In 2003, China became only the third nation in history to launch a manned mission to space, joining Russia and the United States in the elite club of orbital powers. Since then, and despite having some serious catching up to do, China’s space program has seen significant advances, including the launch of a form of “precursor” space station of their own, as well successful rover missions to the surface of the moon.
China’s rapid advancements in the orbital realm could, in large part, be credited to the close relationship the nation’s space program maintains with the People’s Liberation Army, China’s national military. Unlike the United States, which operates NASA as a civilian space agency that often receives military personnel on loan, China’s National Space Administration could be better seen as a joint venture between China’s military and their Commission on Science, Technology, and Industry for the National Defense.
While it has long been argued that America and Russia both have a history of using their space programs to secure “the ultimate high ground” during ideological conflicts like the Cold War, China has never pretended their space program was about anything else – keeping much of their orbital endeavors classified, and operating under a veil of secrecy.
These deep rooted ties to China’s national defense endeavors are actually the reason China is not represented on the International Space Station, despite the longstanding cooperative relationship between political opponents Russia and America aboard the orbital platform. Both NASA and Roscosmos work independently from the military arms of their own governments, even as those governments amass weapons platforms near one another’s borders in the latest continuation of a near century of staring matches.
A clear sign of just how entrenched in national defense China’s space program is comes from the recent announcement that, for the first time, China will begin recruiting civilians to join their astronaut corps.
China’s full fledged space station is expected to enter into full service by 2020, right around when funding is expected to dry up for the International Space Station from both Russian and American governments. Under NASA’s current plan, that funding will be diverted toward a new station that would orbit the moon, rather than the earth, providing a better launching point for ventures further into deep space.
The United States military has only recently begun taking orbital operations seriously, as lawmakers have started questioning why space-based assets that we rely on for national defense have been left undefended and vulnerable to manipulation or attack from offensive platforms that have already been launched and tested by competitor nations like Russia and China.
We assess that Russia and China perceive a need to offset any U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems and are increasingly considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine,” Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, said last month. “Both will continue to pursue a full range of anti-satellite weapons as a means to reduce U.S. military effectiveness.”
Last year, competing budgets proposed by Congress and the Senate sought to address this operational gap in different ways: with Congress proposing a new Space Corps and the Senate proposing an influx of funding and accountability for the Air Force’s existing space programs.
Ultimately, when the two budgets were reconciled, however, both efforts fell to the wayside in favor of spending a few more years simply analyzing the issue, putting off any legitimate effort to a later date.
Just like China’s rapid Naval expansion, which now includes plans for nuclear aircraft carriers intended to expand China’s military presence in conjunction with their recent efforts to open military bases elsewhere in the world, China’s space program aims to secure a dominant position, not in the world of today, but the world of the very near future.
In my best military judgment, China is on a 10-year journey to operationalize space. We’re on a 50-year journey,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast told lawmakers in November.
As the United States increasingly relies on private ventures to maintain its grip on the same orbital operations its been conducting since the 1950s, China has no illusions about the tactical and strategic value of space. The only real question that remains is, will the United States figure that out before the nation that once won the space race to the moon has to ask China for some rented space on their own space station – just as NASA currently rents out seats on Russian rockets to get American astronauts into orbit at all.
Image courtesy of the Associated Press