China’s latest moon shot could provide some lift for President Trump’s Space Force.
U.S. officials say the capabilities displayed in China’s milestone mission landing a rover on the far side of the moon last week could pose a serious threat to American and allied space operations — particularly intelligence missions using space-based satellites.
Despite his personal enthusiasm for the project, Mr. Trump has struggled at times to rally support on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon for an entirely new service to confront the growing military challenge in space. While the moon landing was a civilian scientific endeavor, the moon mission — under the overall management of the People’s Liberation Army — is also seen as a space shot across the bow for the U.S. as China’s space efforts grow increasingly ambitious and sophisticated.
The touchdown of the Chinese lunar exploration craft Chang’e 4 has “opened up a new chapter in human lunar exploration,” officials from the China National Space Administration said in a statement last week.
Michael Griffin, defense undersecretary for research and engineering, said this summer that China and Russia already have the ability to target American and allied intelligence and communications satellites.
“Those assets are what we use for communication and reconnaissance and missile warning and position, timing and navigation, a whole bunch of features that we use for warfighting,” Mr. Griffin said.
In October, Jeff Gossel, the top intelligence engineer within the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center’s space and missile analysis group, floated the idea that China’s military could use its base on the unmonitored far side of the moon to conceal anti-satellite weapons.
A full-fledged war in space may be hard to imagine, but Pentagon planners say they have to anticipate threats that may materialize years and even decades into the future. Mr. Gossel recently said part of his job is to be paranoid about threats that most would consider to be highly improbable.
Although lunar landings have been staples of human space exploration since the 1960s, the Chinese landing was more momentous — and potentially more dangerous — to the U.S. and its partners, analysts say.
The Chinese government “has been very clear” on this, Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told The Guardian newspaper. “They have compared the moon to the South China Sea and Taiwan, and asteroids to the East China Sea. They’re making a very clear geopolitical comparison with what’s happening with space, and we need to pay attention to that.”
Launching and landing a space vehicle on the “dark side” of the moon — the half of the moon perpetually facing away from Earth — had not been accomplished until Jan. 3 because no country had the technology to communicate and control a space vehicle operating “behind” the moon.
The longest range for any known satellite is 22,000 miles above Earth’s atmosphere. The technology for operating spacecraft beyond that limit, known as the “geosynchronous orbit belt” had not been proved until the Chinese moon landing on Jan. 3.
With the lunar landing, China now has the means to operate “well outside our space situational awareness,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“It would be like taking the high ground” in the battlefield, he said. “That is a significant concern.”
China has repeatedly stated that its efforts in space are rooted in peaceful exploration and research. But the deep-space communications relay stations and other next-generation technologies demonstrated during the lunar landing can be transferred easily to military applications, said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
The lunar landing itself is relatively insignificant in terms of possible military threats, he said in an interview on Tuesday. “The Chinese are not going to start throwing moon rocks at us” from a military outpost there, he said.
But the Chinese can “exploit and use these parts of space that the [U.S.] is ignoring,” he said, referring to the areas of space beyond the geosynchronous belt. The U.S. and its allies “are going to have their hands full tracking anything beyond” that orbit belt. “It is very expensive and very hard to track” those potential threats, he said.
Some of the biggest threats would be China’s ability to jam or intercept American spy or military communication satellites, both analysts said.
If China can perfect its command and control system for deep space vehicles, then Beijing could launch a series of weapons beyond the geosynchronous belt to lie in wait to attack U.S. and allies’ satellites — all out of view of American or European space surveillance systems.
“You might see that in the next decade,” said Mr. Clark, noting that China would likely deploy such weapons into deep space directly above the Chinese mainland. “The Chinese see [that] space as part of their homeland,” he said, adding the country’s efforts to militarize space are geared toward that purpose.
China’s lunar landing also has sparked concern about Washington’s ability to keep pace with Beijing on Earth.
Chinese investment in military and civilian space programs has outpaced spending levels by Russia and others, according to figures released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. China already is the world leader in rocket launches, with 39 in 2018 compared with 31 by the U.S. and 20 by Russia.
Beijing’s investments are still dwarfed by the U.S. government’s $48 billion annual expenditure on space efforts. But Beijing gets a lot of bang for its buck, according to the Pentagon’s most recent assessment of China’s military. “China’s space program continues to mature rapidly,” defense officials wrote in a 2018 assessment of the People’s Liberation Army.
“The PLA, which has historically managed the effort, continues to invest in improving its capabilities in space-based [intelligence], satellite communication, satellite navigation and meteorology,” the report said. Most recently, Beijing has invested heavily in “a range of technologies to improve China’s counter-space capabilities, [including] the development of directed energy weapons and satellite jammers,” Pentagon officials say.
Part of that work, Defense Department officials said, is improving on the technologies demonstrated during a 2007 anti-satellite exercise, when Chinese researchers stunned U.S. military analysts by shooting down a failing weather satellite in orbit.
As work continues in Beijing, the Trump administration is pressing ahead with the president’s Space Force initiative. Defense Department officials are putting the final touches on a legislative proposal for Congress, a senior defense official said last week.
The high-profile Chinese moon mission makes the sales job a little easier, Mr. Clark said.
“What this does is give the space portfolio activities a little more of a leg up in terms of competition for resources,” he said. “There will be a better reception for the Space Force, on the House side particularly, and it will probably help in the Senate too.”
But the work is not moving quickly enough in light of Chinese advances, Mr. Cheng said.
“The Russians and the Chinese have established their space force in 2015, and we are [only] just talking about it,” he said.