Defense and Deterrence in China’s Military Space Strategy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 5

KT-1 launch vehicle

China’s theory of space deterrence may be a work in progress, but Beijing is already developing an impressive array of counter-space systems. Indeed, the capabilities that China is working on go beyond the direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon, successfully tested in January 2007. The test demonstrated its capability to destroy satellites in low-earth orbit and was followed by a missile intercept test in January 2010. According to the 2010 Department of Defense (DoD) report on Chinese military developments, "China is developing a multi- dimensional program to improve its capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by potential adversaries during times of crisis or conflict" [1]. In addition to the direct ascent ASAT, China’s capabilities include foreign and domestically developed jamming capabilities, and the inherent ASAT capabilities of its nuclear forces. In addition, "China is developing other technologies and concepts for kinetic and directed-energy (e.g. lasers, high-powered microwave, and particle beam) weapons for ASAT missions" [2]. According to Chinese analysts, along with the increasing its importance for military and commercial reasons, space is becoming an important domain for the defense of national security and national interests [3].


Chinese strategists regard space as a crucial battlefield in future wars. Chinese military publications characterize space as the high ground that both sides will strive to control in informatized local wars because of its influence on information superiority and its importance in seizing the initiative in a conflict [4]. Chinese analysts write that space systems serve as key enablers by providing support in areas such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), early warning, communications, navigation and positioning, targeting for precision weapons, surveying and mapping, and meteorological support. Chinese analysts also portray space systems as force multipliers that support joint operations and enhance the effectiveness of ground, air, and naval forces.

In keeping with this emphasis on the importance of space systems in contemporary military operations, China is making major strides in improving its own space capabilities [5]. According to the 2010 DoD report, "China is expanding its space-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation, and communications satellite constellations" [6]. As China places more satellites into orbit, the PLA’s reliance on space systems is growing. China’s military is becoming more dependent on space capabilities for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation and positioning, as well as communications. Chinese military publications suggest that China still sees itself as far less dependent on space than the United States, but they also recognize that with this increasing reliance on space comes greater vulnerability. Many Chinese analysts believe that China’s space systems face a variety of potential threats. Consequently, they argue that the PLA needs to be able to protect its space assets through defensive measures or deterrence.

Chinese Perceptions of Foreign Threats to Chinese Space Systems

A review of Chinese writings on military space operations indicates that Chinese strategists are concerned about a wide variety of perceived threats to Chinese space systems. In particular, Chinese analysts characterize U.S. space policy as inherently threatening to China’s interests because of its emphasis on space dominance. As Zhang Hui of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs writes, "Many Chinese officials and security experts have great interest in U.S. military planning documents issued in recent years that explicitly envision the control of space through the use of weapons in, or from, space to establish global superiority" [7]. Similarly, according to Bao Shixiu, a senior fellow at the PLA’s Academy of Military Science (AMS), "the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the United States unilaterally seeks to monopolize the military use of space in order to gain strategic advantage over others" [8]. Given that China must protect its own interests, Bao argues, "China cannot accept the monopolization of outer space by another country." Consequently, he asserts that U.S. space policy "poses a serious threat to China both in terms of jeopardizing its national defense as well as obstructing its justified right to exploit space for civilian and commercial purposes" [9]. Chinese writers also assert that U.S. space war exercises reflect the growing militarization of space. Yet Beijing’s concerns are not limited to the realm of policy statements and war games. Indeed, some Chinese strategists appear to believe that other countries are actively developing counter-space capabilities that could threaten Chinese satellites.

Some Chinese writers discussed what they characterize as a long history of ASAT research, development, and testing in the United States and Russia dating back to the Cold War [10]. Like their Western counterparts, Chinese writers divide these potential threats into two major categories: "soft kill" and "hard kill" [11]. Soft kill threats can cause temporary loss of the effectiveness of space systems, causing them to be unable to carry out operational functions. According to Chinese military researchers, the main methods of soft kill anti-satellite attack include electronic warfare and computer network attacks [12]. In contrast to soft kill threats such as jamming, hard kill capabilities are intended to cause permanent damage to spacecraft. Chinese writers identify kinetic energy weapons and directed energy weapons such as high-energy lasers as the main hard kill ASAT threats. Other Chinese writings offer more detailed discussions of perceived threats from a wide range of systems, such as kinetic energy interceptors, laser ASAT systems, nuclear ASAT systems, microwave weapons, and space planes that could be used to disable or destroy an adversary’s satellites [13]. In addition, some Chinese authors assert that U.S. missile defense interceptors provide the United States with an inherent ASAT capability [14].

In all, according to Chinese analysts, as a result of the actions of the world’s major space powers, space war is no longer the stuff of science fiction. Indeed, they argue that it is already more a reality than a myth. Consequently, they conclude that China must be prepared not only to degrade an adversary’s ability to use space, but also to protect its own space capabilities. Chinese writings suggest that Beijing would consider doing so through a combination of defensive measures and deterrence.

Chinese Writings on Space Defense

Because satellites are so essential to military operations, Chinese writers see an intensifying competition between ASAT technology and satellite defense. Consequently, Chinese authors write that to be prepared for space conflicts, besides having the ability to strike the enemy’s satellites, it is also necessary to improve the survivability of one’s own satellites. Against this background, Chinese writers discussed a wide variety of measures to enhance satellite survivability. Defensive measures mentioned in Chinese articles include signature reduction, hardening and other protective measures, electromagnetic protection, satellite mobility, improving space situational awareness, and renting foreign space systems.

Chinese journal articles indicate that one way of defending space systems is employing signature reduction techniques, which makes it more difficult for the adversary to find and attack the spacecraft [15]. According to one Chinese analyst, concealment measures can include covering the satellite with special materials to reduce its visibility to enemy radar and reducing other signatures [16]. Some Chinese writers also suggest hardening or increasing protection for key components, such as the electro-optical sensors on imaging satellites. Another defensive measure that is emphasized is the enhancement of protection against electromagnetic interference. Still others include increasing satellite mobility, discharging bait and false targets, and using distributed small satellites. In addition, Chinese analysts underscore the importance of enhancing space situational awareness to observe enemy activities in space and provide warning of any attack.

Spacecraft themselves are not the only assets that need to be defended. The protection of information links and ground stations is seen as equally essential. Chinese authors address defending information links by employing measures such as encryption and various types of anti-jamming technology. Chinese authors write that encryption makes it more difficult for the other side to collect intelligence while direct-sequence spread spectrum (DSSS), frequency hopping and related measures enhance the satellite link’s anti-jamming capabilities. They also assert that to deal with computer network threats, it is very important to ensure the secrecy, validity, and integrity of one’s own information systems. Defending ground support systems is also seen as vital. Measures for protecting ground elements evaluated in Chinese articles include camouflage and concealment, mobility, and redundancy.

Camouflage and concealment reduces the probability that an enemy will be able to detect and target a facility. Mobile ground support systems make it harder to find and strike Chinese assets. Redundancy enhances survivability of the system in the face of enemy attacks. Finally, one Chinese author suggests that using leased foreign space systems poses a diplomatic and political dilemma for the enemy who would otherwise want to try to attack China’s space information systems. Leasing foreign space information systems "increases the attacking side’s decision-making burden" because they must contemplate attacking a satellite that is owned by a third party [17].

Space Deterrence

In addition to defense, Chinese military writers also emphasize the growing importance of space deterrence. For example, Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi highlight space deterrence as one of the key types of strategic deterrence, placing it on par with nuclear deterrence, conventional deterrence, information deterrence, and "People’s War Deterrence" [18]. Other Chinese writers contend that China is still developing its space deterrence strategy. According to Bao Shixiu, "Currently, China does not have a clear space deterrence theory to guide its actions for countermeasures." Nonetheless, he argues, the rough outlines of China’s approach approximate Chinese thinking on deterrence in other areas and its overall "active defense" strategy. "The basic necessity to preserve stability through the development of deterrent forces as propounded by Mao and Deng remains valid in the context of space," Bao writes [19].

China’s development of a space deterrence strategy can thus proceed from a starting point that draws on the strategic guidance of Mao and Deng and resembles Cold War deterrence theory, at least at a general level. Chinese writers, like their Western counterparts, conclude that strategic deterrence requires a country to meet three basic conditions: the possession of deterrent capabilities; the will to use them; and the ability to communicate to an adversary that it has the capabilities and the determination to use them if necessary. Yet, Bao argues that space force deterrence will differ from nuclear deterrence in some key respects. According to Bao, "[although] there will be a taboo on the use of space weapons, the threshold of their use will be lower than that of nuclear weapons because of their conventional characteristics. Space debris may threaten the space assets of other ‘third party’ countries, but the level of destruction, especially in terms of human life, could be far less than nuclear weapons or potentially even conventional weapons."

Within this broad context, Bao outlines a Chinese approach to space deterrence, one in which "an active defense will entail a robust deterrent force that has the ability to inflict unacceptable damage on an adversary" [20]. According to Bao, "under the conditions of American strategic dominance in space, reliable deterrents in space will decrease the possibility of the United States attacking Chinese space assets." Specifically, he writes, China "will develop anti-satellite and space weapons capable of effectively taking out an enemy’s space system, in order to constitute a reliable and credible defense strategy." This suggests that in addition to denying an enemy the ability to use its space systems in a war with China and countering the possibility of space-based missile defense capabilities undermining China’s nuclear deterrent, another of the missions for China’s counter-space capabilities could be protecting China’s own space systems by deterring an adversary from attacking them.

Outlook and Implications

As China continues to place more satellites into orbit, Chinese strategists are likely to become more interested in space defense and space deterrence, but this does not necessarily mean that their interest in attacking adversary space systems if required will be diminished. Indeed, Chinese writings on military space operations emphasize the importance of maintaining one’s own freedom of action in space while denying the adversary the ability to use space assets in a conflict with China. Moreover, many Chinese analysts indicate that they perceive the US military as heavily dependent on space assets for crucial functions such as ISR, communications, and navigation and positioning. Some Chinese writers also argue that space represents a crucial U.S. vulnerability, one that must be exploited to win a future local war under informatized conditions. Chinese concerns about the potential of enemy space-based missile defense systems to undermine China’s nuclear deterrence capabilities continue to provide another rationale for the development and possibly employment of ASAT capabilities [21]. Given the conviction that preventing an enemy from using space systems effectively in a conflict may very well be essential to gaining information superiority, or possibly even to preserving China’s ability to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike, it seems unlikely that China’s development of counter-space systems would be limited to deterring attacks against China’s own satellites. Consequently, even as its interest in space defense and space deterrence increases along with the need to protect its own growing satellite capabilities, Beijing will probably still view counter-space weapons as giving it the option of denying an enemy the advantages its forces derive from unhindered access to space systems.


1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2010, 7.
2. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2010, 36.
3. For example, see Liu Biliu, Wu Meng, Ma Yiwei, Zeng Xiaoli, and Xi Rui, "卫星面临的威胁及其防护, Weixing mianlin de weixie jiqi fanghu"[Threats to Satellites and their Protection ], "航天电子对抗, Hangtian dianzi duikang" [Aerospace Electronic Warfare], 2010, No. 6.
4. On Chinese views of the importance of space in future wars, see Roger Cliff, John Fei, Jeff Hagen, Elizabeth Hague, Eric Heginbotham and John Stillion, Shaking the Heavens and Splitting the Earth: Chinese Air Force Employment Concepts in the 21st Century (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011), pp. 51-61; Larry M. Wortzel, The Chinese People’s Liberation Army and Space Warfare, American enterprise Institute, October 2007,; Ashley J. Tellis, "China’s Military Space Strategy," Survival 49:3 (Autumn 2007), 41-72; and Kevin Pollpeter, "The Chinese Vision of Military Space Operations," in James Mulvenon and David Finkelstein, ed., China’s Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analysis, 2005), 329-369.
5. For recent overviews of the development of Chinese space systems and their capabilities, see Andrew Erickson, "Satellites Support Growing PLA Maritime Monitoring and Targeting Capabilities," China Brief 11:3 (February 10, 2011); and Kevin Pollpeter, "To Be More Precise: The Beidou Satellite Navigation and Positioning System," China Brief 7:10 (May 25, 2007).
6. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2010 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2010), 7,
7. Zhang Hui, "Space Weaponization and Space Security: A Chinese Perspective," China Security No. 2 (2006), 24-36.
8. Bao Shixiu, "Deterrence Revisited: Outer Space," China Security No. 5 (Winter 2007), 5,
9. Bao, "Deterrence Revisited: Outer Space," 4.
10. For Chinese perceptions of U.S. activities, see Yuan Liwei, Yang Jianjun, Yang Jiahong, "美国反卫星武器纵述, Meiguo fanweixing wuqi zongshu" [Discussion of American Anti-Satellite Weapons],"中国航天, Zhongguo hangtian" [Aerospace China] 2004, No. 10.
11. See, for example, Shen Zhiqun, Zhang Chengkang, Shi Shuhai, "航天器安全防护保障探讨, Hangtianqi anquan fanghu baozhang tantao" [Study on the security guarantee of spacecrafts], "航天电子对抗, Hangtian dianzi duikang" [Aerospace Electronic Warfare], 2010, No. 1.
12. Liu, Wu, Ma, Zeng, and Xi, "卫星面临的威胁及其防护, Weixing mianlin de weixie jiqi fanghu" [Threats to Satellites and their Protection].
13. For example, see Zhao Xinguo, Hou Yingchun, and Cao Yanhua, "未来作战中航天指挥基本问题研究, Weilai zuozhan zhong hangtian zhihui jiben wenti yanjiu" [The Basic Issues of Space Command in Future Wars], "装备指挥技术学院学报, Zhuangbei zhihui jishu xueyuan xuebao" [Journal of the Academy of Equipment Command & Technology] 18:1 (February 2007), pp. 41-45.
14. See Zhang Hui, "Space Weaponization and Space Security."
15. For example, see Huang Hanwen, "卫星隐身概念研究, Weixing yinshen gainian yanjiu" [Concept Study on Satellite Stealth], "航天电子对抗, Hangtian dianzi duikang" [Aerospace Electronic Warfare], 2010, No. 6; Meng Lingjie, Zhang Xiangyi, Hou Yukui, Huang Yumin, and Liu Pinxiong, "卫星低可探测性技术发展浅析, Weixing dike tancexing jishu fazhan huaxi" [Low Detection Satellite Technology Development Analysis] "航天电子对抗, Hangtian dianzi duikang" [Aerospace Electronic Warfare], 2010, No. 1; and Qi Xianfeng, "空间信息系统防护探讨, Kongjian xinxi xitong fanghu tantao" [Study on the Protection of Space Information Systems], "装备指挥技术学院学报, Zhuangbei zhihui jishu xueyuan xuebao" [Journal of the Academy of Equipment Command & Technology] 2005, No. 5.
16. Zhang Liying, Zhang Qixin, Wang Hui, "反卫星武器技术及防御措施浅析, Fan weixing wuqi jishu ji fangyu cuoshi qianxi" [An Analysis of ASAT Weapon Technology and Defensive Counter-measures],"飞航导弹, Feihang daodan" [Winged Missiles Journal] No. 3 (March 2004).
17. Qi Xianfeng, "空间信息系统防护探讨, Kongjian xinxi xitong fanghu tantao" [Study on the Protection of Space Information Systems].
18. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi, ed., The Science of Military Strategy (Beijing: Military Science Publishing, 2005), 217-223.
19. Bao, "Deterrence Revisited: Outer Space," 6.
20. Bao, "Deterrence Revisited: Outer Space," 9.
21. For concerns about the possibility that space-based missile defense could neutralize China’s nuclear deterrent, see Hui Zhang, "Chinese Perspectives on Space Weapons," in Pavel Podvig and Hui Zhang, ed., Russian and Chinese Responses to U.S. Military Plans in Space (Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts & Sciences, March 2008), 31-77,