USSF Intelligence: China on Its Mind for the Wrong Reasons?

USSF Intelligence: China on Its Mind for the Wrong Reasons?

Astralytical published another of my articles: Global Launches: Trends, Observations, and Opportunities. It’s about the past 4.5 years of global launch activity, from Jan 2019 through Jul 2023. It turns out there are more interesting trends in launch than a “space race” or commercial/military/civil activities, and I brought a few of those forward.

Investing in Intelligence

The United States spends billions of dollars on intelligence, expecting its various intelligence organizations to give U.S. soldiers an edge on the battlefield (or politicians an advantage during negotiations). Readers wondering who those organizations are can find them on

There are the usual ones: NRO, NGA, DIA, and NSA. And there are plenty more. Thousands of people work in these intelligence organizations, including over 1,500 in one of the newest U.S. military services, the U.S. Space Force. That’s not to say that the people working in the intelligence arm of the USSF are new unless they’re the latest recruits, most transferred from the U.S. Air Force and other services.

While some of the billions go towards the people conducting the intelligence missions, so much more goes towards buying and maintaining the assets they operate–satellites, outposts, launches, computing equipment, networks, etc. All of which is to say that if U.S. intelligence fails, it isn’t because of a lack of funds.

The spending and committed resources set the background for Breaking Defense’s quotes from USSF intelligence officer General Gregory Gagnon. The site interviewed the general late last week.

Numbers as Justifications

The article’s title, “Space Force intel focus: 50% on China; 25% on Russia,” clarifies the general’s and his organization’s concerns–China. Gagnon lists the kind of things China is using or developing as his concern: anti-satellite missiles and lasers, jammers, and command network upgrades for better global communications. At the end of his list, he notes: “In order to do that, they continue to put up a large number of satellites.”

Interestingly, Gagnon provides some estimates for the spacecraft that organizations and companies have deployed from China. From the article:

“About three or four years ago, the … PRC was just getting to 400 satellites. Today, they’re about to punch through 800,” he said.

Later in the article, Gagnon provides more numbers:

In 2022 alone, he said, the Chinese government put up “almost 200 satellites, over 100 of them were remote sensing satellites, like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. So, over half of what they’re doing in their pace and growth is remote sensing to fuel their joint force.”

Okay, we can work with these numbers to verify if they bolster Gagnon’s argument for why his organization is focusing on China and see if they are accurate. Again, he literally has an army backing the USSF’s intelligence collection efforts. According to Gagnon, they spend at least 50% of their time looking at China’s activities, collecting what they can from that nation. I’m relying on open-source intelligence, using primary sources for my data, and using my laptop from my comfortable home. I have no ready percentage of the areas I focus on.

According to the USAF intel weenies, then, three or four years ago, China’s space operators operated nearly 400 satellites. Maybe. It depends on what “...just getting to…” means to the general. Revisiting that year from open sources shows some possible flexibility in the general’s statement.

Numbers: Looking Closely

In December 2019, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ satellite database provided data showing that China’s spacecraft operators had 323 spacecraft in orbit (as of Sept 30, 2019). The nation’s operators had managed to deploy 71 spacecraft during 2019, presumably not all in the last three months of that year. So, sure, China’s space operators were “getting to” 400, but it appears there’s some rounding up from 350 or 360 spacecraft by the end of 2019.

However, the general went the other way with his “today” estimate, as the numbers show that China punched through 800 satellites already. He is, however, rounding up again to get to that 200 Chinese satellites deployed number in 2022.

Gagnon’s numbers for deployments of spacecraft from China sound high. They are certainly higher than Russian spacecraft deployments. But those numbers are nothing compared to spacecraft that U.S. operators deployed in the same time frames.

The same UCS database showed that U.S. operators had 1,007 satellites in orbit–nearly 212% more than the 323 Chinese satellites. Since that report through today, U.S. spacecraft operators punched through (over, actually) 5,500 spacecraft in orbit–more than 1,017% the number of Chinese-operated spacecraft deployed during the same period. In 2022, U.S. spacecraft operators deployed nearly 2,000 spacecraft, a ~980% increase from China’s almost 180 spacecraft deployed that year. The chart below shows that 2022 wasn’t a space race but an orbital blowout.

And the stomping continues. Even the mass deployed by each nation into orbit for that year reflects that dominance, as U.S. satellite operators deployed over three times the mass of China’s ~180,000 kg of spacecraft. So the numbers, when comparing spacecraft deployments between China and the U.S., seem not ominous at all.

To be clear, SpaceX accounts for many U.S. spacecraft deployed (89% in 2022). Still, since Gagnon fails to make the distinction between commercial and military for China’s operators, it seems only fair to include SpaceX’s satellites in the U.S. “assets” column.

More than Numbers: Remote-Sensing Satellites

What else is the general worrying about then regarding China? He seems to think that remote-sensing satellites are the biggest threat to U.S. space dominance (?). Gagnon points to the over 100 remote-sensing satellites Chinese operators deployed in 2022 as reasons to worry. The numbers I’ve gathered bear out his estimate–about 115 remote-sensing satellites were deployed from China in 2022. That is 44% more than the ~78 U.S. remote-sensing satellites deployed that same year.

However–there is a wrinkle as Gagnon’s numbers for China are the total remote-sensing satellites, which include commercially-operated ones. The general mentions quite often his organization’s awareness and use of the commercial space industry. For example:

“And about 25 percent of what we do is focused on what we call the rest of world, or the commercial sector — not spying on the commercial sector, but just understanding the commercial sector from an intelligence perspective.”

But based on Gagnon’s numbers for China, his organization’s understanding of the commercial sector seems blind when it comes to China’s space operators. Sixty-three of those 100-plus remote-sensing satellites from China were commercially operated. Chinese military remote-sensing satellites accounted for less than half the number of commercial counterparts, ~27. Of the ~78 remote-sensing satellites deployed by U.S. space operators, about 60 were for commercial missions. Twelve U.S. military remote-sensing satellites were deployed, with the remainder for civil missions.

Gagnon appears to be making the same mistake that some of the public are making: assuming that China’s commercial operators are also providing the People’s Liberation Army information. Maybe he’s correct-–because that’s what the U.S. military does with commercial remote-sensing satellite operators.

To be clear, it’s not wrong for the U.S. military to do this. It contracts with commercial remote-sensing satellite operators for imagery, and Gagnon even notes that in the article. But it is also facile to assume China’s military isn’t doing the same (and believe that it’s wrong for China to do so). Maybe Gagnon’s view of China’s commercial space operators is more nuanced, but the words he’s publicly using do not demonstrate that nuance.

Hopefully, Gagnon’s knowledge is more comprehensive, as U.S. troops and defense deserve someone who knows the difference between commercial and military spacecraft. Clearly, Gagnon is attempting to drum up support for USSF intelligence efforts. But the way he’s trying to do so seems…lame? China’s government and companies are seriously committed to space industry growth. Even ten years ago, that nation’s current achievements could have credibly appeared more competitive.

But in context with the thousands of spacecraft U.S. space operators are deploying annually now? He should start moving away from spacecraft counting and begin spelling out whatever the actual danger his people are bringing forward–the analysis and not just the counts.

If the result still requires focusing on China, then at least there’s a thoughtful justification for that focus. Maybe he is doing that secretly.

However, relying on spacecraft numbers, especially when comparing China’s with U.S. space activities, doesn’t tell the story Gagnon believes it does.