Space, China's Tactical Frontier

Interview with Matthew Durnin
May 14, 2012

As China’s space program continues to develop and grow, NBR spoke with Matthew Durnin from the World Security Institute for his thoughts on China’s evolving satellite program and what might be an appropriate response for the United States to have.

An Interview with Matthew Durnin
By Anton Wishik
May 14, 2012

Matthew Durnin, a researcher with the World Security Institute who spoke at an NBR-hosted roundtable in January, recently revisted China’s evolving satellite program for this interview. Mr. Durnin, along with co-author Eric Hagt, wrote “Space, China’s Tactical Frontier,” which was published in the Journal of Strategic Studies in 2011.

What has been the impetus behind the rapid development of China’s satellite program?

Generations from now, when historians summarize the development of a globally capable and influential Chinese military, they will mark the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis as a key point of inflection. China’s inability to deter—or even accurately locate—U.S. carrier strike groups en route to Taiwan was a great embarrassment and the cause for lengthy introspection among the PLA ranks. The upshot was a redoubled effort to deter Taiwanese independence and prevent U.S. intervention through the development of truly credible military capabilities. The centerpiece of China’s current defense posture is an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capability around China’s perimeter, with ballistic missiles and other long-range stand-off weapons as core components. These platforms are either largely dependent on or greatly enhanced by real-time reconnaissance.

There are several avenues through which China could have pursued real-time reconnaissance capabilities—e.g., unmanned aerial vehicles, over-the-horizon radar, picket submarines, etc. Indeed, all of these areas have seen significant development in the past decade. Yet space has emerged as the backbone of China’s reconnaissance capabilities and seems set to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Using open source Chinese literature, my co-author, Eric Hagt, and I identified over 30 Chinese satellites that could be used for reconnaissance that have been launched since 1999. 15 to 17 of these appeared to be active when we wrote the paper and another three have been launched since. By comparison, the U.S. likely has 12 to 15 reconnaissance satellites currently in orbit.

How would you compare China’s satellite capabilities with that of the United States’?

We compared the estimated performances of U.S. and Chinese reconnaissance satellite systems in order to put China’s progress in context, and it’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. The United States and China have very different demands for space-based reconnaissance: the U.S. system prizes high-resolution and cutting-edge technology. The Chinese system, while certainly improving technologically, seems to be more about putting a lot of “good enough” satellites into space for a relatively cheap price tag.

Having said that, our estimates showed that for a large and electronically noisy target such as an aircraft carrier, China’s average daily satellite surveillance time does not trail the United States by much. This is a remarkable feat considering China had no such satellites just a little over a decade ago. Today, China has attained the three main sensor technologies employed by U.S. spy satellites—electro-optical, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), and electronic intelligence (ELINT)—though they undoubtedly trail the U.S. models in performance and longevity.

How did you and your co-author approach research on such a sensitive and secretive topic?

China is usually characterized by outsiders as an extremely secretive country, especially when it comes to military issues. I wouldn’t go so far as to refute that assumption, but it’s often surprising how much information is available in the open-source literature if you have the patience and capability to wade through a lot of Chinese documents.

Our project was also helped by the fact that it’s fairly hard to hide things in space. Under favorable light conditions, you can often spot low-orbiting satellites with no more than a pair of binoculars. U.S. Space Command also publishes the orbits of most satellites (U.S. classified satellites being the main exception). With that data, we used Analytic Graphics Institute (AGI)’s Satellite Tool Kit software to simulate satellite passes over a ship at sea.

What would an appropriate U.S. response be to these developments in China’s satellite program?

China’s surge in military-relevant space applications has definitely caused some consternation in the U.S. defense community, particularly in light of China’s 2007 anti-satellite missile test. Yet there’s a bright side to China’s flurry of reconnaissance, navigation, and communication satellite launches over the past few years: as China invests more in space, it also has an increasing interest in creating a stable and peaceful orbital environment. I would argue that China’s space capabilities are less worrisome today than they were in 2007. Now, China actually has something to lose.

As to the broader anti-access capabilities supported by China’s space assets, we’re already seeing signs of a U.S. counter-punch being laid out in the “AirSea Battle” concept. Even though the potential for real war between the United States and China is quite low, it’s not surprising to see the Pentagon devote resources to this contingency. China will likely be a game-changer in the international arena and defense officials are paid to think somewhat pessimistically. But how this pessimism distills into U.S. policy is the key question. The worst reaction would be to treat China as a reincarnation of the Soviet Union and talk ourselves into an arms race with one of our most important trading partners.

On the defense procurement front, while it makes good sense to acquire the capabilities to subvert A2/AD (if for no other reason than that other potential adversaries will adopt the same tactics), these expenditures must be kept to modest levels. The most effective and cost-effective solutions to anti-access tactics will be those aimed at “controlling the electromagnetic spectrum” or, put simply, electronic warfare. From satellites that find targets to the missiles that strike them, sensors and communication links are the common technological threads that sew together A2/AD. Sever one of these threads and the whole kill-chain quickly unravels. In the modern version of what Winston Churchill once called “the Battle of the Beams,” racks of communication gear are likely to pack as much punch as a new generation of stealthy ships and bombers.

For more, please see: “Space, China’s Tactical Frontier” (with Eric Hagt).

Anton Wishik is a Next Generation Fellow at NBR.