Could US-China space war be ‘inevitable’ even if the two nations aren’t ‘natural enemies’

by Chris Zappone

Out of sight out of mind. That may explain how space competition between China and the US gets so little attention. With satellites orbiting hundreds of miles overhead and space “militarized but not weaponized” it’s easy to forget that space too, is an aspect of China’s rise. And because it involves high-technology, it’s probably an important one to watch.

Space war: an artist's rendering.

Space war: an artist’s rendering.

The Center of Strategic and International Studies’ James A. Lewis notes that “the only likely military contest in space is between the United States and China.” Space activities, he writes, are support China’s longer-term economic and strategic goals. “China’s intentions are to catch up with and surpass the West.”

Here is a piece I did on the subject for Fairfax that also takes in the growing space economy.

The subject of US-China space competition is, at this point, more for the elites than the masses. That’s because, until China puts a taikonaut on the moon, the American public likely won’t notice too much.

As Professor of Strategy at School of Advanced Air and Space Studies Everett Dolman told me: “China and US are not natural enemies” [nonetheless] both sides “fear the influence the other might have” and the geopolitical realities of the two “really collide first now in outer space.”

And the looming collision is on the radar of elites. A report on the subject was prepared this month  for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

The report gives a detailed account of China’s evolution space strategy, viewing it as the ultimate “high ground” in a battle.

The People Liberation Army’s interest in space got rolling “after the 1991 Gulf War, which has been referred to as the first space war, and has only increased since,” the report notes. Today the thinking is that as air warfare has evolved, so will space warfare.

According to Chinese sources, space warfare is now at the equivalent stage of the state of air power in World War I in which intelligence gathering was the main mission of air forces. But just as with air power, space power will become so vital to military operations that militaries will seek to control space, resulting in a contest over its supremacy.

As a result, Chinese analysts conclude that space war is inevitable and that the Chinese military must not only develop space-based command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, but also develop the means to protect those assets and to deny an enemy access to its space-based C4ISR assets.

In this regard, Chinese writers on space advocate the PLA to prepare to achieve space supremacy, defined as the ability to use space and to deny the use of space to its adversaries.

As grim as that sounds, a competition in space may not be nearly as lethal as one on the ground. In fact, if the parallel can be made to the cyberrealm, such a conflict may come down to which country has superior technology, rather than which one has bigger armies capable of more deadly destruction. The competition may be discrete, again, like it is in the cyberrealm. The question remains: when will the wider public notice?

The answer: maybe not until their own space-enable communications or entertainment are affected.