China’s anti-satellite weapon a “trump card” against US

A schematic-tabulated progressive analyses of China’s space initiative since last 5 years and India’s options

by Dr Anil Kumar Lal 

China’s Space Growth Is Pre-dominantly Linked To The Military Benefit First

1. China is the only country in the world, whose space department is functioning directly under the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Obviously, this has always ensured that Space assets give military spin-offs at the very inception stage of any project. China’s space programme, like its’ nuclear programme, expanded from military to civil uses. China built up its space launch capabilities on the foundations of It’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMS) and the technology to improve their performance from the United States. Similarly China’s manned space flight, therefore, must be seen in the context of integrated civil-military benefits. In addition, it appears to satisfy China’s central concept of comprehensive national power to compliment emergence of China as a global power. It also legitimises the rule of the Communist party of China (CPC) in achieving milestones in Space. President Xi Jinping has also thrown his support behind the country’s space endeavours and the Chinese state media regularly cast the “space dream” as one step in the path to “national rejuvenation”.

2. Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, there has been greater focus on overall military capabilities and the PLA has devoted more attention to space and information capabilities. The last Chinese Defence White Paper (2019) identified space as “a critical domain of international strategic competition.” The 2019 White Paper also identified the important role that space will play in “improve[ing] the capabilities of joint operations command to exercise reliable and efficient command over emergency responses, and to effectively accomplish urgent, tough and dangerous tasks.”

3. With the goal of becoming a “world-class military power,” by 2027,as reiterated by President Xi Jinping in the recent Plenary session of the CPC. China has gone about advancing its space power, both in terms of institutional reorganization and development of space and counter space capabilities. The military modernization through better Informationalisation so undertaken by China since 2015 is worth noting. It has notably speeded up the Space launches. A particular event in space becomes useful only if it is followed up by creating an infrastructure so as to achieve both military and civil spin-offs. In terms of institutional architecture, the most significant development is the creation of the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), a theatre command-level organization designed to combine “the PLA’s strategic space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities.” The PLASSF is an infrastructural organisation to create synergies in functions that were previously dispersed across a number of departments. Under the aegis of military reforms, the PLASSF is directly under the Central Military Commission and is responsible for centralised support to the PLA. The aim as given in the ibid White paper was “seeking to achieve big development strides in key areas and accelerate the integrated development of new-type combat forces, so as to build a strong and modernized strategic support force.”. All the issues of joint support ultimately get linked to the ‘Space Dominant’ capabilities, which get generated by executing planned launches rapidly so as to create the necessary infrastructure as elucidated below.

4. To enable the above networked infrastructure, China has been conducting extensive space launches in 2018 and 2019.This year (2020), in spite of the Pandemic; it has carried out 34 launches (out of a planned 40) which are more than any other country. Last year, it sent a mission to the Far side of the Moon. Yet again on 1st December 2020, China has landed Chang’e 5 Moon lander on the moon to bring home some moon rock as souvenirs. Earlier this year it has also completed the network of satellites for its BeiDou navigation system, as an alternative to the US GPS system. China is also working toward sending astronauts to the Moon and, eventually, Mars. It has also recently launched a re-usable ‘Space Plane’. This is a big step forward in China’s space technology as winged re-entry is really hard to do. This is just another reflection of China trying to become a comprehensive space power that utilises space technology as a force multiplier for the land, sea and air battle in the earth and near earth environment.

5. Over the past five years, China’s space activities were full of highlights and surprises in almost all aspects. The country set a milestone in space exploration by landing its Chang’e-4 probe on the far side of the moon in January last year. It was the first time that any craft landed successfully on the uncharted side of the planet. Half a year later, China sent Tianwen-1, Mars probe into orbit by its largest carrier rocket Long March-5, raising the curtain for the further exploration of the red planet. The probe is scheduled to enter Mars orbit around February next year and land in May 2021. In 2019, China completed the first sea-based rocket launch in the Yellow Sea, becoming the third country after the United States and Russia to successfully perform such a mission. China has also made significant breakthroughs in advancing space infrastructure. The country began constructing its own navigation system in the 1990s. In June, China launched the 55th, also the last satellite of the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS), marking the completion of the deployment of its own global navigation system. In August 2020, the Gaofen-7 Earth observation satellite was put into service, representing significant progress for China’s surveying and mapping capabilities. It can provide 1:10,000 scale satellite 3D mapping for users. In 2016, China launched its second station, the Tiangong-2 lab into orbit 393km (244 miles) above Earth, in what analysts say will likely serve as a final building block before China launches a crewed space station. Astronauts who have visited the station have run experiments on growing rice and other plants, as well as docking spacecraft.

6. Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China’s “space dream”, as he calls it, have been put into overdrive the new superpower is looking to finally catch up with the US and Russia after years of belatedly matching their space milestones. The ambitions start with a space station of its own – China was deliberately left out of the International Space Station effort – with the assembly of pieces in space expected to start this year and crewed use to begin in 2022.China is also planning to build a base on the moon with the country aiming to establish a lunar mission by 2029.

7. Recently, there have been reports of China testing a kind of ‘Space- Plane’, which can be repeatedly reused. A reusable spacecraft – as the name implies can undertake multiple trips to space – thereby potentially lowering the overall cost of launch activity. A conventional one-off spacecraft – costing hundreds of Crores – is practically rendered useless after a single mission. This experimental vessel reached an altitude of about 350 km, which is in line with China’s previous crewed flights. The spacecraft also released an unknown object into the orbit before returning to Earth. Once the testing is complete, such a vehicle could be used for logistics sustenance of a space station and carry out many tactical tasks including repair of satellites and transportation of astronauts and goods to and from orbit. The Chinese craft has been reported to be akin to X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle operated by the US Air Force. If confirmed as a space plane, China would become only the third country to have successfully launched such a vehicle into orbit after the US and the former Soviet Union (It is reported, an Indian space plane is also under make).

8. China’s astronauts and scientists have also talked of crewed missions to Moon& Mars as they strive to become a global space power. There is little distinction between China’s civilian and military space programs which fuels suspicions about Beijing’s space ambitions. With the new ‘Tianhe’ space station, Beijing is set to create another battleground. It would be the first crewed space station. Reportedly, the launch of its core module on a Long March 5B will be in 2021. The space station will orbit at an altitude of around 380 kilometres with an inclination of between 41 and 43 degrees. This step will militarise space and will be the beginning of a space war in heaven. Undoubtedly, it will challenge the US and the world. Geopolitically, this scenario draws parallel to the Indo-Pacific theatre, where China will in due time assert its claims in the near space. It would be like capturing a height in the mountains akin to the ground of tactical importance.