25 January 2019

National Air & Space Intelligence Center Report—“Competing in Space”—Highlights China’s Major Achievements & Goals

Competing in Space (National Air and Space Intelligence Center/NASIC: Wright-Patterson AFB, OH, December 2018).

Click here to download a cached copy.


Key quotes and correlation with other U.S. government statements:

Bill Gertz, “Pentagon: Chinese Military Units Training with ASAT Missiles—China, Russia Militarizing Space to Challenge U.S.,” Washington Free Beacon, 23 January 2019.



 p. 1

After the Cold War, the United States dominated space. Over the past two decades, an emergent China and a resurgent Russia developed advanced technologies that eroded our advantage. Foreign competitors are integrating advanced space and counterspace technologies into warfighting strategies to challenge U.S. superiority and position themselves as space powers. …

China and Russia remain leaders in space launch and space-based services.

p. 2

Space is Increasingly Militarized

Both China and Russia are developing new space capabilities to achieve military goals and reduce their reliance on U.S. space systems. Through military reforms, China and Russia have organized new military forces devoted to the employment of space and counterspace capabilities and regularly integrate them into military exercises. Meanwhile, these countries continue to develop, test, and proliferate sophisticated anti-satellite weapons to hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk.

China and Russia continue to endorse a draft “Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT).” While this draft promotes “no first placement” of weapons in space, it fails to address a variety of anti-satellite weapons and lacks meaningful verification mechanisms. Furthermore, despite publicly insisting that space is a peaceful domain, these competitors are continuing development of several anti-satellite weapons.

… China and Russia maintain the largest foreign space system fleets.

p. 6

China and Russia have the largest remote sensing satellite fleets outside the U.S. Additionally, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Russian Ministry of Defense are reportedly capable of employing their respective civil and commercial remote sensing satellites to supplement military-dedicated capabilities. As of May 2018, the Chinese reconnaissance and remote sensing fleet consisted of more than 120 satellites designed to collect data for civil, commercial, or military owners and operators. Reportedly, the PLA owns and operates about half of these systems, most of which could support monitoring, tracking, and targeting of U.S. forces. These satellites also allow the PLA to maintain situational awareness of China’s regional rivals (e.g., India and Japan) and potential regional flashpoints (e.g., Korea, Taiwan, and the East and South China Seas).

 p. 7

Russia has sought to sustain its reconnaissance and remote sensing satellite fleet despite funding shortfalls, economic sanctions, and technological setbacks since the end of the Cold War. This fleet contains at least 20 satellites, half reportedly owned and operated by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Despite possessing fewer satellites, it is widely accepted that the capabilities of individual Russian reconnaissance and remote sensing satellites exceed the individual capabilities of Chinese satellites. For Russia, these systems reportedly support ongoing military operations in Syria, but can also monitor U.S. and allied forces operating globally.

p. 8

China plans to expand services beyond Asia by providing satellite communications to users worldwide and exporting domestically developed systems. China is testing multiple next-generation capabilities, such as the world’s first quantum communications satellite, and plans to develop at least three new constellations.

 p. 10

Russia and the European Union currently operate worldwide satellite navigation systems (GLONASS and Galileo, respectively), while India and Japan operate regional navigation systems (NavIC and QZSS, respectively). China’s satellite navigation system, known as BeiDou, offers satellite navigation services in Asia. The rise of these foreign satellite navigation services reduces dependence on GPS and provides worldwide users multiple satellite navigation options.

In 2017, China began deployment of its next-generation, worldwide BeiDou constellation, scheduled for full operation in 2020. The BeiDou constellation also offers text messaging and user tracking through its Short Message Service, to enable mass communications for specific BeiDou users and provide additional command and control capabilities for the Chinese military.

 p. 12

China and Russia are updating their space launch capabilities to increase responsiveness, reduce launch timelines, improve manufacturing efficiencies, and support future human spaceflight and deep space exploration missions. The graphic below depicts Chinese and Russian light-, medium-, heavy-, and proposed super heavy-lift space launch vehicles.

p. 13

China and Russia are updating their medium- and heavy-lift launch fleets to include new, modular launch vehicles with common designs that increase manufacturing efficiency, launch vehicle reliability, and overall cost savings for space launches.

China has developed and fielded light, quick response space launch vehicles capable of expedited launches. Compared to medium- and heavy-lift launch vehicles, quick response systems require little launch infrastructure, can relocate by road or rail, can be stored launch-ready for longer periods, but are only capable of launching small satellite payloads into low orbits. China designed quick response space launch vehicles to increase its attractiveness as a commercial small satellite launch provider and to rapidly reconstitute space capabilities in low Earth orbit during disasters or conflicts.

China and Russia are currently in the early stages of developing super heavy-lift space launch vehicles similar to the U.S. Space Launch System. These super heavy-lift vehicles could support future Chinese and Russian crewed lunar and Mars exploration missions.

p. 15

Potential adversaries are developing and proliferating a variety of weapons that could disrupt or deny civil and military space services. Although many of these weapons are intended to degrade space services temporarily, others can damage or destroy satellites permanently.

  • Adversaries may jam global navigation and communications satellites used for command and control of naval, ground, and air forces, to include manned and unmanned vehicles.
  • Weapons designed to target intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities may deny the ability to locate, monitor, track, and target the enemy. For example, lasers can temporarily or permanently blind imagery satellites and other strategic sensors.
  • Adversaries may use anti-satellite missiles to shoot down satellites in low Earth orbit. China used an anti-satellite missile against its own defunct weather satellite in 2007. The result of a missile shooting down a satellite can produce debris that may threaten satellites in nearby orbits.
  • A number of foreign countries are believed to be testing on-orbit, space-based anti-satellite technologies and concepts. China and Russia continue to conduct sophisticated on-orbit activities that may advance counterspace capabilities.
  • Physical attacks against ground sites and infrastructure that support space operations can also threaten satellite services. Cyber capabilities could target space systems and supporting infrastructure.

 p. 16

China and Russia both have large networks of ground-based sensors to monitor and target satellites. Some of these sensors also perform a ballistic missile early warning function.

 p. 19

China and Russia consider both offensive cyber capabilities and electronic warfare as key assets for maintaining military advantage. As a result, both countries are researching and developing cyber capabilities and modernizing electronic warfare assets.

p. 21

Anti-satellite missiles destroy targeted satellites. Using a ground-launched anti-satellite missile in 2007, China destroyed one of its defunct weather satellites more than 500 miles above the Earth. As seen below, the impact of this collision generated over 3,000 pieces of space debris that will continue orbiting the Earth for decades.

China has military units that have begun training with anti-satellite missiles. Russia is probably also developing an anti-satellite missile. These missiles can destroy U.S. and allied space systems in low Earth orbit, making intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and communications satellites vulnerable.

Counterspace directed-energy weapons are designed to produce reversible or non-reversible effects against space systems by emitting highly focused radiofrequency or laser energy. Reversible effects include temporarily blinding optical sensors. Non-reversible effects include permanently damaging or destroying sensors or other satellite components.

Both China and Russia intend to field counterspace directed-energy weapons. Over the past two decades, Chinese defense research has proposed the development of several reversible and non-reversible counterspace directed-energy weapons. Russia is reportedly developing an airborne laser weapon system intended for use against space-based missile defense sensors.

p. 24

New Competition for Space Beyond Earth’s Orbit

In the past two decades, foreign competitors have looked to lunar missions as key demonstrations of technological sophistication and economic prosperity. In 2013, China became the first country to land a mission on the Moon’s surface since the Soviet Union in 1976. China plans to become an international leader in lunar research and exploration with goals to assemble a lunar research station beginning in 2025, perform a crewed Moon landing mission in 2036, and establish a Lunar Research and Development Base around 2050. Russia plans to launch a robotic Moon mission in 2021.

China and Russia have active Mars and deep space exploration programs. Through the mid-2020s, China intends to launch its first Mars rover mission and an asteroid sample return mission. Russia’s Mars program can be traced back to Soviet ambitions in the 1960s. Since then, it has launched several Mars exploration missions, with the only two successful missions occurring in 1971. Recently, Russia has partnered with the European Space Agency in the European-led ExoMars program, which launched a Mars orbiter in 2016 and plans to launch a rover in 2020.