Thursday, February 22, 2024

Is NASA Chief’s Fear over China’s Militarization of Space Program Mere Exaggeration?

Washington, DC – China has refuted NASA Chief Bill Nelson’s claim that Beijing might attempt to take over the moon as part of its military space program. But those familiar with the Middle Kingdom’s global ambitions might take Beijing’s denial as proof of its old habits of working out plans secretly, away from the public glare.

In an interview with ‘Bild’, a German tabloid newspaper, NASA Chief Bill Nelson recently said, in 2035, China will complete the construction of its own Moon station. He expressed his fear that China may hijack the moon and use it for military purposes.

His fears may not be baseless. At the time when the Covid-19 virus had begun spreading its deadly tentacles in the world, China’s Chang’e-4 mission successfully landed on the Moon on December 7, 2019. China became the first country in the world to manage a soft landing of Chang’e-4 mission on the far side of the moon and deploy a rover to explore the lunar far side. NASA has yet to land on the far side of the moon as it is challenging to maintain communication with Earth due to disruption to radio signals. This signaled the day when China will become the world’s leading space and lunar power. It unfurled its national flag on the Moon in December 2020, becoming the second nation after the US to plant its flag on the moon during the Apollo mission in 1969.

In the coming years, it will place its research station on the moon and land a spacecraft on its South Pole. According to China’s State Council Information Office, the planned research station will first operate autonomously before manned missions habituate them in the future. If the State Council Information Office is to be believed, China, the world’s second major investor in the space program after the US, aims to land its first astronauts on the moon by 2030. It plans to be ready with a reusable carrier rocket by 2035, a nuclear-powered space shuttle by 2040, and become a leading space power by 2045.

“China always advocates the peaceful use of outer space, opposes the weaponization of and arms race in outer space, and works actively toward building a community with a shared future for mankind in the space domain. China’s space exploration is about meeting our legitimate national economic, social, scientific and security needs,” China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, defending his country’s space program.

However, the 2019 Chinese Defense White Paper categorically identified space as a “critical domain of international strategic competition.” The Defence White Paper also recognized the vital role that space would play in improving the capabilities of “joint operations command to exercise reliable and efficient command over emergency responses, and to effectively accomplish urgent, tough and dangerous tasks.”

Maintaining the role of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, the Chinese Defense White Paper further said, “In line with the strategic requirements of integrating air and space capabilities as well as coordinating offensive and defensive operations, the PLAAF is accelerating the transition of its tasks from territorial air defense to both offensive and defensive operations.”

In 1992, under the codename “Project 921” China kicked off its ambitious manned space program. Since then, Beijing has sent three manned missions to space. The last one was sent on June 5, 2022, with three astronauts whose assigned task included finishing assembly work on its permanent orbiting space station, ‘Tiangong’, which is expected to be complete by the end of the year. It is being built in low earth orbit between 340 and 450 km above the Earth.

For the democratic and civilized world, since China is the elephant in the room, there is a fear that Beijing might use its space program for other than humanitarian causes. This view has been repeatedly put before the international community by Europe and the US. In 2012, a study released by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned that China’s policymakers view “space power as one aspect of a broad international competition in comprehensive national strength and science and technology.”

Almost three years after Xi Jinping’s ascension to the presidential chair in China, an American institute released a detailed report on Beijing’s space power in 2015. The University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, in its report ‘China Dream, Space Dream’ said, “China’s efforts to use its space program to transform itself into a military, economic and technological power may come at the expense of US leadership and has serious implications for US interests.”

At face value, China appears to have a benign space program. But given the Chinese strategic community’s observations wherein they view space as the ultimate high ground for military success on the terrestrial battlefield, the fear about Beijing’s space program pivoting towards militarization has started building. According to a US Defense Intelligence Agency report, China already has 262 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites in space—nearly as many as the rest of the world, including the US.

Besides, it has launched several missiles that could destroy satellites. In January 2007, it carried out the first anti-satellite (ASAT) test at an altitude of 850 km. Since the People’s Liberation Army supervises and controls China’s space program, Beijing has developed several counter-space capabilities in the last few years, experts who are aware of China’s astronomical activities said. As per these experts, like its nuclear program that started off keeping in mind its security interests, Beijing built up its space launch capabilities on the foundation of its Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.

The creation of the PLA Strategic Support Force, a theatre command-level organization, in 2015 infused more life into the militarization of China’s space program. It was created with the aim of achieving significant strategic goals by combining space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities. Successive planned launches and the creation of necessary space and moon infrastructure are geared towards fulfilling those goals.

In 2020, China carried out 34 launches out of a planned 40, said the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). Last year, it carried out 55 launches, creating a world record in the number of space-related missions in one year. In 2022, as per CASC, there are plans to carry out 50 space launches and six manned space flights. “The year 2022 will see China’s projects in space at the top of its game,” Ma Tao, the Deputy Chief of the Space Department at the CASC, said during a press conference on February 27.

By and large, such developments have put fears among Americans that by acquiring space power, China will not only dominate and control space but also coordinate a war from space.

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