HONG KONG—Nearly a year and a half after Donald J. Trump ordered the Pentagon to establish the U.S. Space Force—a whole new sixth branch of the American armed forces—he signed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act on Dec. 20. At least on paper, the U.S. Space Force is now a reality.
But the United States is late to this game. The Russians have been organizing and reorganizing space force variants since the 1990s. And more importantly, the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army has had such an organization up and running for the last four years. It’s called the PLA Strategic Support Force, and it is something of a technological juggernaut responsible for space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare.
“Outer space has become the new commanding heights in international strategic competition,” declared a document published by the State Council in Beijing in 2015. “Countries concerned are developing their space forces and instruments, and the first signs of weaponization of outer space have appeared.”
CCP leader Xi Jinping’s move to dominate those commanding heights is one more of his moves to modernize the Chinese military, which is also developing potentially revolutionary technology for its conventional air force, and a blue water navy.
The competition in space, as elsewhere, is squarely directed at the United States. It’s part of the tech war between the U.S. and China—a front often overlooked in the slow drip of information related to the trade war and potential export deals.
China’s recent achievements in space have eclipsed those of Russia, and it’s quickly catching up to the United States.
China’s biggest rocket, the Long March 5, was loaded onto a launchpad a week ago and successfully launched on Friday, carrying an eight-ton satellite. The heavy-lift rocket previously failed to launch in 2017, but its successful launch puts China’s space program on track to send a probe to Mars and acquire rock and fine-grain “soil” samples from the moon next year. The Long March 5 will also deliver modules of the Tiangong space station, which is due to go online within two to four years.
Even though China hasn’t sent any “taikonauts” into space since late 2016, it has been placing a lot of equipment into orbit. Its BeiDou system—an alternative to the American GPS—is set to be completed in June. And the Chinese space program already has a rover on the far side of the moon; it has been operating for about a year.
Civilian operations also are progressing rapidly. iSpace, a company based in Beijing, is similar to SpaceX. It placed two satellites in orbit in late July.
How does the PLASSF operate?
The branch projects power in what it describes as “strategic frontiers,” specifically referring to areas that are not defined as part of geographical topology. China hasn’t been involved in large-scale armed conflicts since the 1970s, so the force has been contributing to training exercises where it plays the role of an adversary, deploying electronic and psychological warfare, preparing the PLA’s other branches for disruptive battle tactics.
Although outer space remains an untested domain for armed conflict, the PLASSF is busy formulating the Chinese military’s space operational doctrine. And China’s space warfare specialists have been conducting research and training as a unit for nearly four years to rival U.S. Space Command and the newly formed Space Force.
In the meantime, the PLASSF has recruited hundreds of specialists and scientists whose expertise in deep tech will define China’s space warfare capabilities. The scenario that is of utmost concern is a long-range attack launched from, say, the United States. Only by controlling a chunk of outer space can the PLA conduct long range operations against the U.S. or other forces—or deter potential attacks.
Xi Jinping and the CCP believe it is crucial to match and surpass the U.S. in technological prowess in all arenas. As Chinese entities bulk up their presence beyond the stratosphere, the Party is also harnessing other forms of cutting-edge tech, like big data, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing. In September, Xi appointed a big-data expert, Wang Yingwei, as the CCP’s new cybersecurity chief. And the People’s Bank of China—the country’s central bank—is redoubling efforts to create a digital currency, likely in response to Facebook’s proposed Libra, which may be rolled out in 2020.
The Party recognizes that warfare is evolving, and new fronts have emerged. Its plans for “civil-military fusion” mirror the U.S. military’s cooperation with contractors to develop new weapons. Clusters of private companies in China specialize in serving the PLA’s needs.
This month, Xi Jinping commissioned the Shandong, China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier. CCP officials find parallels in maritime power projection and dominance in space. Last year, the head of China’s lunar exploration program likened the moon and Mars to islands in the South China Sea, a region where territorial disputes have pitted the governments of the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and others against Beijing.
China has even staked its claim for supremacy in outer space on the silver screen. In The Wandering Earth, a film based on a novella of the same name written by Hugo Award-winner Liu Cixin, a few taikonauts and futuristic truck drivers from China save our planet from total destruction. The absence of America (and other nations) from the narrative may not have been politically motivated, but as Daily Beast contributor David Axe wrote, it’s a “handy metaphor for China’s rise in space.”
Beijing says it “always adheres to the principle of use of outer space for peaceful purposes and opposes the weaponization of or an arms race in outer space.”
The PLA’s readiness to co-opt China’s developments beyond Earth’s surface tell us otherwise.