An annual space threat assessment released on April 14 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed to China as the biggest competitor of the United States when it comes to developing space capabilities. This dynamic, the report indicated, comes despite China remaining relatively quiet in the counter-space arena over the past year.
The open-sourced report by the center’s Aerospace Security Project analyzed space activities of various adversaries and allies, including China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. Of the nations reviewed, the Chinese government was found to be pressing the most to have its satellites function faster in coordination with its precision weapons, the report stated.
“Beijing is developing ... an ability to rapidly detect targets and relay those target coordinates to its precision weapon systems to close its own kill chains,” the report read. “The authors anticipate greater public discussions, especially by U.S. national security space leaders, on the policy, capability investments, and operational concepts needed to deny others the use of space against U.S. forces and interests.”
In 2022, a report by the Defense Innovation Unit, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the U.S. Space Force argued that the U.S. needs a “North Star” to guide grand space strategy across civilian, military and commercial sectors. Without that unified direction, the report warned the U.S. would be at risk of losing its strategic technological advantage over China by 2032.
The report also focused on counter-space, which refers to a broad set of capabilities meant to deny the space domain to a near-peer adversary. Reports from 2022 revealed Chinese universities were developing small lasers capable of being mounted on satellites, but that type of technology is not currently in China’s arsenal.
No country has conducted a kinetic physical attack on another nation’s satellites, the report noted. However, the U.S., Russia, China and India have successfully tested anti-satellite, or ASAT, weapons on their own mock satellites.
“They have proven themselves to be both very talented and very aggressive in what they’re doing in space,” Deputy Director Emily Harding of the CSIS International Security Program said during a U.S. leadership in aerospace panel at the University of Southern California.
“I think most concerning is that they’re learning to play the cat and mouse game in space, where they can maneuver their satellites to be in very close observation and perhaps actually do damage to [our satellites],” she added.
Authors of the report found that China surpassed its previous space launch record in 2022, notching 64 launches. In 2021, the Chinese recorded 55 launches.
China is also developing its civilian and domestic space sectors and recently released its plans to create a 13,000-satellite constellation in low Earth orbit for “broadband communications purposes,” the report found.
Analysts say the planned constellation would serve as China’s alternative to SpaceX’s Starlink network, offering service to Chinese customers and others across “underdeveloped internet markets.”
Australia, Israel, the United Kingdom and South Korea were among the allies assessed in the report.
Zamone “Z” Perez is a rapid response reporter and podcast producer at Defense News and Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.