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China's Space Wars By: Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr.
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, December 09, 2004

Last month, Yuan Jiajun, president of the China Academy of Space Technology, noted that a major goal of the Chinese space program in the new millennium is to “provide the dream of space travel to Chinese citizens within the next 20 years.” Yet, even under the most optimistic of economic circumstances, citizen space travel will remain a cost prohibitive and risky proposition for the Chinese well beyond 2024. Why, then, would China, known chiefly for communism, militarism, human rights violations and illegal arms sales, make a large monetary investment in the space travel industry?

Granted, both the ten and twenty-year space objectives released by China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) in 2000 called for, among other things, the establishment of China’s own manned spaceflight system. And China does currently have a number of satellites in orbit that are used for non-military purposes. But if China’s Communist regime expects us to believe that the ultimate purpose of its space program is to merely study scientific anomalies such as global warming or to fulfill the manifest destiny of a billion and a half of its citizens, then it must first answer several significant questions, chief among them: how can a country new to capitalist ideas and markets expect to send Chinese citizens into space with any regularity within 15 years?

On November 16, China’s Central Television reported that the country planned to launch 100 satellites before 2020 to “monitor every corner of the country.” And according to an official with China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, a large surveying network to monitor “various activities of society” would soon be in place. These Orwellian maneuvers make clear that Chinese talk of citizen space travel is a well-orchestrated smoke-screen designed to allay world anxieties and address inevitable American skepticism over China’s space program.


Publicly, the Chinese have expressed their opposition to the militarization of space. But with the development and implementation of a global satellite umbrella system, China will have the capability to achieve its ultimate goals of global economic and military superiority while challenging the United States as space’s gatekeeper. Identifying America’s enormous reliance upon surveillance and intelligence gathering satellites as its Achilles heel, China has continued to move toward an improvement in jamming capabilities necessary to disable receivers used by the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation. China now has its own digital-imaging satellites—like the Ziyuan-2—that have the capacity to take high-resolution pictures comparable to U.S. and European commercial satellites. Such a capability would conceivably allow the Chinese military to target American military installations and monitor troop movements all over the world. Indeed, according to Richard Fisher, a senior Fellow with the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C., “[The Chinese] are preparing for a post-2005 conflict time frame. After the satellite constellation is in place, it will be large and sufficient for Chinese needs for a military campaign.”


The most likely scenario for the first-ever space battle would see Chinese satellites equipped with high-energy lasers disabling or destroying large numbers of United States communications, weather and military satellites. Under such a scenario, the U.S. and its allies would be incapable of repairing or replacing such a large number of sophisticated satellites. This becomes especially acute when recent failures and tragedies of the U.S. shuttle program are taken into account.


The U.S., with its own collection of killer satellites and weapons platforms, such as the Space Based Laser (SBL), would no doubt respond forcefully to any Chinese space aggression. “We are so dominant in space — I pity a country that would come up against us,” says Maj. General Franklin Blaisdell, director of Space Operations for the U.S. Air Force. But how long will that dominance last? Could a space version of a Pearl Harbor-styled attack by the Chinese using anti-satellites render the United States military blind for long periods of time, thus leaving certain strategically important parts of the globe unprotected? As a result, an ensuing land, air and naval battle in, say, the Middle East or East China Sea would become a much more evenly matched contest.


In a report released to Congress in August 2003, the Pentagon underscored China’s robust research and development program for laser weapons. The report also stated that laser technology employed using a ground based anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon could pose a threat to United States satellites by 2010. Interestingly, Captain Shen Zhongchang of the Chinese Navy Research Institute indicated recently that the use of lasers is integral to defeating a superior force. “The mastery of outer space will be requisite for military victory, with outer space becoming the new venue for combat,” said Zhongchang. “This will occur through the use of lightning strikes.”


The use of nanosatellites—small anti-satellites designed exclusively to disable and destroy American surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities—is also being pursued by the Chinese. Launch sites to handle satellites and their improved heavy-lift rocket booster technology are now under construction throughout China’s immense provinces. This, according to the DOD, would have broad military, civil and commercial applications.


In addition to the use of killer satellites, the October 2003 manned flight of the Chinese Shenzhou V (“Divine Vessel” or “Vessel of the Gods”) rocket could be a precursor to the development of manned space shuttles similar to America’s own space shuttle fleet. Known as Project 921, the Chinese National Manned Space Program is different from the United States space shuttle program in one key respect – the Chinese manned space shuttle, or delta winged orbiter, would be used for ominous purposes. The primary mission of the reusable shuttle fleet and its astronauts would be to destroy, disable or intercept American and allied communication and military satellites already in orbit. The Chinese astronauts could then conduct search and destroy or intercept missions with multiple space shuttles to “pluck out the eyes of the eagle.” Refueling the space shuttles on their missions would not be problematic, as they would simply dock and refuel at China’s proposed Space Station. By the time the United States and her allies fully understood what was happening from this shuttle/ASAT/satellite attack, the Chinese would be implementing stage two of their plan, a possible invasion of the Middle East oil fields or Taiwan, or perhaps both.


Almost everything China has done over the past several years, from Westernizing its economy to modernizing and streamlining its military to updating its infrastructure, has been undertaken to challenge America’s world superiority. China’s emerging space program is no different. The Chinese realize that American ground, air and naval forces are severely overextended at the moment. The United States’ increasing reliance upon complex and sophisticated satellite capabilities to gain strategic advantages on the battlefield has allowed it to invade Afghanistan and Iraq using a minimal number of ground troops. But if America’s technological superiority is rendered inoperable, it would give a numerically superior ground force such as the Chinese a unique window of opportunity. Acting independently or with other nations such as Iran or North Korea, China could destabilize entire regions of the globe and secure much needed natural resources such as crude oil and natural gas. It may also choose to settle the score with old adversaries, in particular, Taiwan.


The Chinese recognize that if accessibility to space is controlled, it will further cement China’s legitimacy as a great world power and beacon of strength for the Far East. The United States’ dependence upon space technology to achieve tactical superiority during the two Gulf Wars, Afghanistan and Bosnia has not gone unnoticed by the Chinese leadership. They have watched the triumphs and failures of America’s space program with keen interest, hoping to find weaknesses to exploit. As a result, it is vital for the United States to understand that China is both a determined and focused adversary not only on Earth, but above it as well.

Fred Stakelbeck is a Senior Asia Fellow with Washington-based Center for Security Policy. He is an expert on the economic and national security implications for the U.S. of China's emerging regional and global strategic influence. Comments can be forwarded to Frederick.Stakelbeck@verizon.net.

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