When fiction becomes reality: China’s steady militarisation of space

Currently, China is incrementally occupying large orbital slots in space, investing heavily in counter-space technologies, and upgrading security standards through quantum technologies. It is going to be nearly impossible to know how much militarisation or weaponisation of space is happening, with the Chinese space programmes as leaders in such ventures.
In this December 8, 2018, file photo released by Xinhua News Agency, the Chang'e 4 lunar probe launches from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan Province. (AP) PREMIUM
In this December 8, 2018, file photo released by Xinhua News Agency, the Chang'e 4 lunar probe launches from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan Province. (AP)
Updated on Oct 14, 2021 07:18 PM IST
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By Lt Gen PJS Pannu

The United States secretary of the air force, Frank Kendall, warned the world about the rapid militarisation of the Chinese space programme. Indeed, the day when the Chinese are literally in space with a bomb in hand, aka, in orbit, is not very far.

China’s space agency is working overtime to grab orbital slots faster than any other country in the world, taking advantage of the chaos on Earth. There are hardly any hard regulations that govern space, in particular to check the militarisation of space under the garb of peaceful exploration. China is known to have placed six to seven spy satellites over every adversary nation’s space. Pakistan, with China’s support, is incrementally building its Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Organisation (SUPARCO).

Hypersonic missiles use space to glide, and have the capability to strike any target on the earth with a speed and direction that cannot be detected, let alone defended. Such missiles have high manoeuvrability, which means that they have the ability to alter speed, altitude, directions, and are based on stealth technology. No known air defence or missile defence systems currently can provide any worthwhile warning or protection. These missiles enter outer space after launch and have the ability to loiter there. The trigger in the hands of a ground controller has the ability to then direct these missiles to make a precision strike at the time and place of choice.

China is the only country to land its spacecraft (Chang’e-4) on the far side of the moon, with its rover sending data and research signals on planetary materials and observation results. This means China could also now have access to rare materials from the moon. It has also successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars in May this year. Only the Americans have really mastered the science of landing on Mars until now, with the Russians close behind. All other countries that have tried have either crashed or lost contact soon after reaching the surface. The Chinese have landed on the northern sphere of Mars. They are assembling manned space missions and are likely to achieve permanent human presence in space.

Currently, China is incrementally occupying large orbital slots in space, investing heavily in counter-space technologies, and upgrading security standards through quantum technologies. It is going to be nearly impossible to know how much militarisation or weaponisation of space is happening, with the Chinese space programmes as leaders in such ventures.

Having put three manned space labs in low orbit, China is rapidly developing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. China plans to establish a global, 24x7, all-weather, earth remote sensing system, and a global satellite navigation system. A Chinese company is dedicated to creating and operating a 13,000-satellite broadband constellation. The plans consist of sub-constellations ranging from 500-1,145 km. China has added “satellite internet” to a list of “new infrastructures”.

It is difficult to detect what the space launchers are carrying into space. Kendall hinted that China could pursue a “fractional orbital bombardment system” to advance its space weapons. Satellites can look innocent, but it is no longer just in the world of fiction that a warhead can be carried into orbit, kept cold and ignited at will. After de-orbiting, the warhead can convert to a hypersonic missile. In lay terms, this would be “a bomb in the space” or a cold rocket with a warhead, ignited when required, for a precision strike.

Lt Gen PJS Pannu is a former deputy chief of Integrated Defence Staff and helped raise the Defence Space Agency, Defence Cyber Agency and Armed Forces Special Forces Division

The views expressed are personal

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Sunday, October 17, 2021