China's Tiangong-1 spacecraft lab in orbit

by Dr Anil Kumar Lal

China has accelerated its space militarisation program, especially during the last decade. China’s aim is to become the space dominant power by surpassing the United States of America (USA). This rapid growth in space militarisation by China endangers India’s security.

Thus, there is a need for Indian defence planners to do comparative analyses between China and India on the aspect of space warfare capabilities and assets and find a remedial course. This may involve geopolitical leveraging being a strategic partner with the USA. This may also necessitate trebling funding to enhance the creation of more space assets. In addition geostrategic groupings and partnerships with like-minded nations may yet be another answer.

Therefore it becomes important to accurately assess China’s space militarisation and their impact on the safety of India’s space assets and fast-track India’s counter-measures.

Space militarisation is the norm amongst competing nations, mainly the USA, Russia and China. Presently, the USA is the space dominant nation. China has pledged to overtake the USA by 2030 and therefore it is on a drive towards space militarisation. It has been expanding its network of military intelligence satellites and testing newer weapons in space. It has established a space station all on its own. China has conducted the greatest number of space launches in 2018 and 2019, and last year (2020) it has already launched 36 space vehicles out of a planned 40.

What China does not admit to is that its ambitious space program is under the control of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). China’s space militarisation has a direct impact on India’s security. Thus, a detailed analysis is warranted of the growing Chinese military capabilities in space. The key capabilities are discussed in succeeding paragraphs.

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 program, like its’ nuclear program, expanded from military to civil uses. China built up its space launch capabilities on the foundation 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 the 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”.

Since President Xi, Jinping came to power in 2012, there has been a 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 “improving the capabilities of joint operations command to exercise reliable and efficient command over emergency responses, and to effectively accomplish urgent, tough and dangerous tasks.”

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 Informationisation 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.

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.

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.