Now and then, someone pens an alarm about China’s space activities. To be clear, this sort of thing is misguided and factually incorrect at best. At worst, it’s jingoistic, alarmist, and deliberately revisionist.
Before continuing, be aware this is a lengthy analysis addressing U.S.-centric space issues. It has to be, to get to the truth, which these stories conveniently ignore. There are too many of these kinds of “fear factor” stories pushed on the internet, all decrying the emasculation of U.S. space power while extolling China’s lead in the same breath. They say the U.S is in danger by underestimating China’s “lead” in space. Why?
The latest article crying 狼 (Láng=wolf) is courtesy of The U.S. Sun, titled “China’s space supremacy could wipe out our satellites and send us back to the Stone Age – we must challenge them.” In it is a litany of typically exaggerated hand-wringing regarding China and its space capabilities and ambitions. The article ends:
Every day they are up there unchallenged is one day closer to them being able to flip a few switches and send the United States into a literal blind panic.
The above quote refers specifically to China’s ability to dominate the U.S. through targeting and eliminating U.S. space assets (commercial and military) by flipping “a few switches.” The message is clear: China will easily, and with little effort (except for switch-flipping), defeat any adversary in a space battle. It’s a convenient, easy to understand, scary narrative.
According to the article, China’s conducts space activities with impunity because:
China has a head start in space.
China continues to identify and target every satellite orbiting the Earth.
Congressional testimony about Chinese anti-satellite technologies:
“China views space as a critical U.S. military and economic vulnerability and has fielded an array of direct-ascent, cyber, electromagnetic, and co-orbital counter-space weapons capable of targeting nearly every class of U.S. space asset.”
The U.S. is playing catch-up in space.
U.S. presidential leadership created a U.S. “space-activity” vacuum.
No nation on Earth depends more upon satellites than the U.S.
Just instituted a Space Force.
Is too focused on Russian space activities
To answer the last bullet: China has been pursuing ideals and agendas hostile to nations of the free world for decades--this is nothing new. It’s straightforward to see some suppression similarities used by China’s leadership for Tiananmen Square 21 years ago, and the Hong Kong protests this year (thankfully, no evidence of tanks).
U.S. military organizations and intelligence agencies have been paying attention to China’s activities (not just in space) for a long time, briefing leadership, and sending pertinent reports as necessary. This is a duty that U.S. soldiers and analysts embrace willingly (and with gusto). These professionals are very aware that other dangers, aside from those posed by Russia, are out there...and they watch for signs of burgeoning threats in Areas of Interest (AOI) with a keen vigilance. A supported foreign service (courtesy of the Department of State) on the ground helps provide the context of activities in those AOIs.
History and Data
China’s space program, a mix of civilian and military programs, is a pride point for that nation--and rightfully so. China is one of the most active countries in space. But it took the long route to get there, starting in the late 1950s and playing catch-up with Russia and the U.S. since then. That’s over sixty years of space activity, with the nation just now doing things both the U.S. and Russia accomplished decades ago.
Based on the Union of Concerned Scientists’ satellite database, which tries to count how many satellites are orbiting the Earth, operational U.S. satellites outnumber all other nations’ satellites by a significant margin. As of March 21, 2020, there were over 1,300 functioning U.S. satellites orbiting the Earth--slightly less than half of all operational satellites in Earth’s orbit. China was operating 363.
Launch activities? As of Sept 8, 2020, U.S. launch operators are slightly ahead of China’s--26 to 25. China has managed to launch more rockets than the U.S. in the two years prior (2018 and 2019), but quite a few of those launches were for deploying BeiDou PNT satellites (21% of all China’s launches in 2019 and 26% in 2018). China was essentially building up a space-based navigation infrastructure the U.S. has had for nearly forty years (and launching replacements only as necessary).
Maybe the confusion about China’s space lead stems from the nation’s completion of its BeiDou positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellite constellation? BeiDou became operational for global services this year. BeiDou accomplishes a similar mission to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). There are more operational BeiDou satellites in orbit than there are GPS satellites (about 10). This is by design for both GPS and BeiDou constellations. So, yes--China technically leads the U.S. in the number of PNT satellites orbiting the Earth.
As far as space stations are concerned, China deployed two. Both of its space stations re-entered (by design) and are no more. The U.S. also deployed two--SkyLab and the International Space Station (although other nations deployed parts of the ISS). Skylab re-entered (not by design), but the ISS is still up there.
By most numbers, then, there was and is no U.S. abandonment of space activities. And the comparison also shows that China depends just as much as the U.S. on space infrastructure (debunking the assumption of the U.S. being the most dependent). Why else build a functional PNT constellation, field geosynchronous communications satellites, and the ability to replace those all with a suite of launch systems? Also, the Europeans might be surprised to hear they don’t depend as much as the U.S. does on space systems. The European Commission’s site notes:
“...Space technology, data and services have become indispensable in the lives of Europeans. We rely on them when using mobile phones and car navigation systems, watching satellite TV, and withdrawing money. Satellites also provide immediate information when disasters, such as earthquakes, forest fires or floods strike, enabling better coordination between emergency and rescue teams.”
The space activity vacuum was also supposed to have been created by (probably) the Constellation program’s cancellation and a belief in a drawdown of U.S. military space activity. However, the Constellation’s replacement, which has been in place for 16 years--the Space Launch System and Orion--still isn’t that close to launch. Even after tens of billions of dollars spent on the system. The vacuum isn’t the lack of leadership, but rather, the program, which sucks up taxpayer dollars at an astonishing rate.
U.S. military space is in a similar bind--well-funded but poorly managed. The Department of Defense annually receives money for space programs, accounting (more often than not) for more than half of all estimated U.S. space spending. But the real threat to U.S. military space, as recounted by a few analyses (such as “Lessons Not Learned, Part Deux”), are the processes it relies on to acquire space services and systems. The extreme expenses for each and the horrific lengths of time to acquire them damages the U.S. space capability that an adversary could only dream of inflicting.
There doesn’t appear to be a penalty facing either organization for underperforming, which means while having a space force is interesting, it probably won’t help.
Offensive Space Weaponry and Spaceplanes
What about China’s other activities, such as identifying and targeting satellites orbiting the Earth? Well, the U.S. DoD has been doing this for a long, long time. So has Russia. If a nation has assets on orbit, it wants to know who else is in the neighborhood. And good luck to China in its efforts at targeting 700+ Starlink satellites. Or even half that. This is the “magic” of operating satellite systems numbering in the thousands instead of tens. Just the potential debris field should be enough to stop any aspiring space-dependent/spacefaring nation from considering kinetic strikes against satellites in the Earth’s orbit.
With over 1,300 U.S. satellites on orbit (and thousands more planned), it would be interesting to bring to light exactly what China can field to bring them down. One thing about having a top-secret clearance is a person with one shouldn’t even be hinting about classified information. Doing so is considered causing harm to the nation. This makes it difficult for officials to discuss precisely what is worrying them, and the list they brought for congressional consumption didn’t list new capabilities--just the same worries.
News stories abound highlighting China’s tests concerning targeting and interception of satellites with missiles launched from the ground. The USAF has even brought that information forward. Could the nation field enough rockets to target the thousand+ U.S. satellites on orbit? There are news stories of Russia’s maneuvering satellite activities, where the country’s satellites are making close approaches to other nation’s satellites--uninvited. Are there enough of these “co-orbital counterspace weapons'' to cripple “nearly every class of U.S. space asset?”
It seems unlikely.
With the launch and landing of China’s newest space asset--a reusable spaceplane--people will trot that out as another sign of China’s “lead” in space. China’s spaceplane requires a rocket to launch it, but the spaceplane can deploy a payload in orbit (or pick one up) and return safely to Earth. It’s a significant event--for China. The U.S. had a reusable shuttle nearly forty years before China’s launch of its system this year. The U.S. has been flying two versions of the reusable X-37B since 2010. Even Europe and India have launched and landed reusable spaceplanes. It appears that China, by flying a spaceplane that requires a rocket to get it into orbit, isn’t breaking ground on new launch technology.
All of this is not to say the U.S. shouldn’t worry about China’s space activities. The U.S. should keep China’s actions in its mind--but it’s been doing that for a while. It shouldn’t make fear-based decisions using corrupted data and revised history (resulting in a garbage-in, garbage-out scenario). This analysis is meant to establish a baseline of more precise data and history that contradicts what others, not just the article’s author, have published. All those authors push the narrative that China’s progress in space is superior and needs to be feared; and that the U.S. somehow fell back so far that it’s playing catch-up. As demonstrated, both stories are false.
And why are they almost always being pushed?