China’s Commercial Space Ventures Pose A Variety of Threats, DOD Officials Say

By Patrick Tucker,
Published by Defense One, 4 July 2023

Officials worry China may do for commercial-space capabilities what it did for cheap telecom equipment.

China has ramped up its space mission, with plans to surpass 70 launches—commercial and military—this year. And while the Pentagon has been vocal about the clear military threat China’s rocket program poses to U.S. satellites, officials say China’s growing commercial space activity also poses a threat. 

“There’s been a long debate about state-owned enterprises, and really the viability of a separate commercial sector given the laws that are in place in the PRC, and the necessity to maintain a relationship and frankly, exposure to the PRC leadership in particular, on what’s going on and those commercial enterprises,” said Maj. Gen. David Miller, the Space Force’s director of operations.

The U.S. must presume a Chinese satellite is a threat regardless of whether it is commercial or military, he said. The most obvious concerns are the potential threats posed by satellite weapons in space, and by Chinese launch technology to destroy U.S. satellites. Less obvious, but still concerning, are China and Russia’s future market shares in space-based services like satellite communications, position navigation and timing, and space-based images. 

Consider the role unclassified commercial space imagery played in preparing the world for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Firms like Maxar and Planet Labs provided open-source information that shaped public opinion, allowing for the swift passage of sanctions packages that have undermined Russia’s war effort. 

China is also getting into the Earth-imaging business, as evidenced by a new launch in December. Given Chinese abilities in generative adversarial networks and other AI tools that lend themselves to image manipulation, does that pose an information warfare threat, given how important satellite images have become to public understanding of geopolitical crises? 

That’s “something that we not just think about, but we look at—and it’s not just Russia, China,” John Huth, defense intelligence officer for space and counterspace at the Defense Intelligence Agency told Defense One in an interview at DIA’s headquarters in June. 

“I’ll say a bigger concern on the economic side is, is it fair competition, right? If all your companies are state sponsored, that kind of gives you a leg up. Where it’s not a true commercial market,” he said, referring to the Chinese model of using the government to fund “private” enterprises that have both a commercial and a military application. That sort of model gave China an advantage in selling telecommunications equipment and services for 5G, which it’s now using to build partnerships in AI with countries that don’t necessarily share China’s geopolitical interests but do like access to cheap technology. 

“China has been trying to sell services to other countries, whether it be [communications] or [precision, navigation, and timing.] Other things, you know, as part of their Belt and Road Initiative…So they have had some successes with other countries in pulling them in, if you will, and in some cases, providing some upfront investment to pull them in. And we’ll see over time how well those investments pan out for those countries,” Huth said. 

In the future, on-orbit serving—using satellites to refuel, repair, or move other satellites—will be another area where commercial and military activity blur. It’s also an area in which the Chinese government has invested heavily and is already seeing returns. 

Still, U.S. entrepreneurs can play a growing competitive role, as long as the U.S. government can help them become more established, Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson said during the recent Defense One Tech Summit. 

“I think there’s some good capability there, and more coming. I firmly believe in the force design that our space warfighting analysis center has just completed, that we’ve worked with the other services, worked with combat commanders and others…That is an investment area we in the Space Force need to address as we go into future budgets. And so there’s not enough of it there yet. We’ve thought very carefully about the types of services required.”

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