China’s Military Space Strategy
Pushpinder Bath

While the visible elements of China’s space programme include its launch vehicles, launch sites, satellite systems and Anti-Satellite (ASAT) tests, its military space strategy has never been enunciated through any official document. Though China has not released any official document on the subject, steep rise in its military space capabilities which include Command, Control, Communication, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities, development of advanced launch vehicles, implementation of a successful satellite navigation programme (Beidou) and a structured counter space programme point towards its appreciated military space strategy.

‘Peoples’ War’ to ‘Informatized War’

In the aftermath of World War II and Korean War, Mao felt that world was on the verge of another major war1. Riding on the success of ‘Peoples’ War’ he felt that militia forces fighting guerrilla wars could be China’s response to two military giants i.e. Soviet Russia and the USA. The focus was thus on terrestrial conflict and lesser sophistication and not on a technology driven and capital intensive military space programme. In 1985, Deng Xiaoping in his assessment of international situation observed that in future, conflicts were likely to be localised and intensive. This understanding of international scenario made Chinese planners focus on well defined smaller areas, generally on China’s borders. This also helped them set limited goals and develop weapons specific to a localised conflict zone. This was also the time when the world was analysing the Yom Kippur war, the Falklands war and also the Vietnam War. Lethality of weapons had grown multi folds and ways of fighting wars had modernised. Therefore, Chinese planners proposed the idea of local wars under modern conditions2. This was followed by Deng Xiaoping’s Plan 8633 also known as ‘National High-Technology Research and Development Plan’. Amongst other areas, Aerospace industry was also identified as one of the fields for key resource investment.

Post Gulf War-1991, the strategy of local wars under modern conditions, was upgraded to the concept of local wars under modern, high-tech conditions in the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) document of 1993 ‘Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Period’. It laid emphasis on joint operations, long-distance strikes and mobile operations. A very high degree of importance was also given to command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I). It was at this juncture that capabilities in space were identified as key players in modern wars under high-tech conditions. During Gulf War 1991, US is known to have used over 70 satellites for strategic intelligence and communications. It is in context of this US dominance in Space that a Chinese analyst observed, “before the troops and horses move, the satellites are already moving4.”

In 2001, the PLA military pamphlet, ‘The Science of Campaigns’ introduced the concept of ‘integrated operations and key point strikes’5. While ‘integrated operations’ were aimed at integrating all types of forces and operational domains, ‘Key Point Strikes’ was a concept related to employment of concentrated forces at a critical time against crucial targets with the aim of crippling the adversary’s war waging potential6.
In 2004, Hu Jintao7 enunciated his ‘new historic missions’ for PLA wherein he emphasised on the utilisation of space for national security. It was during this time that the Chinese Defence White Paper in 20048 upgraded the concept of ‘local wars under modern, high-tech conditions’, to ‘local wars under informatized conditions’. It also identified that space as one of the essential elements for executing the technology driven informatized warfare which included communications, precision strikes, anti-access area denial (A2AD), C4ISR and jointness of all forces9.

In the 2006 edition of the PLA’s pamphlet, ‘The Science of Campaigns’, the concept of ‘integrated operations and key point strikes’ was upgraded to “integrated operations and precision strikes to control/constrain the enemy.10 This concept was aimed at gaining control of an area/zone of conflict. The pamphlet stated that space was becoming a vital battle-space and a new strategic high ground.
The Vice Chairman of CMC, General Xu Qiliang, in 2009 stated that space had emerged as the “new commanding height for international strategic competition11.” He emphasised that gaining control over space was essential to gain strategic initiative. In 2015, the Chinese Defence White Paper further upgraded their military strategy from winning ‘local wars under informatized conditions’ to ‘winning informatized local wars’ thus changing the war fighting canvas12.

Informatization to Intelligentization

Informatization refers to exploitation of high end technology for the planning and conduct of military operations. Its components include computers, networks, sensors and communications13. It not only supports conventional operations but has also evolved into a new domain known as Information Warfare (IW). Major General Peng Guangqian and Major General Yao Youzhi are both retired officers of PLA and authors of ‘Science of Strategy’ published in 2001 and ‘The Science of Military Strategy’ published in 2005. According to them, the strategy in IW should be focussed towards seizing and maintaining information superiority. The aim is to achieve strategic goals by way of information control and information attack including sabotage and destruction of infrastructure and information systems of the adversary. China’s Defence White Paper of 2013 states that, reforms are being implemented in PLA to enable it to perform its missions and tasks as an informatized military.14

Major General Wang Pufeng, the architect of China’s IW15 opines that IW is the result of information age, which uses information technology in the battlefield. It comprises ‘networkisation’ (wangluohua) of the battlefield and a contest between time and space. It constitutes the struggle to control the informatized battlefield in order to influence the course of war. General Dai Qingmin published an article in ‘China Military Science’ in 200216 in which he proposed six forms of IW. These included deception, operational security, computernetwork attacks, intelligence, electronic warfare and physical destruction. Together with these forms of IW, General Dai also put forth the idea of Integrated Network Electronic Warfare (INEW) which is a concept similar to US’ Network Centric Warfare (NCW) and aims to achieve superiority in information by integrating network warfare with electronic warfare (EW). China views information superiority, which includes denying information to its enemies, as critical to success on the battlefield. President Xi Jinping gave the theory of ‘Intelligentization’. In his report to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, he urged the PLA to “accelerate the development of military intelligentization and improve all-domain joint operation capabilities based on network information systems.” The information age had produced the concept of informatized warfare which was the basis for PLA’s development since the early- 2000s. Now Chinese military leaders believe that informatized war is evolving and ‘intelligentized warfare’ will become the prevailing form of war. That would be the guiding principle for the future of Chinese military modernization. As such, an ‘Intelligentized warfare’ campaign that goes beyond informationization to target and degrade systems with emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, is paramount for PLA.

China’s Appreciated Military Space Strategy

Having envisioned space as one of the key contributing domains to informatized and intelligentized wars, China appears to have crafted its military space strategy to meet its geo-political and national security objectives of attaining pre-eminence on the world stage. The contours of China’s appreciated military space strategy have been discussed in the succeeding paragraphs.

Regional Power Projection

In the realm of soft power, China has used its space assets to monitor and conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster relief programmes in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda. It has also employed Gaofen17 and Haiyang satellites for counter piracy operations and securing sea lanes of communication in the Gulf of Aden and South China Sea. Even China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is expected to have a linkage to space, with vehicle tracking and trans-shipment being controlled through satellites. This soft power is often complemented with hard power when Chinese frigates frequent the disputed Senkaku islands or blockade the approaches to Scarborough shoal. In the disputed waters of South China Sea, China has bred a number of fishing militia. These militia boats/ vessels are given free satellite communication sets and navigation devices and are enticed with higher payment if they volunteer to fish at distances far off from main land in the disputed waters claimed by China20. With the phenomenal growth in naval capabilities, PLA Navy (PLAN) assisted by space assets is increasing its maritime footprint in littoral South Asian countries like Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Prosecution of Informatized and Intelligentized Warfare through Space

Space based assets have the capability to support key military functions like communication, navigation and surveillance. Therefore space emerges as the backbone of informatized and intelligentized wars. In its report, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission21 while highlighting the role of space in PLA’s concept of informatized war observes that a reliable, space-based C4ISR system is a vital component of an informatized PLA. The need for PLA to develop space-based C4ISR systems is based on the requirement to achieve precision strike and power projection capability. The development of anti-ship ballistic missiles and long range cruise missiles entails the acquisition of capability to locate, track and target adversary frigates at long ranges and the ability to coordinate these operations with the units of multiple services. In the conduct of operations, remote sensing satellites will provide intelligence on adversary’s dispositions and the requisite strategic intelligence before the commencement of war. Communication satellites will provide the required connectivity for effective command and control. Navigation satellites will provide indigenous and reliable capability to conduct the manoeuvre battle and precision strikes. Space should thus be viewed as a key player in the PLA’s informatized and intelligentized warfare concept.

Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD)

China’s A2AD refers to restricting the adversary’s access to key locations identified as strategic in nature. It is executed with a design to ensure that the adversary is forced to engage Chinese forces from a stand-off distance in the waters claimed by China in the South and East China Sea. The execution of A2AD strategy calls for information superiority. While ground and sea based assets play a substantial role, space based C4ISR and navigation assets form the backbone of China’s information superiority mechanism for prosecution of its A2AD strategy. The eight pillars of A2AD strategy enunciated by Anthony Cordesman are cyber operations, information operations, long-range precision strikes, surface and undersea operations, ballistic missile defense (BMD), space and counterspace operations, air defense and the air operations22. These eight pillars of A2AD strategy have linkages with space for their successful conduct. In order to execute A2AD, China needs to engage targets in deep seas far from its mainland. China has developed various sea and land based Anti Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM) like the DF-21D23 to suit such operations. However, the success of these missiles would require precise target information and tracking which is being facilitated through space. China’s ASAT programme is another facilitator to its A2AD strategy24. With a capability to disrupt or destroy the adversary satellites, PLA can reduce the effectiveness of adversary in this strategic area. Thus, China’s ASAT programme would help China to attain information dominance over an adversary.

Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD)

Another employment of China’s space based assets is in the field of BMD. China has launched the Tongxin Jishu Shiyan (TJS) and Gaofen25 satellites, some of which have infra-red payloads meant specifically for detecting the launch of ballistic missiles. Such satellites will prove to be the eyes and ears of China’s BMD programme. Theacquisition of satellite based ballistic missile early warning capability may lead to a changein China’s nuclear doctrine from ‘no first use’ to ‘launch on warning’. Presently, China’s nuclear doctrine is based on retaliation only after the first nuclear strike from an opponent. However, a ‘launch on warning’ system would make China’s nuclear arsenal more survivable, but there are possibilities of false warnings which could make it catastrophic.

China’s Counter Space Strategy

Capabilities in space have now begun to gain overbearing importance in the conduct of operations by modern militaries. A successful first strike launched without warning by a weaker party on the adversary’s space assets can bring military advantages out of proportion. The attack so brought upon can bring crippling affect on the command and control architecture of the adversary. In this backdrop, the development of ASAT weapons by China can be viewed as part of its strategy to counter US military advantage accrued by the US forces relying heavily on satellites for their overseas operations. The objectives of China’s counter space strategy can be understood by two different concepts propounded by geo-strategic thinkers. These have been discussed below:-

  1. It is well known that the US military is heavily reliant on space based assets for its overseas deployment and conduct of operations. Its C4ISR architecture, long range precision strike missiles and aircraft career groups are dependent on satellite links for surveillance, navigation and communication. One school of thought feels that China has identified an ‘Achilles Heel’26 in the US over reliance on space assets for their overseas operations. These assets if targeted could cripple US war waging potential in key locations that are of interest to China like the South and East China Seas.
  2. The other school of thought feels that space dependence of US should rather be viewed in terms its overwhelming space capability and not an ‘Achilles Heel’. These space capabilities give US a definite military advantage27 especially in South China Sea and therefore China needs to acquire capabilities to deter the adversary and protect its own space assets. The PLA textbook ‘The Science of Second Artillery Operations’ identifies that the US ability to use its satellites in military operations is a military advantage and should not be viewed as its weak link. While the use of ASAT weapons may degrade or erode such advantage, it is not expected to cripple US war waging efforts28. The objectives of China’s ASAT weapons should therefore be understood to be merely for safeguarding its own space assets and not for targeting a US’ weak link. Bao Shixiu, a Chinese military scholar at PLA Academy of Military Science has observed that an active defence against a formidable space power entails that China should possess asymmetric capability. According to him, China will adopt the same principles for space militarisation as it did with nuclear weapons. That is, it will develop anti-satellite weapons for disrupting or degrading the adversary’s space system, as a reliable and credible defence strategy29.

China’s likely rationale for pursuing a counter space programme and working towards the development of various types of ASAT weapons has been discussed below30:-

  1. Direct Ascent ASAT Weapons
    In 2007, China tested its ASAT weapon destroying its own FY-1C31 weather satellite at an altitude of 800 km. It is believed that China is refining its interceptors to acquire the capability to engage satellites at much higher altitudes in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Geostationary Earth Orbit(GEO). This would entail that China shall be able to engage communication and navigation satellites orbiting in MEO and GEO and thus bring a crippling affect on the command and control structure of the adversary.
  2. Co-Orbital Satellites
    China is known to be acquiring the capability to deploy satellites in the same orbit as that of a target satellite. These satellites may be armed with an explosive charge, kinetic energy weapon, jammer, robotic arm, fragmentation device, radio frequency device or a laser. Such co-orbital satellites may use these weapons or even crash into the target satellite of the adversary to achieve their objective.
  3. Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs)
    China’s efforts in this field are well known. DEWs comprise laser, microwave, particle beam and radio frequency weapons of intensity which can destabilise or alter functionalities of the adversary’s satellites in space. However, the affect of DEWs is normally temporary in nature. China realises that whilst direct ascent ASAT weapons could be detrimental to its own space assets owing to the consequent debris, DEWs provide the best offensive counter space option since these weapons produce little or no collateral damage.
  4. Cyber Capabilities
    China already has a fair degree of expertise in cyber capabilities. Possibility of employing cyber attacks against adversary satellites cannot be negated. Such attacks would give the Chinese access to the command and control of an adversary satellite, thus allowing them to degrade, deny or alter the transmissions made by the satellite.
Chinese Concept of Conducting Military Space Operations
Concept Adopted in 2005

Maj Gen Chang, author of the PLA textbook ‘Military Astronautics’ published in 2005 has covered three key concepts of space operations for achieving dominance in space. These include Unified Forces, Unified Techniques and Unified Operational Activities32. Details have been discussed below:-

  1. Unified Forces
    It has two facets. Firstly, unification of military and civilian space efforts and secondly integrating space capabilities with PLA’s forces on land, sea and air.
  2. Unified Techniques
    It refers to acquiring both soft-kill and hard-kill techniques in space. Soft kill techniques include dazzle, cyber attacks etc and Hard kill techniques include ASAT attacks or destruction of ground based space infrastructure.
  3. Unified Operational Activities
    This refers to achieving coordination between the offensive and defensive space operations.
Concept Adopted in 2013

The concept of space operations was revised in 2013 in PLA pamphlet, “Science of Space Operations Teaching Materials”. The concepts of ‘active defence’ and ‘all aspects unified’ were now introduced for achieving space dominance33. These have been discussed below:-

  1. Active Defence
    It seeks to deter aggression and maintain national security interests. It involves PLA undertaking preparations for space combat in order to seize initiative in space operations.
  2. All Aspects Unified
    It refers to the need to unify thinking for the conduct of space operations. It involves viewing all military activities including space in an integrated manner for successful conduct of joint operations.
Conduct of Military Space Operations by PLA

According to Dean Chang, the conduct of space operations by PLA can be divided into four categories viz Space Information Support, Space Offensive Operations, Space Defensive Operations and Space Deterrence. These have been discussed below:-

  1. Space Information Support
    It includes providing information from sensors based in space to air, ground and naval forces. The key tasks performed here include space based ISR, satellite communication, space based position, navigation and timing, weather sensing and early warning of ballistic missiles.
  2. Defensive Space Operations
    These operations are intended to defend own space assets and ground based infrastructure from the attacks of an adversary. Such a defence would be based on both active and passive measures. While active measures include air defence measures for safeguarding ground infrastructure, passive measures are largely related to satellites and include electronic hardening and shielding from dazzling and electromagnetic interference. They also include deception measures applicable for launch centres and Telemetry, Tracking and Control (TT&C) stations, building up redundancy both in space and ground assets and incorporating mobility to TT&C facilities.
  3. Offensive Space Operations
    These operations involve attackingthe adversay’sassets both in space and on ground. This includes use of both Hard kill and Soft kill techniques. Likely targets could be the adversary’s satellites, space stations, launch vehicles, launch sites and TT& C stations.
  4. Space Deterrence Operations34
    These are intended to dissuade an adversary from acting against own space assets. Since space based capabilities complement nuclear capabilities, space deterrence acts as a powerful intimidating tool.

China has rapidly enhanced its space capabilities and is increasingly using its space prowess for military purposes. The range of China’s space activities is indicative of its intent to play a leading role as global space power. Space is an important module of China's Comprehensive National Power (CNP) and is an integral part their doctrine of winning informatized and intelligentized wars. China's space programme includes acquiring a wide range of capabilities and is completely integrated. The civil and military space programmes are centrally directed. The space enterprise is more in the nature of a strategic programme and the predominance of the military factor pervade the space efforts. China’s aspirations are driven by its assessment that space power enables the country’s military modernisation and would facilitate PLA to challenge US information superiority during a conflict. China has asserted sovereignty over much of the East and South China Seas, as well as Taiwan and is engaged in a course of aggressive conduct to enforce those claims. China’s space and counter space programmes are designed to support its A2AD strategy to effectively tackle likely US intervention in a potential conflict in this region.The Chinese realise that space capabilities could make all thedifference between success and failure in military operations. Hence, they are working not only to achieve space force enhancement but also to gain space control. Consequently, they have attained robust military space capabilities as well as counter space capabilities. Chinese strategists recognise that space capabilities are crucial to PLA’s transformation into an informatized and intelligentized force. They assess that space systems would provide effective battlefield communication, surveillance, meteorological predictions and precision guidance functions, rendering ‘space dominance’ an essential component of realising ‘information dominance.’ China’s military space strategy is rooted both in its civil and military space domain and aims to integrate their space activities through a cohesive approach. Even its military modernisation programme is underscored by proactive steps in space organisations and enhanced space utilisation in the conduct of military operations by PLA. China has taken its place amongst the front runners of space faring nations. A well conceived military space strategy duly supported by strategic vision at the national level can be credited for this achievement.

  1. Cheng, Dean. “China’s Military Role in Space.” Strategic Studies Quarterly, Spring, 2012, pp. 55-77.
  2. Li, Nan and Wang Qinghong. “China’s Evolving Military Doctrine.” Pacific Forum ISIS, 2006, pp. 5-6, 89.pdf. Accessed 08 Apr. 2021.
  3. Singh, Gunjan. “China in Space : Scenarios for Future.” International Affairs Review, 2013, pp.1-28.
  4. Shukla, PP. India-US Partnership : Asian Challenges and Beyond. SCB, 2015.
  5. Cheng, loc. cit.
  6. Mingda, Qiu. “China’s Science of Military Strategy Cross Domain Concepts.” Accessed 09 Apr. 2021.
  7. Kamphausen, Roy et al. Assessing People’s Liberation Army in the Hu Jintao Era. US Army War College.
  8. Accessed 01 Apr. 2021.
  9. Cheng Huang, Alexander. Transformation and Refinement of Chinese Military Doctrine : Reflection and Critique on PLA’s View. Rand, 2010, pp. 131,, Accessed 23 Mar. 2021.
  10. Cheng, Dean. “China’s Military Role in Space.” Strategic Studies Quarterly Spring, 2012, pp. 55-77.
  11. Pollpeter, Kevin. “ Space the New Domain : Space Operations and Chinese Military Reforms.” Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 39, 2016, Accessed 21 Mar. 2021.
  12. Taylor, Fravel. China’s New Military Strategy: Winning Informationised Local Wars. 2015.
  13. Chansoria, Monika. ‘Informationising’ Warfare: China Unleashes the Cyber and Space Domain. Manekshaw Paper ,CLAWS, 2010.
  14. Countering Enemy “Informationized Operations” in War and Peace. US Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2013.
  15. Chansoria, op. cit.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Cordesman, Anthony. Chinese Strategy and Military Modernization in 2016: Comparative Analysis. CSIS, 2016.
  18. Rajagopalan, Megha. “China Trains ‘Fishing Militia to Sail into Disputed Waters.” Reuters, 2016, Accessed 03 Apr. 2021.
  19. China’s Space and Counter Space Programs. US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2015, Accessed 21 Mar. 2021.
  20. Cordesman, op. cit.
  21. Si-Fu, Ou. “China’s A2AD and its Geographic Perspective.” Institute of National Defence and Strategy Studies, Tamkang University, 2014, Accessed 11 Mar. 2021.
  22. S.Chandrashekar, “China’s Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) Strategy”, India’s National Security Annual Review, 2016-17, Routledge Taylor & Francis, 2018, pp. 381-392.
  23. “Gaofen.” .
    Accessed 10 Mar. 2021.
  24. Cordesman, op. cit.
  25. Kulacki, Gregory. An Authoritative Source on China’s Military Space Strategy. Union of Concerned Scientist, 2014, pp. 1-15, /chinaasat. Accessed10 Oct. 2020.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Chansoria, op. cit.
  28. Cordesman, op. cit.
  29. Baogang, Guo. Taiwan and the Rise of China. Lexington, 2012, p. 80.
  30. Cheng, Dean. “China’s Military Role in Space.” Strategic Studies Quarterly Spring, 2012, pp. 55-77.
  31. Cheng Dean. “US-China Competition in Space.” Testimony before Subcommittee on Space, Committee on Science, Space and Technology before the US House of Representatives, 2016.
  32. Cheng, Dean. “China’s Military Role in Space.” Strategic Studies Quarterly Spring, 2012, pp. 55-77.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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