Yesterday in New York City, NASA’s last space shuttle astronauts visited a World War II aircraft carrier-turned-museum docked on the west side of Manhattan. The carrier is one of four museums where retired NASA shuttles will go to rest now that the historic shuttle program has ended.
But as NASA sends its shuttles to museums, China is making great strides in its space program—with preparations under way for the launch of a Chinese spacelab in the next few weeks. These advances are beginning to threaten U.S. space superiority and America’s ability to support its friends and allies and to deter aggression.
In a new paper, China’s Space Program: A Growing Factor in U.S. Security Planning, The Heritage Foundation’s Dean Cheng explains the advances in China’s space program and how America must respond.
In the past several years, China’s space efforts have become increasingly prominent. Recent Chinese achievements have included the third manned Shenzhou mission and a space walk, expansion of the indigenous Chinese Compass satellite navigation system, and deployment of a range of new remote sensing satellites, such as the Yaogan series . . .
China’s space efforts are not simply the actions of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or efforts at political signaling to obtain a space arms control treaty, as some have posited. Rather, these actions occur within a particular strategic and military context.
The PLA has concluded that the high ground of space is essential to the information gathering, transmission, and exploitation necessary to fight and win future wars. And China’s efforts to secure space dominance will entail hard-kill and soft-kill measures aimed at satellites, ground facilities, and data links and will incorporate active and passive defenses for its own space facilities. Cheng also explains that it remains unclear how the Chinese look at military space operations during a crisis, particularly given the poor Chinese track record in crisis management. But the potential for inadvertent escalation is real.
All of those factors point to a need for the United States to increase its understanding of China’s space capabilities and space decision-making system, while maintaining a robust military space capability. Cheng writes:
An increasingly important part of national security, including deterrence, depends on space capabilities. For the United States, the ability to secure space superiority, which has not been an issue since the end of the Cold War, is integral to its ability to fight wars in the American way. For the PRC, the ability to secure space dominance and to deny it to an opponent will likely become an increasingly important part of their national security planning.
As Beijing expands its space program, the United States must maintain and expand robust space capabilities, develop alternatives to space-based systems to reduce American vulnerability, and increase U.S. knowledge and understanding of Chinese space capabilities. Only then will the United States be able to maintain its superiority in space so that it can defend itself, its friends, and allies.