(Editor’s Note. SOFREP invites our members to submit their writing for publication.  This submission is from Bryan A., a former Force Reconnaissance Marine and Intelligence Officer at the CIA. He currently serves as the Vice President of Special Programs at Hayes Group International.)

Holding the High-Ground of Space

The high ground has provided a tactical advantage since the dawn of warfare: he who controls the high ground controls the battlespace. Elevation provides superior observation and fields of fire; it’s why infantry regiments raced to seize hilltops during the American Civil War and why air dominance is arguably the most important variable on the modern battlefield.

That concept makes space the ultimate high ground and explains China’s obsession with the militarization of space.

Competition drives innovation, especially in a high-stakes frontier market like space. And the sense of national pride that comes with achievements like putting astronauts on the Moon or sending a rover to Mars is all well and good. But China has resurrected a Cold War space race that ended circa 1991. Instead of using its low-orbit achievements as an opportunity for international cooperation, China’s proclivity for espionage resulted in a ban from the International Space Station (ISS). If the Russians can’t trust China’s intentions, it’s a sign the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) probably isn’t looking to make the next giant leap for mankind.

China’s space program may be new on the scene, but Beijing hasn’t wasted any time since putting its first man in orbit in 2003. China achieved its first lunar orbit in 2007, its first space walk in 2008, and sent its first unmanned craft to the Moon in 2013. And that’s where things begin to get dicey: recognizing a need for military self-reliance, the CCP launched BeiDou in 2018, a DIY navigation and guidance system independent of the American GPS network.

The People’s Republic of China took the satellite competition a step further in October 2021 when it launched Shijian-21, a platform designed to corral space junk, but also capable of disabling or knocking competing satellites out of orbit.

Given the CCP’s militarization of the South China Sea – and its willingness to pollute, steal intellectual property, pilfer natural resources, persecute minorities, imprison dissidents, cover up the origins of COVID-19, and profit from slave labor – it’s safe to assume the party’s intentions for the Moon and Mars are similarly antagonistic. The CCP has a tendency to claim things that aren’t theirs, as demonstrated by Beijing’s disputes with its neighbors over “territorial sovereignty”. (China has territorial spats with India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, Singapore, Brunei, Nepal, Bhutan, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Tibet and Taiwan.) So, for China to occupy and claim the Moon as its own is not far-fetched. The same goes for Mars. Control the high ground and control the battlespace.

Artist’s concept of China’s Tiangong space station when it’s fully assembled. (Image credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office)

Can Communist China Win a Cold War Space Race?

All of this sounds ominous, but China’s state-controlled space program probably isn’t as capable as Beijing will have the world believe. Nor does the China National Space Administration (CNSA) own the high ground. As much as the CCP wants to win the new Cold War space race, here are four reasons why China will lose at its own game:

  • The Chinese communist bureaucracy will never outpace SpaceX. Or Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic. The CNSA is beginning to outsource to private entities, but that administration is subject to the same central oversight and top-down meddling that pervade the rest of the Chinese communist system. The same goes for China’s private sector: CCP representatives are required to be present in companies with more than 50 employees – a constraint that undermines competitive behavior and entrepreneurial initiative. Both Chinese government agencies and Chinese companies behave like they’re unionized: the status quo is acceptable and the rewards for incremental improvements are significant, leaving no incentive to pursue anything consequential.

China’s state-controlled brand of “capitalism” has no shortage of wealth, market demand, or entrepreneurs. For 50 years, the CCP has overseen research programs, established high-tech zones, invested in education, and made tech development and creativity top priorities. But China still can’t seem to innovate on its own. This leads to reason number two:

  • Stealing isn’t innovating. China is attempting to replicate NASA’s successful partnership with the private sector via government policy and military tech transfers to Chinese startups like iSpace, Landspace, and Galactic Energy. But China is unlikely to abandon Maoism anytime soon, which means the CCP will default to its status quo: steal what can’t be bought or produced. The CCP began “acquiring” foreign technology to make up for its research and development shortfalls, even before China’s World Trade Organization membership in 2001. The practice has become commonplace and probably made permanent when President Xi Jinping announced his plan to make China the world’s science and technology innovation leader by 2050. Stealing intellectual property may allow China to keep pace in the space race, but never get ahead.
  • China faces a steep learning curve. China’s space program has had to cover a lot of ground in the last 20 years. While the US and the USSR were pioneering space exploration by trial and error in the 1960s, China was in the throes of a self-inflicted famine under Mao Tse-Tung’s Great Leap Forward. The CCP is late to the party: CNSA put its first man in orbit in 2003, 42 years after Yuri Gagarin rode Sputnik into low Earth orbit in 1961. China deployed its first lunar lander and rover in 2013, 54 years after the Soviets reached the lunar surface and 44 years after Apollo 11’s manned mission. And CNSA landed its first rover on Mars in 2021, a feat NASA first achieved in 1976. To give credit where credit is due, China has so far reached key milestones quickly, but these successes are not groundbreaking. Nor have the US and Russia paused their own programs: while China has been playing catchup, NASA and Roscosmos have continued to make progress with delivery systems, send rovers to Mars and conduct research on the ISS, thereby widening the innovation gap.
  • Space trash. It turns out the CCP’s behavior in low Earth orbit isn’t any different from its behavior at sea level. In 2007, China lobbed a ballistic missile at one of its inactive weather satellites, leaving a trail of more than 3,000 trackable fragments. Fourteen years later, that stream of trash makes up 10 percent of the space debris the US tracks.17 China took heat in August when CNSA failed to share trajectory data for a 23-ton Chinese booster that made an uncontrolled reentry and rained debris over a 1,200-mile swath of the Indian Ocean. CNSA did the same thing in 2021 when debris landed near the Maldives and in 2020 when fragments from a Chinese rocket landed in Cote d’Ivoire, damaging several buildings. China’s apathy when it comes to safety is disturbing but not surprising. The events are indicative of a culture where shortcuts and poor attention to detail are probably commonplace. Indifference and carelessness might save time and resources, but they’re a recipe for mishaps and aren’t the winning attributes that will put China’s space program ahead of the US.

China, however, doesn’t need to dominate space to be disruptive or dangerous. China’s presence is partially intended to demonstrate strength, while the appearance of sophistication and first-rate technology serve to intimidate competitors. Furthermore, Beijing’s ambitious intentions for the Moon and Mars have the world clamoring to get ahead of the CCP’s militarization plans.

Despite the shortfalls of China’s space program, the US will again be responsible for denying a communist rival the opportunity to capitalize on the high ground. It will be up to the American private sector to innovate, explore and develop defensive and offensive systems at a pace greater than China’s ability to replicate it. And it will be up to Washington to read the CCP’s intentions and implement a space strategy that stays well ahead of Beijing’s.