China moon land­ing adds to case for Space Force

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY CARLO MUÑOZ

China’s lat­est moon shot could pro­vide some lift for Pres­i­dent Trump’s Space Force.

U.S. of­fi­cials say the ca­pa­bil­i­ties dis­played in China’s mile­stone mis­sion land­ing a rover on the far side of the moon could pose a se­ri­ous threat to Amer­i­can and al­lied space op­er­a­tions — par­tic­u­larly in­tel­li­gence mis­sions us­ing space-based satellites.

De­spite his personal en­thu­si­asm for the project, Mr. Trump has strug­gled at times to rally sup­port on Capi­tol Hill and in the Pen­tagon for an en­tirely new ser­vice to con­front the grow­ing mil­i­tary chal­lenge in space. While the moon land­ing was a civil­ian sci­en­tific en­deavor, the moon mis­sion — un­der the over­all man­age­ment of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army — is also seen as a space shot across the bow for the U.S. as China’s space ef­forts grow in­creas­ingly am­bi­tious and so­phis­ti­cated.

The touch­down of the Chi­nese lu­nar ex­plo­ration craft Chang’e 4 has “opened up a new chap­ter in hu­man lu­nar ex­plo­ration,” of­fi­cials from the China Na­tional Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion said in a state­ment.

Michael Grif­fin, de­fense un­der­sec­re­tary for re­search and en­gi­neer­ing, said this sum­mer that China and Russia al­ready have the abil­ity to tar­get Amer­i­can and al­lied in­tel­li­gence and com­mu­ni­ca­tions satellites.

“Those as­sets are what we use for com­mu­ni­ca­tion and re­con­nais­sance and mis­sile warn­ing and po­si­tion, tim­ing and nav­i­ga­tion, a whole bunch of fea­tures that we use for war fight­ing,” Mr. Grif­fin said.

In Oc­to­ber, Jeff Gos­sel, the top in­tel­li­gence en­gi­neer within the Air Force’s Na­tional Air and Space In­tel­li­gence Cen­ter’s space and mis­sile anal­y­sis group, floated the idea that China’s mil­i­tary could use its base on the un­mon­i­tored far side of the moon to con­ceal anti-satel­lite weapons.

A full-fledged war in space may be hard to imag­ine, but Pen­tagon plan­ners say they have to an­tic­i­pate threats that may ma­te­ri­al­ize years and even decades into the fu­ture. Mr. Gos­sel re­cently said part of his job is to be para­noid about threats that most would con­sider to be highly im­prob­a­ble.

Al­though lu­nar land­ings have been sta­ples of hu­man space ex­plo­ration since the 1960, the Chi­nese land­ing was more mo­men­tous — and po­ten­tially more dan­ger­ous — to the U.S. and its part­ners, an­a­lysts say.

The Chi­nese govern­ment “has been very clear” on this, Mal­colm Davis, a se­nior an­a­lyst at the Aus­tralian Strate­gic Pol­icy In­sti­tute, told The Guardian news­pa­per. “They have com­pared the moon to the South China Sea and Tai­wan, and as­ter­oids to the East China Sea. They’re mak­ing a very clear geopo­lit­i­cal com­par­i­son with what’s hap­pen­ing with space, and we need to pay at­ten­tion to that.”

Launch­ing and land­ing a space ve­hi­cle on the “dark side” of the moon — the half of the moon per­pet­u­ally facing away from Earth — had not been ac­com­plished un­til Jan. 3 be­cause no coun­try had the tech­nol­ogy to com­mu­ni­cate and con­trol a space ve­hi­cle op­er­at­ing “be­hind” the moon.

The long­est range for any known satel­lite is 22,000 miles above Earth’s at­mos­phere. The tech­nol­ogy for op­er­at­ing space­craft be­yond that limit, known as the “geosyn­chronous or­bit belt” had not been proved un­til the Chi­nese moon land­ing on Jan. 3.

With the lu­nar land­ing, China now has the means to op­er­ate “well out­side our space sit­u­a­tional aware­ness,” said Bryan Clark, a se­nior fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton­based Cen­ter for Strate­gic and Bud­getary As­sess­ments.

“It would be like tak­ing the high ground” in the bat­tle­field, he said. “That is a sig­nif­i­cant con­cern.”

Mil­i­tary spinoffs

China has re­peat­edly stated that its ef­forts in space are rooted in peace­ful ex­plo­ration and re­search. But the deep-space com­mu­ni­ca­tions re­lay sta­tions and other next-gen­er­a­tion tech­nolo­gies demon­strated dur­ing the lu­nar land­ing can be trans­ferred eas­ily to mil­i­tary ap­pli­ca­tions, said Dean Cheng, a se­nior re­search fel­low at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion’s Asian Stud­ies Cen­ter.

The lu­nar land­ing it­self is rel­a­tively in­signif­i­cant in terms of pos­si­ble mil­i­tary threats, he said in an in­ter­view last week. “The Chi­nese are not go­ing to start throw­ing moon rocks at us” from a mil­i­tary out­post there, he said.

But the Chi­nese can “ex­ploit and use these parts of space that the [U.S.] is ig­nor­ing,” he said, re­fer­ring to the ar­eas of space be­yond the geosyn­chronous belt. The U.S. and its al­lies “are go­ing to have their hands full tracking any­thing be­yond” that or­bit belt. “It is very ex­pen­sive and very hard to track” those po­ten­tial threats, he said.

Some of the big­gest threats would be China’s abil­ity to jam or in­ter­cept Amer­i­can spy or mil­i­tary com­mu­ni­ca­tion satellites, both an­a­lysts said.

If China can per­fect its com­mand and con­trol sys­tem for deep space ve­hi­cles, then Bei­jing could launch a se­ries of weapons be­yond the geosyn­chronous belt to lie in wait to at­tack U.S. and al­lies’ satellites — all out of view of Amer­i­can or Eu­ro­pean space sur­veil­lance sys­tems.

“You might see that in the next decade,” said Mr. Clark, not­ing that China would likely de­ploy such weapons into deep space di­rectly above the Chi­nese main­land. “The Chi­nese see [that] space as part of their home­land,” he said, adding the coun­try’s ef­forts to mil­i­ta­rize space are geared to­ward that pur­pose.

China’s lu­nar land­ing also has sparked con­cern about Wash­ing­ton’s abil­ity to keep pace with Bei­jing on Earth.

Chi­nese in­vest­ment in mil­i­tary and civil­ian space pro­grams has out­paced spend­ing lev­els by Russia and oth­ers, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures re­leased by the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment. China al­ready is the world leader in rocket launches, with 39 in 2018 com­pared with 31 by the U.S. and 20 by Russia.

Bei­jing’s in­vest­ments are still dwarfed by the U.S. govern­ment’s $48 bil­lion an­nual ex­pen­di­ture on space ef­forts. But Bei­jing gets a lot of bang for its buck, ac­cord­ing to the Pen­tagon’s most re­cent as­sess­ment of China’s mil­i­tary. “China’s space pro­gram con­tin­ues to ma­ture rapidly,” de­fense of­fi­cials wrote in a 2018 as­sess­ment of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army.

“The PLA, which has his­tor­i­cally man­aged the ef­fort, con­tin­ues to in­vest in im­prov­ing its ca­pa­bil­i­ties in space-based [in­tel­li­gence], satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tion, satel­lite nav­i­ga­tion and me­te­o­rol­ogy,” the re­port said. Most re­cently, Bei­jing has in­vested heav­ily in “a range of tech­nolo­gies to im­prove China’s counter-space ca­pa­bil­i­ties, [in­clud­ing] the de­vel­op­ment of di­rected en­ergy weapons and satel­lite jam­mers,” Pen­tagon of­fi­cials say.

Part of that work, De­fense De­part­ment of­fi­cials said, is im­prov­ing on the tech­nolo­gies demon­strated dur­ing a 2007 anti-satel­lite ex­er­cise, when Chi­nese re­searchers stunned U.S. mil­i­tary an­a­lysts by shoot­ing down a fail­ing weather satel­lite in or­bit.

As work con­tin­ues in Bei­jing, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is press­ing ahead with the pres­i­dent’s Space Force ini­tia­tive. De­fense De­part­ment of­fi­cials are put­ting the fi­nal touches on a leg­isla­tive pro­posal for Congress, a se­nior de­fense of­fi­cial said.

The high-pro­file Chi­nese moon mis­sion makes the sales job a lit­tle eas­ier, Mr. Clark said.

“What this does is give the space port­fo­lio ac­tiv­i­ties a lit­tle more of a leg up in terms of com­pe­ti­tion for re­sources,” he said. “There will be a bet­ter re­cep­tion for the Space Force, on the House side par­tic­u­larly, and it will prob­a­bly help in the Se­nate too.”


The suc­cess­ful land­ing of the lu­nar ex­plo­ration craft Chang’e 4 is seen as a shot across the bow for the U.S. as China’s space ef­forts grow in­creas­ingly am­bi­tious.

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