China has ramped up its space mission, with plans to surpass 70 launches–commercial and military–this year. While the Pentagon has made a point of highlighting the military danger that China’s rocket programs pose to U.S. Satellites, some officials believe China’s increasing commercial space activities also present a serious threat.
“There’s been a long debate about state-owned enterprises, and really the viability of a separate commercial sector given the laws that are in place in the PRC, and the necessity to maintain a relationship and frankly, exposure to the PRC leadership in particular, on what’s going on and those commercial enterprises.” Maj. Gen. David Miller, the Space Force’s director of operations, said Monday.
The U.S. must presume a Chinese satellite is a threat regardless of whether it is commercial or military, he said. The most immediate concerns include the threat posed by Chinese satellite launchers and satellite weapons. Less obvious, but still concerning, are China and Russia’s future market shares in space-based services like satellite communications, position navigation and timing, and space-based images.
Consider the role unclassified commercial space imagery played in preparing the world for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Firms like Maxar and Planet Labs provided open-source information that shaped public opinion, allowing for the swift passage of sanctions packages that have undermined Russia’s war effort.
China is also getting into the Earth-imaging business, as evidenced by a new launch in December. Given Chinese abilities in generative adversarial networks and other AI tools that lend themselves to image manipulation, does that pose an information warfare threat, given how important satellite images have become to public understanding of geopolitical crises?
That’s “something that we not just think about, but we look at–and it’s not just Russia, China,” John Huth, defense intelligence officer for space and counterspace at the Defense Intelligence Agency told Defense One in an interview at DIA’s headquarters in June.
“I’ll say a bigger concern on the economic side is, is it fair competition, right? If all your companies are state sponsored, that kind of gives you a leg up. He was referring to China’s model, which uses the government to finance “private” companies that are both commercial and military in nature. That sort of model gave China an advantage in selling telecommunications equipment and services for 5G, which it’s now using to build partnerships in AI with countries that don’t necessarily share China’s geopolitical interests but do like access to cheap technology.
“China has been trying to sell services to other countries, whether it be [communications] or [precision, navigation, and timing.] Other things, you know, as part of their Belt and Road Initiative…So they have had some successes with other countries in pulling them in, if you will, and in some cases, providing some upfront investment to pull them in. And we’ll see over time how well those investments pan out for those countries,” Huth said.
In the future, on-orbit serving–using satellites to refuel, repair, or move other satellites–will be another area where commercial and military activity blur. It’s also an area in which the Chinese government has invested heavily and is already seeing returns.
Still, U.S. entrepreneurs can play a growing competitive role, as long as the U.S. government can help them become more established, Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson said during the recent Defense One Tech Summit.
“I think there’s some good capability there, and more coming. I am a firm believer in the space warfare analysis center’s force design, which we have just finished. We worked closely with other services and combat commanders, among others. There’s still not enough. We’ve thought very carefully about the types of services required.”
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