Reconsidering Chinese Views on Military Space Strategy

March 31, 2014 | 2:03 pm
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Many U.S. observers believe anti-satellite (ASAT) missile attacks are central to Chinese military strategy. They argue China intends to exploit the U.S. military’s reliance on satellites by launching a surprise assault on these valuable but vulnerable space assets, which the U.S. military uses for communication, surveillance, navigation, and other support activities.  This attack, sometimes referred to as a “space Pearl Harbor,” is supposedly a key part of an “asymmetric” military strategy a weaker China intends to use to defeat a stronger United States in a high-tech regional war.

This U.S. belief took root in the late 1990s and early 2000s in a U.S. analytical environment shaped by information and assumptions that now appear to be wrong. A new UCS analysis of the space-related sections of a classified Chinese military source published in 2003 demonstrates that China’s missile forces were not anticipating or preparing for operations that involved attacking U.S. satellites at that time.

The source is a military textbook published by the General Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) titled The Science of Second Artillery Operations. The 406-page book is a product of more than 30 years of research and thinking by the PLA on the strategic value of its missile forces and how those forces should be used in the types of military conflicts the Chinese leadership fears may occur in the future. As a result, it is written both to reflect past experience and to be forward-looking. Unlike most sources cited in U.S. analyses of Chinese military space policy, The Science of Second Artillery Operations is a credible and authoritative source on Chinese military planning. The book was not intended for foreign or even general domestic Chinese audiences. It was classified as jimi (机密)—the third highest classification level among the four types of circulation restrictions placed on Chinese military publications.

An Authoritative View of Chinese Space Operations

The Science of Second Artillery Operations describes China’s view of the military uses of space in some detail.  That description makes it very clear that the PLA, like the U.S. military, places a high priority on maintaining the normal functioning of its satellites in a time of conflict. For this reason, it is unlikely that China would risk the loss of its satellites by using destructive anti-satellite weapons against others. This may explain why, counter to U.S. expectations, this lengthy and detailed PLA publication on the operations of China’s missile forces contains no discussion of space warfare or missile attacks against satellites.

The role of China’s emerging space capabilities, as discussed in the book, is to support the use and increase the effectiveness of China’s missile forces, rather than to serve as a means of attack themselves. Like their counterparts in the United States, China’s leaders appear to view their satellites as valuable military assets. They are investing aggressively in expanding and improving China’s fleet of satellites as rapidly as they can. To the extent it is possible, Chinese investments in space technology and its military applications are designed to narrow the gap between China and the United States. China is not attempting to exploit asymmetry in space, but working to end it.

Of course, the space-related commentary in one PLA textbook, no matter how credible or authoritative it may be, cannot be interpreted as a definitive indication China is not contemplating the use of anti-satellite attacks against the United States. China conducted multiple tests of a missile-launched anti-satellite weapon, and used it to destroy one of its own satellites in January 2007.  It is possible Chinese views about anti-satellite technologies changed after The Science of Second Artillery Operations was published. But it is also possible that, like the United States and the Soviet Union, which both developed and tested anti-satellite weapons at a similar stage in the progress of their military space programs, China may continue to follow in their footsteps and decide not to deploy them.

Reassessing Views

The commentary on the military uses of space in The Science of Second Artillery Operations indicates that as of 2003 when the book was published, China’s missile forces were not anticipating or preparing for operations that involved attacking U.S. satellites, contradicting beliefs that were prevalent in the U.S. at that time and that have shaped U.S. thinking since then.

As a result, U.S. analysts should reassess their views on China’s approach to military space operations. While by no means definitive, the textbook provides ample reason to question the conventional U.S. wisdom on Chinese intentions, particularly the “space Pearl Harbor” hypothesis positing an “asymmetric” Chinese attack on U.S. satellites.

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is an expert on cross-cultural communication between the United States and China. Since joining UCS in 2002, he has promoted dialogue between experts from both countries on nuclear arms control and space security and has consulted with Chinese and U.S. governmental and non-governmental organizations, including the U.S. House China Working Group, the Senate Armed Services Committee, the U.S. National Academies, NASA, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.