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The Implications of Chinese Developments in Non-Kinetic Space Technology

Alexandra Stickings and Veerle Nouwens
RUSI Newsbrief, 13 April 2018
China, Technology
In pursuit of establishing itself as a global space power, China has been busy developing and operationalising non-kinetic space technology. But in space, where ‘anything can be a weapon’, risks of oblique militarisation raise concerns over Beijing’s activity in the final frontier.

Ever since the first satellite was launched into orbit in 1957, there has been continued development in space technology, much of which has surpassed the capabilities envisioned at the outset of the Space Age. Similarly, recent years have seen an increasing number of space actors, both governmental and commercial. The rise of new technology and actors has led to discussions on existing norms in space, particularly regarding weaponisation, as well as how states view their national security and foreign policy objectives playing out there.

‘Soft-kill’ neutralising technologies could be deployed on missiles and ground- or space-based assets

China is an interesting actor in this regard. Beijing’s space programme has grown quickly since it launched its first satellite in 1970. Chinese space capabilities have been advancing consistently, from independently sending people to space in 2003 to launching the first prototype of a space station eight years later, with plans for a fully functioning space station to be in orbit by 2023. Its family of Long March rockets includes some that are capable of delivering payloads of up to 25 tonnes into low Earth orbit, and it recently inaugurated a new launch site on the southern island of Hainan. China has designs for exploratory missions to the Moon and Mars and has been involved in a variety of collaborative scientific experiments. These include Micius, named after the ancient Chinese scientist and philosopher, a quantum communications satellite developed in partnership with Austrian academics, as well as an experiment on genetics currently underway on the International Space Station (ISS).

China has stated that it sees its presence in space as part of a long-term strategic goal of becoming a space power, as emphasised by the publication of its Space White Paper in December 2016: ‘[to] build China into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly’. Although much of its space programme remains opaque, some of the new technologies it has developed have the potential for dual-use capabilities. Previous concern over China’s militarisation of space was the result of its kinetic capabilities, as shown by the reaction to its 2007 anti-satellite (ASAT) test, in which it launched a ballistic missile to an altitude of more than 850 kilometres and destroyed an inactive weather satellite, creating hundreds of additional pieces of orbital debris in the process. However, notable concern emanates from new developments in the threat landscape, specifically the increase in and diversity of developments in non-kinetic technology.

In terms of weapons, kinetic technology has long been the concern regarding potential conflict in space, whether ASAT weapons or tungsten rods (occasionally known as ‘rods from God’ owing to their potential destructive capability). However, advancements in non-kinetic technology are potentially of equal, if not greater, benefit to militaries, through their support to operations in other domains using Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) and Position, Navigation and Timing, as well as satellite applications including improved imaging techniques and resolution. Non-kinetic technologies are able to disrupt the operations of an adversary or deny access to either their space-based assets or downstream information. They are also those more likely to be employed by actors such as Russia and China as a strategy of hybrid warfare in space, attempting to remain below any threshold that would provoke retaliatory action by the US.

It is clear from hypothetical scenarios that there is need for a contemporary regulatory framework over conduct in space

Directed-energy weapons are a variety of non-kinetic technologies that are worthy of closer examination. Reports have emerged that China has developed high-powered lasers that could be used to ‘blind’ US spy satellites, interfering with their electro-optical or radar components, effectively making them useless over Chinese territory or other strategic areas. Such lasers are powerful enough to be fired from Earth, although they could potentially be deployed on satellites in the future. Similarly, there are also reports that advancements are being made in high-powered microwave and radio-frequency weapons that could disrupt electronics and jam communication systems. Such weapons have the capability to neutralise the intelligence, communication and navigation satellites of an adversary, inhibiting its abilities to carry out military operations. These are all ‘soft-kill’ neutralising technologies that could be deployed on missiles and ground- or space-based assets, and which further China’s ambitions of advancing and defending its own C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capabilities while diminishing those of others. Consideration also needs to be taken of the possibility of intercepting satellites through open microwave antennas, not only accessing their information, including imagery, but also potentially seizing command and control.

A dual-use risk could be imagined for co-orbital systems (consisting of two or more satellites orbiting at the same distance from the Earth) that are prepositioned and possess manoeuvring capabilities, enabling them to neutralise other satellite systems. In July 2013, China launched a rocket carrying three satellites, one of which is thought to be equipped with a robotic arm, allowing it to grasp another satellite and alter its orbit, either to be burned up in the atmosphere or moved to where it would no longer be able to carry out its mission. Such systems are advantageous as they can pass as dual-use vehicles with the publicly stated purpose of debris collection, and are therefore less likely to lead to an escalation of conflict or debris creation if used in less benign circumstances. Similar technologies are being developed by organisations searching for ways to repair satellites in orbit (known as in-orbit or on-orbit servicing), and of course any satellite with manoeuvring capabilities could be used to damage or move another satellite, simply by ramming into it.

There is no question to the benefit of a satellite equipped with a grappling arm to remove space debris, but only if China is seen to be acting as a responsible global power. However, it is easy to imagine such a capability being used to remove an adversary’s space assets during times of tension or conflict, similar to the case of China seizing a US underwater drone in the South China Sea, in order to ‘prevent the device from causing harm to the safety of navigation and personnel of passing vessels’. If such an event were to occur in space, questions concerning attribution and intent would certainly arise. It is clear from these hypothetical scenarios that there is need for a contemporary regulatory framework over conduct in space to mitigate both the militarisation of space and the destabilisation of nations’ C4ISR capabilities on Earth.

Finally, the cyber security of space assets is another issue of concern, and again one where the question of attribution plays and important role. In November 2014, hackers suspected of having links to China forced a temporary shutdown of the US weather satellite network. This followed from previous cyber attacks in 2007 and 2008 against US satellites, in which China was considered the prime suspect. The vulnerability of satellites to such attacks is increasing, particularly as the Internet of Things – where everyday items are connected to the internet – becomes more widespread. As the number of satellites in orbit increases, and
mega-constellations (systems of hundreds of small satellites) become prevalent, the number of potential targets to malicious cyber attacks will grow.

New technological advancements in non-kinetic technology used for offensive purposes will bring into question the relevance of the Outer Space Treaty

Developments in non-kinetic space technology are shifting the balance of power in space by changing how weaponisation in space is defined. The advancements in this field by countries such as China therefore carry new strategic implications. Ultimately, while these advancements are not intrinsically malign, the potential for their dual use will have three overarching impacts.

First, China is positioning itself as a global leader in space, as well as in science and technology more broadly. These advancements will aid in raising China’s profile in both these fields, as a potential partner for countries or organisations looking to enter into or further their space activities. China may become an attractive partner for these countries, particularly while the US reconsiders its priorities regarding space exploration. Moreover, given that the future of the ISS remains in doubt, China’s future space station may be the only viable alternative.

While scientific and technological developments should be supported, the potential for their dual-use in defence and security terms cannot be ignored. For example, the Micius satellite has been testing the use of quantum key distribution, a communications method that exploits a phenomenon known as quantum entanglement, to send a message between two photons. Experiments carried out by Micius have achieved this over the longest distance attempted for this method so far. Potential applications include a global quantum internet. Quantum key distribution can also be used to create an unhackable communication system. While a fully functioning system may be some way off, there would be a clear advantage for the Chinese military to have access to such a system before other states.

Second, new technological advancements in non-kinetic technology used for offensive purposes will bring into question the relevance of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) and similar international agreements and norms. As well as the ban on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in space, the OST stresses that space should be considered as a global commons used for peaceful purposes in the interest of all. It is this, more than the WMD ban, that intends to limit state sovereignty in space. It is therefore possible to view non-kinetic technology as potentially contradicting these two distinct parts of the OST when it is used in a military context. The difficulty is that much of this technology can also be used for peaceful purposes in such a way that respects the notion of a global commons, and there is an accompanying difficulty in assessing, monitoring and reacting to the relative vagueness of ‘offensive versus defensive’ uses of non-kinetic technology in the space domain.

Moreover, the blurred line between the weaponisation and the militarisation of space causes significant definitional challenges in categorising relevant space technology. When the OST was first drafted in 1967, the primary concern for states was the possibility of nuclear proliferation in space, given that other forms of space weaponry and the ways in which militaries use space to support operations had not yet been developed. There is no doubt that space is now militarised, despite there being few, if any, actual ‘weapons’ there in the traditional sense of being ballistic or kinetic. The famous saying ‘anything in space can be a weapon’ is ever more real today.

The blurred line between the weaponisation and the militarisation of space causes significant definitional challenges in categorising space technology

Finally, if used offensively, these advancements, whether in GNSS or C4ISR dominance, will affect China’s defence capabilities on Earth and could provide a significant strategic advantage over the ground- and space-based assets of its adversaries in times of tension or conflict. While the international community looks for signs of great power rivalry with the rise of China on Earth, it would be advisable to turn one’s gaze towards the heavens.

Alexandra Stickings
Alexandra is a Research Analyst at RUSI focusing on space policy and security.

Veerle Nouwens
Veerle is a Research Fellow in Asia Studies at RUSI, focusing on Chinese foreign policy and geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific.

BANNER IMAGE: Composite photo showing a satellite-to-Earth link established between the Micius satellite and the quantum teleportation experiment platform in Ali, Tibet in southwestern China. The potential for such strictly non-lethal technologies to be used for defence or security purposes has raised concerns over how China is directing the development of its space assets and related technological research. Courtesy of Jin Liwang/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


Alexandra Stickings
Research Fellow, Space Policy and Security
Alexandra Stickings is Research Fellow for Space Policy and Security within the Military Sciences team at RUSI.... read more
Veerle Nouwens
Senior Research Fellow

Veerle Nouwens is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Security Studies Department of the Royal United Services Institute,... read more

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