has no formal anti-satellite system under development. And at a time when America’s exploration program of the Moon has ended, China’s has just begun. Its “Jade Rabbit” moon rover, the first Earth vehicle to visit the lunar surface in almost 40 years, successfully landed last December. Although Jade Rabbit broke down halfway through its planned three-month mission-highlighting the complexities of sustained space programs-China’s goal remains to execute a manned mission to the Moon and possibly even establish a lunar base.
Which gets to Mr. Xi’s high-profile exhortation last week that he will guide his country’s growing technological expertise toward making space another dimension of the battlefield. How might Beijing integrate its air and space capabilities, and to what end? This is where both American homeland security and military planners need to be concerned.
There are currently only 30 operational GPS satellites operated by the U.S. Any Chinese ability to target those satellites could potentially disrupt, if not cripple, GPS operations on which everything from weather reporting to civil aviation to smartphone apps rely. That would impose huge costs on the American economy and potentially shut down entire industries. It is the 21st century version of saturation bombing, designed to target civilians and break their will to resist.
Similarly, Mr. Xi is moving China into a position where it could deny U.S. military forces their one unquestioned global advantage: a networked battle system. The U.S. Air Force operates around 20 advanced satellite communications systems.
Targeting those and some GPS satellites could make U.S. military operations difficult, if not impossible, to undertake. It could eliminate the effectiveness of precision-guided munitions. The U.S. Congress has become so concerned about this vulnerability that it requested that the Pentagon run studies on the ability of the U.S. military to operate in communications-denied environments.
Offensive space weapons would undoubtedly be employed in conjunction with China’s advanced cyber warfare capabilities. By blinding satellites while knocking down computer networks through distributed denials of service, Beijing could effectively prevent U.S. forces from operating in Asia and beyond. This is what the Chinese call “war under informationized conditions,” a twist on the “joint operations” that the U.S. military touts. The potential of such an attack is not based on military branches, but on capabilities.
Consider the threat of increased space presence to some of Asia’s flashpoints. Blinding some of America’s spy satellites could deprive policy makers of timely intelligence on Chinese naval and air moves to threaten foreign-held territory, such as the disputed Senkaku Islands. Introducing just enough uncertainty to delay American or joint allied decision-making could give Chinese forces the margin of success necessary to present Washington with a fait accompli. It would undoubtedly be even easier to isolate and interrupt the military activities of America’s smaller allies, leaving Washington with a heavier burden.
The trend is clear: President Obama may want to shrink the military and surrender America’s lead in space, but China is moving in the opposite direction. Eventually, Beijing will have a lead. At that point, American policy makers will be forced on the defensive while grasping to connect the dots of seemingly disparate events in space and cyberspace. America prides itself on being the world’s technological powerhouse, but that is a diminishing advantage when others have a clearer view of why they are aiming at the stars.
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