China and the Battlefield in Space

Report Asia

China and the Battlefield in Space

October 15, 2003 12 min read
Larry Wortzel
Larry Wortzel
Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College

Dr. Larry M. Wortzel no longer works for the Heritage Foundation.

China's Approach to Anti-Satellite Systems and Space Warfare

The newest battlefield for China will be in space.  From a defensive standpoint China is seeking to block the United States from developing its own anti-satellite weapons and space-based ballistic missile defense systems. Beijing and Moscow, through diplomatic channels, have introduced a draft United Nations Treaty that would ban conventional and non-nuclear weapons in space.[i]  Meanwhile, from an offensive standpoint, China is developing its own weapons. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is experimenting with directed energy weapons that can kill satellites and in theoretical research is considering particle beam weapons that can engage missiles in flight. [ii]  The Chinese military is also considering the use of "piggy-back satellites" and "micro-satellites" that can be used as kinetic energy weapons to destroy enemy satellites or spacecraft, or can attach themselves to enemy satellites to jam them.[iii]


The Chinese security establishment has a sophisticated understanding of the way that the United States envisions the use of space in the future.[iv]  The United States, in the view of the scientific and defense establishment of China is likely to incorporate hand-held wireless technology for all military communications into its future command and control systems along with space-based laser intercept weapons and a new generation of Global Positioning System satellites.  Beijing's strategy to confront the United States in this area is clear:  work on public opinion in the United States to make moral arguments against weapons in space, develop international coalitions to limit the way that the United States can use space, and develop China's own weapons systems and tactics to destroy American satellites and space-based weapons.[v]


Defensive Strategies: Blocking U.S. Space Programs

On June 27, 2002, China, joined by Russia, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Syria, introduced a working paper at the United Nations that would prevent the deployment of weapons in outer space.[vi]  The introduction of this draft treaty followed discussion by the Chinese and Russian delegations to the U.N. on the broader issue of United States ballistic missile defense programs.  Their goal in introducing a draft treaty in Beijing and Moscow was to short-circuit any American attempt to revive the "Brilliant Pebbles" program from the old Reagan Administration Strategic Defense Initiative.


Many American experts believe that a system of space-based surveillance and tracking sensors connected with land-based sensors and space-based interceptors (SBIs) would be extremely effective against enemy ballistic missile systems.[vii]  A space-based system of 1000 kinetic interceptors could protect against the simultaneous launch of 20 Chinese CSS-2 missiles.[viii]   Combined with the deployment of 12 space-based lasers, the simultaneous launch of 15-25 intercontinental ballistic missiles could be negated, according to a Heritage Foundation report.[ix] 


At the time that Russia and the United States were in the final stages of discussion prior to President Bush withdrawing the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Beijing and Moscow were already working to thwart the deployment of what might well be the most effective forms of ballistic missile defense.  If deployed, such a defensive system would leave Russia with a credible deterrent,[x] but would negate the smaller Chinese force.  Also, deployed space-based interceptors would negate the new Chinese longer-range theater missile forces designed to attack Taiwan and U.S. bases in Okinawa and Guam.[xi]


The Sino-Russian treaty proposal is tinged with deep irony.  The reality is that weapons have been deployed in outer space since the first Nazi rocket was fired into England in World War II.  Moreover, and this point does not seem to have been considered by the co-sponsors of the Future International Legal Agreement on the Prevention of the Deployment of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects, the release of the warhead on a missile fired from China or Russia would be the deployment of a weapon in outer space.  The more serious bit of irony, however, is the specious nature of the Chinese approach in sponsorship of this draft treaty.  China has an active program to develop anti-satellite weapons, some of which would be deployed in space, and which are designed to use force against outer space objects.


China's Offensive Anti-Satellite Programs

"Chinese leaders probably view ASAT (anti-satellite) systems and space-based missile defenses as inevitabilities," according to the latest assessment of the Chinese military by the United States Department of Defense.[xii]  The DoD, according to this report, believes that China could field a direct-ascent anti-satellite system in the next two to six years.  There is also ample evidence from Chinese scientific and military journals that the PRC is developing maneuvering micro-satellites that can attach themselves to enemy satellites and destroy of jam them, or could be used to collide with and destroy enemy satellites.


The evidence for such Chinese programs are circumstantial, based on journal writings, and the U.S. Department of Defense cannot point to any specific operational tests of Chinese satellite weapons.  Nonetheless, it is clear that Beijing is fascinated with micro-satellites and what the PLA terms "parasitic satellites" and will work to develop and deploy them. 


The Chinese Space Technology Research Academy has been developing an advanced anti-satellite weapon that has been characterized as a "piggyback satellite."  The system is designed to attack a space station, a space-based laser or another satellite by attaching itself like a parasite to the enemy system and then jamming or destroying it.[xiii]  In the journal Missiles and Space Vehicles (Daodan yu Hangtian Yunzhi Jishu) Chinese researchers have discussed how to use Global Positioning System-locating technology to determine the attitude in low-orbit micro-satellites.[xiv] This journal in particular, over a three-year period, ran a number of articles that discussed how to attack satellites in space with other satellites, some of which made explicit reference to United States space programs in the context of the articles.


In deciding that destroying American space-based systems is essential to prevail in combat, the Chinese military seeks to attack the critical nodes of American defense - the dependence of space for communication, reconnaissance and surveillance.  Today the United States enjoys overwhelming superiority in the general field of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR).  Thorough studies by the Chinese military of United States military campaigns in the 1991 Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and the 2003 Iraq War have convinced Chinese military planners that America's strength is also its Achilles heel.  PLA strategists believe that neutralizing or destroying U.S. space assets will deny American forces the advantage they have, and make them more vulnerable to China's less-advanced military.


The aerospace departments of government organizations in China convened their own study of "Satellites and their application in the Iraq war," according to the Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po of April 12, 2003.  The Chinese conclusion was that "remote sensing satellites have played an increasingly significant role in military reconnaissance."  The conclusions drawn from this meeting were that China needs its own space program if the PLA is to be effective in future wars.  Beijing is also concerned about Japan's development of remote sensing satellites, fearing that in the future they can be turned to military use.[xv]  The PLA's conclusion is that China must make "tangible preparations" to fight in new areas, particularly in intelligence and in combating America's "digital force."[xvi] 


In the view of People's Liberation Army defense experts, "whoever has control (or 'hegemony') over space, will also have the ability to help or hinder and affect 'ground' mobility and air, sea and space combat."[xvii]  And while calling for the "peace-loving nations and peoples of the world to oppose the "weaponization of space," The PLA continues to "heed the call of Communist Party Central Military Commission Chairman Jiang Zemin for China to become a strong military technologically.[xviii]  Most technical articles from the science digests in China, admittedly, only deal in the theoretical aspects of how to fight a war in space and analyze U.S. strengths and vulnerabilities.  Still, the rough outlines of a Chinese military program to respond to the challenge of American dominance in, and dependence on, space is reasonably transparent.


It is doubtful that the Chinese have "bet the commune" on micro-satellite technology.  But micro-satellites make excellent anti-satellite systems.  A Chinese micro-satellite could track near a critical U.S. system and only attack or jam it at a critical moment.  Moreover, an attack would not necessarily have to involve a weapon or explosive on the micro-satellite; Chinese controllers could merely maneuver the micro-satellite to collide with the U.S. system and could claim that any collision was accidental.  Thus this approach would be consistent with the introduction of the draft United Nations treaty against weapons in space. Such an approach would give the PRC a form of plausible deniability. 


This also challenges existing understandings of international law.  What is a "proportionate response" to a series of collisions between satellites in space?  How does one nation (say the United States or Japan) respond proportionately to targeted jamming of its satellites, particularly if such jamming is related to some other contingency, such as between China and the Republic of China on Taiwan? 



Military thinkers in China are probably correct--the weaponization of space is inevitable.  The communications and reconnaissance satellites in orbit have already militarized space.  Probably the most effective global ballistic missile defense system that could be deployed will be dependent on space-based interceptors and lasers.    The outlines of Beijing's draft treaty prohibiting the deployment of weapons in space and attacks on space bodies is merely a delaying action to limit the effectiveness of United States ballistic missile defense programs.  And China is actively engaged in theoretical and practical research to develop its own offensive anti-satellite systems, including means to jam or ram enemy satellites.


Larry M. Wortzel, Ph.D., is Vice President for Foreign Policy and Defense Studies of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.  He is a retired military intelligence colonel in the U.S. Army who served two tours of duty as a military attaché in China.  He is author or editor of five books and numerous articles on China. This article originally appeared in China Military Update, published by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (London).


[i] See China's 1998 "Defense White Paper," Beijing Xinhua 0339 GMT July 27, 1998, in FBIS-CHI-98-208.

[ii]See Zhang Hongqi, "High Power Microwaves and Weaponry," Xiandi Fangyu Jishu, April 1994, pp. 38-46, Col. 2, No. 5. In China Aeronautics and Missilery Abstracts; see also "Beam Energy Weaponry as Powerful as Thunder and Lightening," Jiefangjun Bao, December 25, 1995, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service FBSI-CHI-96-039.  

[iii] This is discussed in "PLA Said Developing Anti-Satellite Weapons to Counter US NMD, TMD Systems," Hong Kong Ming Bao (Internet Version - WWW), January 30, 2001. For a general discussion see also Tang Baodong, "PRC Army Paper on U.S. Development of Space Weapons," Jiefangjun Bao (Internet Version - WWW), March 28, 2001, p. 12in FBIS-CHI-2001-0328.

[iv] Wang Jian, "US Pursuing Vigorous Development of Space Weapons," Renmin Ribao (Guangzhou South China News Supplement), August 19, 2002, in FBIS-CHI-2002-0819.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Permanent Mission of the People's Republic of China to the United Nations at Geneva, Switzerland.  Working Paper on PAROS presented by the Delegations of China, the Russian Federation, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Syrian Arab Republic (27/06/02. Geneva), Possible Elements for a Future International Legal Agreement on the Prevention of the Deployment of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects.

[vii] Report by The Heritage Foundation's Commission on Missile Defense, Defending America: A Plan to Meet the Urgent Missile Threat (Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation, March 1999), pp. 31-34, 51.

[viii] Ibid., p. 34.

[ix]Ibid. p. 35. 

[x] Russia has 6, 000 strategic ballistic missiles, and may reduce that to 2,500, but China has only about 20-24, although it is increasing its forces to about 40-60.

[xi]Bill Gertz, The Washington Times,, "Pentagon says China refitting missiles to hit Okinawa," published July 31, 2003.

[xii] Annual Report on the Military Power of the People's Republic of China (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, July 28, 2003), p. 36,

[xiii] "PLA Said Developing Anti-Satellite Weapons," Hong Kong Ming Bao  (Internet version - WWW), January 30, 2001.

[xiv] Zheng Qinghui and Zhang Yulin,  "Liyong GPS Queding Diguidao Xiao Weixing Zitai,"  Daodan yu Hangtian Yunzhai Jishu, No. 2, 2002, pp. 41-45.

[xv] He Degong, "Japan's Launching of Military Satellites Worth Raising Vigilance," Beijing Xinhua, November 28, 2002.

[xvi] Fang Fenghui, 'Preparations for Military Struggle Assume New Importance in the Age of High-Tech Local Warfare," Jiefangjun Bao, August 27, 2002, p. 6.

[xvii] Hong Bing, et. al., "Taikong Wuqihua-Yige Weixian de Xinhao (The Weaponization of Space-A call to the Danger)," Jiefangjun Bao,, December 12, 2001.

[xviii]Jiefangjun Bao,, November 4, 2002.


Larry Wortzel
Larry Wortzel

Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College