Is Escalation in Space a Viable Option for China?
By Marshall Foster
On January 28, 2022, China released a white paper that outlined ambitious plans to advance the country's space capabilities for economic, technological, and national security aspirations. This release is in line with China’s recent increased use of space, especially for its military applications. The heightened reliance on space provides a reason for the United States to suspect that China, as it has claimed, will avoid early strikes on space systems to avoid retaliation against its own space assets. However, many U.S. pundits argue that space represents a likely escalatory domain for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to gain an advantage for a conflict in the Indo-Pacific. The assumptions that China’s need to protect its space assets and that China sees space as a domain for escalation are contradictory. This paper will seek to reconcile these conflicting assumptions by analyzing PLA space technology, counterspace developments, and doctrine and will ultimately conclude that the increasing Chinese use of space has not significantly reduced the likelihood of a PLA attack on U.S. space assets in a regional conflict, such as one over Taiwan.
Four main reasons drive this argument. First, Chinese doctrine suggest a confidence that escalation can be controlled in space. Second, China is developing an array of capabilities, namely soft kill measures, that allow them to limit escalation risks. Third, the PLA is developing abilities that help avoid reliance on space systems, mitigating possible losses of capabilities. Fourth, even if Chinese systems are targeted, their network is so vast that any given target would have limited effects on their broader interests.
Escalation in Chinese Doctrine
Chinese military writings suggests that many in the PLA view escalation in space as controllable. China does not discuss inadvertent or accidental escalation in the same way as the United States. According to Nicholas D. Wright, “Escalation [for the Chinese] is seen a more deliberate and controllable process,” and it is not clear that China believes escalation can occur without its deliberate intention to raise the level of conflict. This view of escalation control suggests that a quick blow to U.S. capabilities will not necessarily lead to escalation.
More specifically for doctrine on escalation in space, China views space as a less escalatory domain than traditional acts of aggression. Since space warfare does not pose the same inherent lethality as other combat operations, some PLA writings argue that attacks in space will not necessarily drive an adversary to escalate a conflict. While China also has the option to attack U.S. ground stations in order to reach many of the same objectives as its counterspace weapons, known as “breaking the kill chain,” Chinese doctrine suggests that attacks in space that may achieve the same outcome are less likely to incite retaliation.
Additionally, distinctions between “soft” and “hard” strikes on space assets offer another way in which Chinese doctrine believes escalation to be avoidable. As Krista Langeland and Derek Grossman describe, soft strikes, such as dazzling, cyberhacks, and jamming, “are essentially reversible in nature.” Meanwhile, hard strikes, “in contrast, are designed to be irreversibly destructive in nature and could involve ASAT or use of directed-energy weapons against United States satellites or other space assets.” PLA writings regard soft strikes as less escalatory in nature since they create smaller costs for adversaries. Since the PLA has strong soft strike capabilities, as the next section describes in detail, their use of these tactics provides the PLA another way to attack the U.S. that is non-escalatory according to its own doctrine.
The PLA’s Science of Military Strategy emphasizes the importance of pre-war activities to weaken an adversary, “particularly in the new domains of space and cyber, to smash his warfighting command system.” The importance of this generic doctrine grows in the context of actions against the United States since China recognizes the heavy reliance of the U.S. military on space. Langeland and Grossman argue that “China perceives a high potential gain from specifically targeting any vulnerabilities in space-based capabilities due to their current asymmetric reliance on this domain.”
These points from Chinese military doctrine and thought suggest that China not only believes that escalation in space will be controllable, but that an attack on U.S. military capabilities in space will provide a significant advantage for a regional conflict.
Chinese Counterspace Capabilities for Escalation Control
Chinese counterspace weapons provide an array of hard and, perhaps more importantly, soft kill capabilities that the PLA believes will enable it to control escalation. The 2021 Chinese Military Power Report recognizes that “the PLA continues to acquire and develop a range of counterspace capabilities and related technologies, including kinetic-kill missiles, ground-based lasers, and orbiting space robots.” Throughout the last decade, China has also incorporated its counterspace capabilities into its military doctrine and planning processes.
As a Secure World Foundation report details, China possesses a number of ASAT and electronic warfare (EW) counterspace capabilities that can damage U.S. space assets. Not only does China have strong counterspace capabilities, but it also has a wide array of ways to carry out ASAT attacks. China possesses mature direct-ascent (DA)-ASAT capabilities against low Earth orbit (LEO) targets and is close to having operations DA-ASAT capabilities for medium Earth orbit (MEO) and geostationary Earth orbit (GEO). China also likely has significant jamming capabilities through its EW counterspace technology, which poses concerns for Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), satellite communications, and Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging. Additionally, China is likely testing dual-use technologies like directed energy weapons (DEW) that may contribute to counterspace missions.
Altogether, China has significant counterspace capabilities that are only likely to increase over time. As for whether China will be able to significantly damage U.S. space capabilities for actions in a regional conflict, China does not need to entirely remove every U.S. satellite constellation or permanently degrade U.S. access to space. Rather, China may only need to reduce the effectiveness of the U.S. military long enough for it to accomplish its goals in a quick military maneuver, such as a fait accompli. Given China’s ability to target U.S. satellites in LEO, MEO, and GEO through DA-ASATs and EW counterspace technology, which places U.S. position, navigation, and timing (PNT) and C4ISR capabilities at risk, China is clearly in a position to degrade U.S. space capabilities for at least a brief period of time – or long enough to gain a significant advantage in a short regional conflict in such a way that will give it options for escalation control.
PLA Mitigation of Space Reliance
A second reason why Chinese reliance on space will not dissuade China from escalating in this domain is that they are building capabilities to quickly reconstitute critical space systems that the PLA requires to function effectively in regional operations. For instance, in the past decade, China has invested in technology that will enable it to quickly replace satellites in the event that they are damaged or attacked. First launched in 2017, the Kuaizhou, which translates to “Speedy Vessel,” rocket provided China with a quick-response launch system. The Kuaizhou-1A carries remote sensing, communications, and imaging satellites and has reached forty orbital launch attempts in 2021 (as of October 27). According to Global Security, this “emergency space vehicle” provides “a rapid ability to replace Chinese satellites [for reconnaissance and communication services] that might be damaged or destroyed by an American attack” and can launch within hours as opposed to months.
China has also begun launches to improve its satellite replacement capabilities by developing the Long March 11, a sea-based launch platform that became operational in 2019. As Namrata Goswami describes, “sea-based mobile launch platforms offer China a portable and flexible launch capability that enables rapid responses, especially in times of conflict.” To add to China’s capabilities, Andrew Jones has reported a new Chinese ship designed for launching rockets that is expected to become operational in 2022. The new ship “will help boost the rate at which China can launch from the sea and ease the pressure on China's four main launch centers.”
Additionally, China is developing UAV systems that can replace degraded space capabilities. According to Elsa Kania, the PLA has advanced UAVs, such as the ASN-209 variant “Silver Eagle,” capable of supporting integrated reconnaissance, precision strikes, data relay support, communications support, and logistics support, all capabilities that would suffer in the event of attacks on relevant space assets. “In a scenario in which satellite communications were compromised, the PLA might utilize UAVs to replace [long-distance communications support and electromagnetic confrontation], at least at a localized level,” says Kania. Some UAVs are even capable of providing guidance for targeting missiles and maritime ISR capabilities for regional operations.
Finally, the PLA is working to ensure that it is not reliant on space capabilities for regional conflicts by creating redundancy through more basic technologies. As Dean Cheng describes, PLA short-range “communications can be sustained through fiber optic cable (which is difficult to monitor), cell phones, line-of-sight radios, as well as satellite communications.” This redundancy in capabilities means that “in many ways, China does not need space for the PLA to operate in accordance with its doctrine,” says Cheng. The result of PLA redundancy, as well as satellite replacement and launch capabilities, contributes to a heavy asymmetry in reliance on space capabilities between the United States and China in a conflict close to Chinese borders.
Considering China’s Broader Interests in Space
Even in light of China’s growing space capabilities in areas other than security and defense, such as the Chinese “Space Information Corridor,” Beidou constellation, and its manned space station, which serve economic interests, the facilitation of global operations, and exploration, two main reasons suggest that these other uses of space will not prevent China from escalation in space.
First, China and its state-owned enterprises are building heavily redundant space capabilities, hindering the ability of an adversary to effectively remove Chinese space capabilities worldwide. While it may be relatively easy for China and the United States to remove the other’s space capabilities in a specific region, it is significantly more difficult to remove whole constellations. New Chinese satellites, including a planned 13,000 satellite constellation for satellite internet and communications network and an additional 3,500+ satellites across 22 constellations, make it increasingly difficult to harm China’s ability to facilitate global operations.
Second, the apparent U.S. heavy reliance on space for all domains makes the United States less likely to respond to attacks on its military space assets, especially soft strikes, by escalating to a level of conflict that will place its own non-military satellites at risk. The asymmetry of U.S. reliance on space means that the United States has significantly more to lose from attacks on satellites supporting non-military global endeavors or even from likely damages due to the creation of space debris. In line with Chinese doctrine regarding escalation, the evident asymmetry could make China feel safe from further escalation in space.
While Chinese interests in space are indeed growing, China has not likely ruled out escalation in space to gain an advantage for a regional conflict, meaning that the United States must address a number of concerns. First, how likely is the United States to reliably attribute soft kill attacks to China and understand the degree of damage to military capabilities in a timely manner? Second, how vulnerable are U.S. military capabilities, such as PNT, to these types of attacks? Is it possible for China to slightly degrade a small number of U.S. satellites to have significant disruptions for spaced-based communications and PNT? Third, would adequate defenses or the possibility of substantial redundancy in. constellations alleviate these concerns, or does this realization support the need for the United States to reduce its reliance on space systems? Finally, the United States needs to ask how it may, and if it is possible to, leverage cross domain deterrence to effectively prevent such attacks and how it should increase defenses for a scenario in which deterrence fails.