China Waging War on Space-Based Weapons

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What is China's position on space-based weapons (search)? Considering the gap between what officials in Beijing say and what they do on the issue, it's hard to get a straight answer. But let's look at the facts.

For some time now, China (search) has spearheaded an international movement to ban conventional weapons from space. More than a year ago, the Asian superpower--joined by Russia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Syria--introduced a draft treaty at the United Nations to outlaw the deployment of space-based weapons (search).

But even as it tries to rally multinational coalitions and public opinion to oppose "the weaponization of space," Beijing quietly continues to develop its own space-based weapons and tactics to destroy American military assets.

China's strategy here is to blunt American military superiority by limiting and ultimately neutralizing its existing space-based defense assets, and to forestall deployment of new technology that many experts believe would provide the best protection from ballistic-missile (search) attack.

Chinese security experts have a keen appreciation of America's space-based assets and how the military envisions using them in future conflicts. Strategists in the People's Liberation Army (search) have studied our campaigns in the 1991 Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan and this year's war in Iraq.

They have observed our overwhelming superiority in the general field of "C4ISR" (search) (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance). More importantly, they have noted that our superiority in communication, reconnaissance and surveillance depends on what we have up in space.

These lessons have convinced PLA military planners that America's strength can become our Achilles heel. If they can neutralize or destroy our space assets, American forces will lose a critical advantage, leaving them far more vulnerable to China's larger but less-advanced military.

The importance the PLA attaches to space technology was stated most succinctly in a Dec. 12, 2001, article posted on the PLA Web site: "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." The article, dramatically entitled "The Weaponization of Space--A Call to the Danger," (search) dutifully calls for the "peace-loving nations and peoples of the world" to oppose this weaponization.

But a decade's-worth of technical articles in Chinese science digests discussing how to fight a war in space and analyzing U.S. strengths and vulnerability make it clear that Beijing has a long-running military program designed to challenge America's dominance in--and dependence on--space.

China's Technology Research Academy (search), for example, has been developing an advanced anti-satellite weapon called a "piggyback satellite." (search) The system is designed to seek out an enemy satellite (or space station or space-based laser) and attach itself like a parasite, either jamming the enemy's communications or physically destroying the unit.

The PLA also is experimenting with other types of satellite killers: land-based, directed-energy weapons and "micro-satellites" (search) that can be used as kinetic energy weapons. According to the latest (July 2003) assessment by the U.S. Defense Department, China will probably be able to field a direct-ascent anti-satellite system (search) in the next two to six years.

Such weapons would directly threaten what many believe would be America's best form of ballistic-missile defense: a system of space-based surveillance and tracking sensors, connected with land-based sensors and space-based missile interceptors. Such a system could negate any Chinese missile attack on the U.S. homeland.

China may be a long way from contemplating a ballistic missile attack on the U.S. homeland. But deployment of American space-based interceptors also would negate the missiles China is refitting to threaten Taiwan and U.S. bases in Okinawa and Guam. And there's the rub, as far as the PLA is concerned.

Clearly, Beijing's draft treaty to ban deployment of space-based weapons is merely a delaying tactic aimed at hampering American progress on ballistic-missile defense while its own scientists develop effective countermeasures.

What Beijing hopes to gain from this approach is the ability to disrupt American battlefield awareness--and its command and control operations--and to deny the U.S. access to the waters around China and Taiwan should the issue of Taiwan's sovereignty lead to conflict between the two Chinas.

China's military thinkers are probably correct: The weaponization of space is inevitable. And it's abundantly clear that, draft treaties and pious rhetoric notwithstanding, they're doing everything possible to position themselves for dominance in space. That's worth keeping in mind the next time they exhort "peace-loving nations" to stay grounded.

Larry M. Wortzel is vice president for foreign policy and defense studies at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy institute.