Chinese Space Dependency and Mutual Assured Vulnerability

Stimson Spotlight

Chinese Space Dependency and Mutual Assured Vulnerability

By Dylan Rebstock - Some worry that U.S. military dependency on satellites for communication, navigation, intelligence, targeting and other purposes could lead to a "space Pearl Harbor." In this scenario, China or another country not nearly as invested in the military uses of space might carry out an attack in this domain. These concerns have grown after a test by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in 2007 demonstrated a successful capability to target and destroy a satellite, and have been reinforced by subsequent Chinese tests, ostensibly for ballistic missile defense and proximity operations, that could have anti-satellite applications. Because China has less to lose in space - or so this argument goes - Beijing might carry out crippling anti-satellite attacks, leaving the Pentagon unable to respond in kind. Even if the Pentagon were able to respond, China would not be similarly disadvantaged by American counterattacks in space. 

This worst-case scenario is becoming more implausible every year - not because of U.S. anti-satellite tests, but because of China's ambitious and rapid military modernization programs that increase the PLA's reliance on space. 

As David Gompert and Phillip Saunders have noted in "The Paradox of Power: Sino-American Strategic Restraint in an Age of Vulnerability," Beijing has already invested over $10 billion in current, operational space assets - about one-sixth of U.S. spending - a roughly proportional amount to the United States, given disparities in gross domestic product (GDP). Chinese dependency on space is growing at a faster rate than its GDP. China is planning to launch 10 satellites per year, compared with an average of 17 U.S. launches.  

Consequently, the PLA's apparent interest in anti-satellite capabilities coincides with its growing dependence on satellites to carry out military operations. 

At first glance, the divide in space dependency is immense. The United States operates at least 446 active satellites, including approximately 130 that directly support military operations, far more than any other nation. However, a direct comparison might not be the most accurate method for determining if a nation has crossed the threshold of space dependency.

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This op-ed was originally published at Space News on Nov. 18, 2013

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy via Flickr