TCS Daily

China in Space

By Melana Zyla Vickers - October 13, 2005 12:00 AM

When China sent a man into space two years ago, it showed it had arrived. When China repeated the feat this week, it showed it has every intention of staying.

In the big guy's club, that is. There's no rational economic reason for China to put astronauts in space. It's like hosting the 2008 Olympics -- all about asserting a position on the world stage right beside -- or across from -- the United States. It demonstrates what separates great China from irascible Iran or disorderly India.

Behind such ostensibly peaceful ambitions lie more militaristic ones, however. China's spending on defense this year will be $90 billion, according to a Department of Defense report to Congress. Thus, China is the third biggest defense spender in the world after the U.S. and Russia. What's more, China's defense spending has grown by double digits every year for the past decade and a half. Given that China doesn't face any threats in its region, it's clear the country's defense spending, too, is about asserting a position across from the United States, whether in the context of a fight over Taiwan or over something else.

In terms of military space in particular, China is advancing rapidly, according to the report to Congress:

Satellites: China is interested in developing electronic intelligence and signals intelligence satellites. It's also trying to improve its ability to relay the satellites' data, and to transmit data to deployed military forces. In addition, China is seeking to develop military microsatellites that can image the earth and take photographs with good resolution, and has probably deployed such satellites. In 2004, China placed 10 satellites into orbit -- more than ever -- and hopes to have 100 satellites in orbit by 2020.

Anti-Satellite Weapons: China is working on systems that could track, identify and destroy U.S. satellites. It is researching ground-based lasers that could fire at a satellite and destroy or damage it, or at least blind a satellite in low-earth orbit.

The U.S. has to pay attention to these developments for one main reason: If the U.S. were ever in a war with China, the U.S. would be heavily dependent on information it gathered from satellites, not least because the U.S. would probably not be fighting on its own turf. If the Chinese disabled U.S. satellites, the attacks could seriously undermine U.S. warfighting capabilities. Indeed, strategists in the Chinese military have written about striking U.S. dominance in space, as well as its "electromagnetic dominance," early in a conflict.

The U.S. military is only beginning to consider the fact that China devotes a great deal of intellectual energy and treasure to figuring out how to defeat the U.S. in battle. More than ever, the Pentagon needs to ensure that in a future conflict with China, the U.S. would not be dealt a debilitating blow. Or that if the U.S. were struck this way, it would have the means of recovering quickly. The U.S. military needs:

Long Range Stealthy Strike: A long-range, stealthy bomber would be capable of flying deep into an enemy's territory and destroying his anti-satellite-warfare weaponry. The long range bombers could do so from distant bases that are not threatened by that enemy. Yet the U.S. has no plans to build such a bomber. Instead, the U.S. is irresponsibly, madly devoted to short-range fighter aircraft that must be deployed from vulnerable bases near the conflict. This devotion continues even as we watch the virtual uselessness of ground-based, air force fighter aircraft in recent conflicts such as the Afghan and Iraq wars. Carrier-based aviation had to do the work. And in a conflict with China, even carrier-based fighters would be threatened.

Reserve Satellites and Launch Capability: If the U.S. fought a war with China it would be highly dependent on satellite data and communications. China knows it would need to take U.S. satellites out. Yet the U.S. does not have a program to stockpile replacement satellites or to launch them extra-quickly. Such a program is essential.

There is no conflict with China on the horizon, and perhaps there won't be. But as the Shenzhou VI launch Wednesday shows, China has every intention of asserting its position -- right in America's face.

The Pentagon can't say it wasn't warned.



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