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China's space ambitions target satellites, a US vulnerability

American military's reliance on Earth orbit creates Achilles' heel

China's push into space is fueled by Beijing's goal to catch up to the U.S. (Nikkei montage/Reuters/AP)

TOKYO -- When China landed a probe on Mars this month, President Xi Jinping hailed the success of the mission as well as the status of Beijing's burgeoning space program.

"The landing left a Chinese mark on Mars for the first time," he said, per Xinhua News Agency. "It is another landmark progress in China's space industry development."

The Tianwen-1 mission resulted in China becoming only the second country to land a rover on Mars successfully, after the U.S. In 2019, China accomplished the first successful landing of a probe on the far side of the moon. Beijing last month launched a central unit of its space station, with plans to complete the base in 2022.

Beyond the scientific or military interests, China's push into space is fueled fundamentally by Beijing's ambition to become a superpower and catch up with the U.S.

"It requires absurdly huge costs and comes with risk to send humans into space," said Kazuto Suzuki, a University of Tokyo professor and expert on security in space. "If the aim is purely militaristic, it would only require launching sophisticated satellites. But they build a space station, go to the moon, and probe Mars because they want to demonstrate China's technological advancements to its people and the international community."

The Soviets launched Sputnik 1, left, the world's first artificial satellite, in 1957 while the U.S. achieved the first manned moon mission in 1969.   © NASA

The pride of superpowers drove the U.S. and Soviet Union to compete in space. The Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, in 1957. Not to be outdone, the Americans poured money into the Apollo program, which produced the first manned mission to the moon in 1969.

So it is not surprising that China, which aims to become the world's leading power by 2050, is trying to compete with the U.S. in space.

But when it comes to space development, separating peaceful purposes from military motivations has always been difficult, and analyzing China's celestial ambitions is no different.

As noted in recent years, the People's Liberation Army has developed the capability to attack U.S. satellites, in a strategy that aims to paralyze the American military.

The U.S. relies on satellites for many of its military operations. Satellites are essential for communication, command and monitoring, as well as missile guidance. Losing satellite function would leave the American military like a giant whose central nervous system has been damaged.

China's lunar rover Yutu-2, or Jade Rabbit 2, rolling around the far side of the moon.   © China National Space Administration/Reuters

China thus targeted this crucial U.S. vulnerability, a strategy that recalls the Japanese folk tale of Issunboshi, a 1-inch-tall boy who bravely fought off a demon with a sewing needle.

"It is fair to say that the PLA is developing all types of capabilities to attack satellites," said Scott W. Harold, a senior political scientist at U.S. think tank Rand Corp. These capabilities include ground-based missiles and "killer satellites" that could be used in a co-orbital attack, directed energy weapons such as lasers and cyber or special operations forces that could assault ground control stations, Harold said.

China can target satellites in any type of Earth orbit, from low altitudes of several hundred kilometers to geostationary orbits 36,000 km above the planet, research by the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies shows.

Beijing is suspected of conducting tests in 2020 that involved moving its satellites close to each other in what were thought to be experiments in co-orbital attacks. Some analysts think the Chinese satellites are capable of other satellite attacks using lasers and electronic jamming.

The U.S., Russia, India, Iran and North Korea also are thought to have some capability to attack satellites. But this balance is disadvantageous for Washington, as the U.S. relies more heavily on satellites than any other country because of the need to deploy its armed forces around the world.

The U.S. leads the world in satellite use, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The nation accounted for 1,897, or about 56%, of the 3,372 satellites -- including public-sector and private units -- in orbit at the end of 2020, the UCS Satellite Database shows. China and Russia followed, with about 12% and 5%, respectively.

How should major countries respond to the increased risk of a war that reaches into space? If a U.S.-China war broke out in the Taiwan Strait, it likely would begin with satellite attacks, a U.S. military official said.

Some military experts, including those in Japan, think countries should shift toward high-tech tactics that use space and cyberspace or unmanned aircraft. But paradoxically, as nations expand their space war capabilities, conventional assets such as warships, fighters and missiles may also become more important.

If major nations went to war against each other, they would damage many enemy satellites, making them unusable. Should this happen with the U.S. and China, both militaries would face more conventional warfare because their respective GPS and Beidou navigation satellite systems would be unavailable or at least damaged.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt in 2021: The U.S. began drills a few years ago for operations that do not use GPS, anticipating a scenario in which satellite functions were unavailable.   © Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force

The U.S. began conducting drills a few years ago for operations that do not use GPS, anticipating a scenario in which satellite functions become unavailable. The Navy also started drills using sextants, a navigation tool developed in the 18th century that measures location based on the positions of stars.

And as the threat of satellite-attacking weapons grows, leading militaries have bolstered their ability to deal with them.

"The U.S. military is moving to establish a resilient and reconstitutable satellite architecture so that it can maintain operations even if satellites were to be attacked," Harold said. "For example, the U.S. military is building capability to immediately launch new satellites, or sharing allies' satellites system when necessary."

An envisioned mega-constellation could let many small satellites form a communications network.

If these initiatives proceed as planned, the effectiveness of satellite attacks will be offset gradually.

"What satellite weapons can do is only partially paralyze the nervous system of enemy forces," the University of Tokyo's Suzuki said. "At the end of the day, what defines the power balance in a war is not military space capabilities, but the number of resources a country has to support their land, sea and air military power."

Though space has become an important domain in military tactics, overestimating its significance would be unwise. No matter how far technology may progress, the conventional picture of a war -- opposing armed forces fighting on land, in the sea and in the air -- would not change.

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