The US-China “space race” is but one dimension of the ongoing Cold War between the two superpowers. Both countries’ national space programs are comprehensive in scope and cover the entire scientific spectrum. Both America and China focus on making space shows to influence the world as to which superpower will inherit the future. Each rival is trying to be the first to land a human on Mars.
However, far more important than spectacular space achievements is the question of which nation will achieve military dominance in the near-Earth space domain. China’s international media deceptively emphasize the peaceful, cooperative and scientific nature of its national space program. However, the ambitious nature of China’s space program means that Beijing’s primary goal is to dominate near-Earth space.
Communist Party of China (CPC) leaders are keenly aware of the advantages US space systems offer US troops in combat operations. US data collection and transmission satellites have proven invaluable to US units deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and special operations forces targeting terrorists around the world.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has recognized the great value that US space intelligence gathering has had for Ukrainian forces fighting invading Russian troops.
In this sense, one of the strategic objectives of the PLA is to deploy the “Beidou” satellite network in space which is equivalent to the US “eyes and ears” in the sky. The PLA commander of China’s western military theater will be able to deploy Beidou satellites to monitor the deployment of Indian military forces along the long and tense Sino-Indian border. The Chinese claim large sections of this border as their sovereign territory, which China threatens to invade as the PLA did in 1962 and 2020-21.
The CPC’s Central Military Commission also uses its space systems to maintain tight control of China’s military assets. Party and PLA leaders in China’s eastern military theater could use space assets to order regional Chinese commanders to adopt more aggressive rules of engagement than normal, against the sovereign rights of several neighboring states, especially in waters and islands of the South and East China Seas.
The CCP apparently intends to deploy its space assets to win a war with the United States in the Western Pacific, where clashes between the two superpowers are more likely to occur. The Chinese PLA is openly preparing for war, particularly in areas where Beijing’s territorial and maritime claims are illegal and hegemonic. The aggressive nature of China’s space program is particularly evident in its anti-satellite projects. One of China’s anti-satellite programs involves a maneuverable satellite that can be placed within striking distance of US and allied satellites.
The proximity of these Chinese anti-satellite vehicles clearly reveals the mission to degrade and/or blind US systems’ intelligence collection and transmission. Another Chinese anti-satellite design features a grappling hook satellite, designed to capture US satellites as an immediate prelude to war. Beijing plans to win a war in space as part of its reported overall goal of replacing the United States as the dominant power on earth. One assessment estimates that as many as 84 percent of Chinese space launches are military in nature, indicating that the CCP may well be determined to emerge as the sole remaining superpower.
Some commentators point to China’s plan to catch up with and eventually surpass US space achievements. While the US space-related budget expenditures in 2022 of about $z dwarf China’s budget of about $12 billion, China’s space program gets more “value for money”. All space-oriented Chinese companies are totally controlled by the CCP. Space infrastructure is another yardstick for determining whether both superpowers are serious about being able to fight a war using the near-earth space dimension. The United States has seven spaceports and China has four. Yet both nations have detailed plans to expand existing infrastructure. The number of launches in 2021 is another clear sign that China is a determined and successful opponent. In 2021, the United States performed 51 launches from its spaceports, China 55.
Beijing is now building a model of a lunar research station in cooperation with Russia and Venezuela. China also plans to send a team of astronauts to the moon by 2030. To accomplish this lunar mission, China’s space agency needs to create bigger rockets, with greater thrust capacity. As a result, work continues on China’s creation of the Long March 9 rocket. Not surprisingly, China aims to achieve parity in space with the United States by 2030. Even the Pentagon speculates that China could exceed the US capability in space by 2045. space.
It will most likely also be in the dimension of space, as well as biological warfare, that humanity will receive a tip-off that a major armed conflict is about to break out between China and the United States. China currently not only has “killer satellites,” but reportedly:
“Beijing has also rapidly developed a number of space warfare capabilities, including several types of ground-launched anti-satellite missiles that can target satellites in different orbits; ground-based lasers that can blind or damage orbiting satellites; and small satellites capable of maneuvering and grabbing satellites in orbit.”
China will most likely attempt to disrupt US intelligence gathering, “eyes and ears to the roll,” ahead of combat operations on land. The United States, if an impending military confrontation seems inevitable, could be forced into “preemptive retaliation” by disabling Chinese intelligence gathering and data transmission space assets if possible.
“[I]If the US military doesn’t change course…,” Air Force Lieutenant General S. Clinton Hinote, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, said in 2021, “we will lose fast. In such a case, a US president would likely be presented with an almost fait accompli “a term” often used in contexts of US military strategy to describe a scenario in which a US adversary is able to defeat a US strategy before it can even be launched.”
It seems about time that the United States increases its defense budget instead of cutting it, prepares weapons in Taiwan for deterrence and takes seriously the recognition of the Communist Party of China, headed by President Xi Jinping, not as a “competitor”. but as an adversary, and moreover intractable.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran desk officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He has also served actively with the United States Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.
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