Pentagon Report: China's Growing Military Space Power

Pentagon Report: China's Growing Military Space Power
David Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, announces the release to Congress of the 2008 Defense Department Report on the military prowess of the People's Republic of China, during a March 3 Pentagon news conference. (Image credit: R. D. Ward)

GOLDEN, Colorado — A just-released Pentagon report spotlights a growing U.S. military concern that China is developing a multi-dimensional program to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by its potential adversaries during times of crisis or conflict.

Furthermore, last year's successful test by China of a direct-ascent, anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon to destroy its own defunct weather satellite, the report adds, underscores that country's expansion from the land, air, and sea dimensions of the traditional battlefield into the space and cyber-space domains.

Although China's commercial space program has utility for non-military research, that capability demonstrates space launch and control know-how that have direct military application. Even the Chang'e 1 — the Chinese lunar probe now circling the Moon — is flagged in the report as showcasing China's ability "to conduct complicated space maneuvers — a capability which has broad implications for military counterspace operations."

Hedging against the unknown

Military Power of the People's Republic of China 2008 is an annual report to Congress prepared by the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense.

While drafted by the Department of Defense, the report is the U.S. government's collective and unified view on Chinese military power, said David Sedney, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia in a March 3 Pentagon briefing on the just-issued report. The assessment, he said, has been vetted and cleared across interagency lines, including the White House, the National Security Council, the intelligence community, and other agencies.

The wide-ranging report is founded on the premise that China not only is a rising international economic power in the community of nations, but also is a rising military power with new and emerging capabilities that have global implications.

"The lack of transparency in China's military and security affairs poses risks to stability by increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation. This situation will naturally and understandably lead to hedging against the unknown," the report states.


In the space arena, the report cites the unannounced January 2007 ASAT test as demonstrating the ability of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to attack spacecraft in low-Earth orbit.

"The test raised concern among many nations, and the resulting debris cloud put at risk the assets of all space faring nations, and posed a danger to human space flight," the report says.

"In the counterspace area, the Chinese test of an anti-satellite system, a little over a year ago, was something that really brought home, in a very dramatic way, the capabilities that China has been developing…not that we weren't aware of those developments beforehand," Sedney noted in this week's Pentagon briefing.

"But when you see something actually used, then it certainly attracts your attention. Because you've seen that, not only are they working on it, but they've done it … they've acquired that capability," Sedney told reporters.

Work in progress

The newly issued assessment by the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense points to other Chinese space developments:

  • China is developing the Long March 5, an improved heavy-lift rocket that will be able to lift larger reconnaissance satellites into low-earth orbit or communications satellites into geosynchronous orbits by 2012, and is constructing a new satellite launch complex on Hainan Island.
  • The PLA has developed a variety of kinetic and non-kinetic weapons and jammers to degrade or deny an adversary's ability to use space-based platforms.
  • China is researching and deploying capabilities intended to disrupt satellite operations or functionality without inflicting physical damage. The PLA is also exploring satellite jammers, kinetic energy weapons, high-powered lasers, high-powered microwave weapons, particle beam weapons, and electromagnetic pulse weapons for counterspace application.
  • China is deploying advanced imagery, reconnaissance, and Earth resource systems with military applications. Examples include the Ziyuan-2 series, the Yaogan-1 and -2, the Haiyang-1B, the CBERS-1 and -2 satellites, and the Huanjing disaster/environmental monitoring satellite constellation.
  • China has established dedicated small satellite design and production facilities, and is developing microsatellites — weighing less than 200 pounds (100 kilograms) — for remote sensing, and networks of imagery and radar satellites. These developments could allow for a rapid reconstitution or expansion of China's satellite force in the event of any disruption in coverage, given an adequate supply of boosters. However, Beijing's effort to develop small, rapid-reaction space launch vehicles appears to be currently stalled.
  • Press reports indicate China will perform its first space walk later this year, and carry out rendezvous and docking in 2009-2012. China's goal is to have a manned space station and conduct a lunar landing, both by 2020.
  • Citing the requirements of its manned and lunar space programs, China is improving its ability to track and identify satellites - a prerequisite for effective, precise counterspace operations.

Hindering policy makers

In reviewing the just issued report on China, the focus on space has been reinforced, said Theresa Hitchens, Director of the Center for Defense Information (CDI) in Washington, D.C. The organization is active in analyzing various components of U.S. national security, international security and defense policy.

The space focus in the report is not surprising, Hitchens said, given the ASAT test by China in January 2007. "However, some of the focus seems odd. For example, there is a lot of language about [China's] manned space program. That is somewhat baffling because the expert opinion is that a manned space program is a very inefficient and inconvenient way to build up military space capabilities; and much of the work on manned space is simply not transferable," she told

Hitchens said that while China may be researching high power microwaves and "particle beam" weapons, as noted in the report, "there is no evidence that these capabilities are near-term for anyone, especially the Chinese who are — despite concerns in the U.S. — still several decades behind the United States in space capabilities."

There is a slight aura of "very worst case scenario" in the report, Hitchens concluded, "which actually can hinder policymakers rather than help."

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.