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The potential threats of China’s latest space-militarization actions on US ground-based defensive op

Anastasios Giannakis, Alissa Perri; Weapons & Tactics

Week of: April 5, 2021


China, a global superpower, is amassing an anti-satellite space arsenal with the projection of completion by 2045.[1] The rapid increase of Chinese investment in space is almost certainly not just about space and the countless scientific discoveries or untouched resources, but it is also a calculated asymmetric warfare strategy for gaining global influence and even more for assisting the military operations of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to counter the potential US intervention in key places for the completion of its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). It is likely that China strategically communicates the contracting of the so-called Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and the Threat (PPWT) treaty to trap the US and limit its actions to develop and deploy space weapons. However, it seems that China will still not stop empowering its space systems by any means necessary. The latest developments on its already deployed space systems, the Beidou navigation satellite systems, and the communications and intelligence 6G satellites, actually prove the above statement. Satellites are used for everything from consumer GPS, to military weapons targeting and intelligence gathering, but these attempts by China to further militarize space, are highly likely to leverage China at an unprecedented level both in outer space and ground and threaten the other space-faring nations.


Space Arms Race


Space weapons systems are crucial in strategic battle decisions because of how quickly and visibly satellites gather information. Alongside Russia's aggressive behavior in developing anti-satellite weapons, China also expresses interest in militarized space dominance because this arena will most likely become the next big technology and resource market. One of the primary assets of space weapon capabilities is suborbital satellites that may orbit the Earth and have a wide attack range for any time a command is given. Other capabilities include ground-based direct missiles to attack space-based systems or ballistic missiles in orbit, satellite jammers, defense satellites equipped with lasers, and plasma burst offensive satellites.[2] These kinetic energy weapons may be countered by non-kinetic weapons such as cyber-attacks, however, the window of counterattack is very slim and must be extremely accurate to deter.


China currently has an operational ground-based anti-satellite missile capability and very likely seeks to pursue additional weapons capable of destroying satellites in Earth's orbit from the ground. China is simultaneously pushing the United States to sign the PPWT treaty banning such weapons in space to show good face and intentions for its fellow diplomatic partners.[3] It is unlikely that any state wants to be the first to start a space arms race because then it will place a target on its back for everyone else to challenge. However, Russia and China are actively testing anti-satellite technologies using the Nodul missile system.[4] These actions are not breaking any space treaty agreements banning weapons. Instead, China’s capabilities are on standby for the most likely arms race to come. Diplomatically speaking, states do not want to gain the reputation of breaking agreements because then it will lead to less transparency in the international community and fewer partnerships will be formed.


China’s Cutting-edge Militarized Space Systems


Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) systems with long-range ICBMs and anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons give access to space-faring states and can be utilized to target and destroy warheads, while spying and gathering intelligence information for strategic purposes, and mostly to counter the US military assets. However, China’s space program has been forwarding with advancements to achieve a greater militarization of space. Three Yaogan Chinese military satellites were launched on a Long March 4C missile, joining six others that China has been sending into orbit since the beginning of the year on ocean surveillance missions.[5] Yaogan satellites carry high definition optics, radar, and intelligence tools to detect and gather information for analysis from the Chinese military and intelligence services.[6] The Yaogan 31 satellites were likely designed to detect radio signals to monitor foreign naval forces and these Chinese missions may have developed other generations of offshore surveillance satellites.


These satellites are most likely a part of the Chinese global tracking system, Beidou, which has been developed by the Chinese military industry and is to be used in ballistic missile and troop shipping issues. The image below depicts the 55th BDS navigation satellite that was launched by China in 2020 to complete Beidou’s geo-locating system.[7] According to identified sources, a more ubiquitous, intelligent system based on these satellites is set to be finished by 2035.[8] This satellite navigation system has great military applications, from moving troops to battlefields, guiding ships at sea, and sending precision-guided ammunition to tracking the growing fleet of Unmanned vehicles moving on land, above the sea, and on-air.



China has already launched what it claims is the world’s first experimental 6G satellite to test new spectrum bands that will be used to power future networks.[9] The development of 6G might still be at an early stage but it has left other states way behind in this arms race. It is anticipated that the addition of integrated intelligence and a new spectrum will offer higher quality speeds and capacity powered by Terahertz bandwidth, as well as less latency. These features are likely to overcome current technological limitations, such as the limited processing power of mobile phones, to allow high-fidelity portable holograms and digital twin applications. The 6G satellites could verify data transmission without losses and long-distance communications with lower consumption.

Importance of the Recently Advanced Chinese Space Systems for Military Operations


China’s tactic is likely to develop all the necessary means to deter any US conventional armed forces that may threaten Chinese superiority in vital ground-based military operations. To this, the above-mentioned space assets are expected to provide not only battlefield information but also a timely strategic warning in case of US intervention in important missions like in Taiwan and the South China Sea.

The Beidou satellite network itself can offer financial and diplomatic opportunities to China. China has expanded its use of the Beidou satellite navigation system not only for commercial but also for military use, allowing Beijing to gain ground against the US and Europe.[10] Beidou’s capabilities could successfully secure China militarily in a hypothetical event of a conflict with the US, as it will not lose access to global geolocation if the US blocks China from the GPS. China likely plans to extend this offer to potential partners across Eurasia as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s Beidou space-based network is a key milestone for China’s development and a key element in its broader, regional and global ambitions through the BRI. It also marks China’s ability to cover other technological, economic, and military gaps left by the US and Europe so far.

The 6G satellites can potentially render China dominant when it comes to the C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance). This comes with great military assets promoting mostly two non-Kinetic military operations, the intelligence-gathering mission, and cyber attacks. China, with these satellites, will have the ability to better coordinate aircraft for reconnaissance missions, naval carrier groups, submarines, surveillance, and potentially offensive armed drones. Such space advancements not only can make China the leading global power in space but also can provide China greater defense and offense strategies; it will have a clear picture of the adversarial military positions affecting their space-based Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations, enhanced spying and intelligence gathering on the planned operations and more effective counter operations capabilities.


Within the above structures of the further militarization and the future weaponization of space lies the Importance of Military Things (IoMT), meaning the complete interconnection of all platforms, systems, sensors, and soldiers taking part in the combat data from the Command and Control Centers to the local participants in the process (from its headquarters troops up to the soldier’s helmet).[11] If the 6G satellites and the Beidou navigation system are going to be utilized by the Chinese Navy’s unmanned frigates, unmanned vehicles, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles, then they will receive orders from the Command and Control Centres via satellite connection and will be able to change direction at any stage of their course. The efficiency of the potentially planned Chinese cyber attacks could be enhanced to a level that could cut off US spying fleets of satellites in orbit, obstruct intercommunications within Pentagon's military bases and reveal the exact targeting of weapons.[12] Through this anticipated development, China could potentially completely exclude the United States from the nearby Eurasian waters and take full control of trade routes from the South China Sea to the Gulf of Suez through cyberattacks on GPS satellite networks. The operation of this process is a huge step on the part of China towards the creation of a pan-Eurasian entity whose socio-economic operation will be based entirely on Chinese commercial networks.


China may have enhanced its capabilities to militarize space, but if these are to be amplified to weaponize it as well, then the implications could be deterring for the US and other states in the space arms race. To counter Chinese 6G space technology, the US can strategically advance its ability to handicap Chinese satellite development companies by banning them from buying American technology under the Department of Commerce. Although this may be a short-term strategy, it can immobilize Chinese technology development and can easily be strategically implemented again to disrupt Chinese progress while the US gathers its own 6G technologies and strategies. Aggressive surveillance on Chinese satellite development, including the broad range of nondestructive directed-energy and electronic warfare weapons, is highly recommended. The US should continue to build its sixth military branch under the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, the US Space Force based on the assets of the DOD 11th combatant command.[13]


The Counterterrorism Group will continue to detect any weapons development that threatens to further militarize or weaponize space. The W/T team is closely monitoring China’s space systems and its enhanced attempts to militarize outer space by gathering intelligence information and providing solid risk and threat assessments regarding the implications of China’s asymmetric warfare tactics in space against the US.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] How is China Advancing its Space Launch Capabilities?, Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 2020, https://chinapower.csis.org/china-space-launch/

[2] How China is Weaponizing Outer Space, The Diplomat, January 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/01/how-china-is-weaponizing-outer-space/

[3] Russia and China Seek to Tie America’s Hands in Space, Foreign Policy, March 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/31/russia-china-space-war-treaty-demilitarization-satellites/

[4] Russia carried out anti-satellite missile test: U.S. military, Reuters, April 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-space-idUSKCN21X3HB

[5] China just launched three more Yaogan 31 reconnaissance satellites to orbit, Space, February 2021, https://www.space.com/china-launches-yaogan-31-03-military-satellites

[6] Ibid

[7]China’s final satellite to complete Beidou navigation system” by Ruperto Miller, licensed under Public Domain

[8] China attempting to militarise space as it seeks to modernise its military power, The Economic Times, August 2020, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/china-attempting-to-militarise-space-as-it-seeks-to-modernise-its-military-power/articleshow/77851406.cms?from=mdr

[9] Why World’s 1st 6G Satellite Could Be A Game Changer For China & Rest Of The World?, The Eurasian Times, November 2020, https://eurasiantimes.com/why-worlds-1st-6g-satellite-could-be-a-game-changer-for-china-rest-of-the-world/?amp

[10] China’s Answer to GPS Is Now Fully Complete, The Diplomat, June 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/06/chinas-answer-to-gps-is-now-fully-complete/

[11] Internet of Things Meets the Military and Battlefield, IEEE Computer Society, 2020, https://www.computer.org/publications/tech-news/research/internet-of-military-battlefield-things-iomt-iobt

[12] How Space Became the Next ‘Great Power’ Contest Between the U.S. and China, The New York Times, January 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/24/us/politics/trump-biden-pentagon-space-missiles-satellite.html

[13] China wants to dominate space, and the US must take countermeasures, Defense News, June 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2020/06/23/china-wants-to-dominate-space-and-the-us-must-take-countermeasures/

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