Why Donald Trump’s new Space Force can’t hurt China like Star Wars hurt the Soviet Union

Washington plans a dedicated military branch for its sprawling space programmes, but the cold war has taught Beijing the danger of being drawn into a reckless race for supremacy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 October, 2018, 12:05am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2018, 1:10am

When US President Donald Trump announced in June that he was ordering his defence department to create Space Force, Chinese state media reports were quick to draw comparisons with a previous US president’s out-of-this-world military aspirations.

The hawkish state-run tabloid Global Times told its readers the proposed military branch targeted China with the “same trick” Ronald Reagan attempted in the 1980s with his “Star Wars” space system to defend against Soviet nuclear missiles.

Star Wars, officially known as the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), was never developed, but it cast a long shadow over Moscow’s political and economic calculations and arguably contributed to the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.

However, while Trump’s new Space Force may target a rising China, Beijing’s confidence about its technological development make it unlikely to be destabilised in the way the Soviet Union was by Star Wars, say military analysts.

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An editorial in the People’s Liberation Army’s mouthpiece, PLA Daily, pointed out that a dedicated space branch of the United States military was overdue, given that up to 90 per cent of US military intelligence and all of its missile positioning systems rely on satellites.

Trump should understand that Space Force alone cannot ruin China’s political and economic systems
Military observer Zhou Chenming

Space Force, the paper said, is simply a way for Washington to cut out “inefficiency and waste” because currently US space programmes and space security fall under nearly 60 agencies in the army, navy and air force – whereas China and Russia manage space defence in a single department.

“The US space security system is not as efficient as China’s, or Russia’s for that matter, because it falls under navy and air force branches as well as other departments,” said Beijing-based military observer Zhou Chenming.

Plans for the dedicated new military branch – the US’ sixth after the navy, air force, army, marines and coastguard – indicate that the US aims to consolidate its best intelligence and technology to maintain dominance in space and counter what its main rivals are achieving with relatively streamlined programmes, Zhou said.

He said US officials at the Pentagon, the US defence department, “had a strong sense of crisis after learning that China’s PLA had already set up its Strategic Support Force – a space security command systemwhich includes a cyber force and a space army – following an overhaul of the military at the end of 2015.”

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In late 2017, the US moved towards a more streamlined model by establishing a space security command system, Air Force Space Command, hoping to improve integration with other commands such as its intelligence units. Zhou said this was to remove overlaps which had caused inefficiency.

Russia made a similar consolidation in August 2015 when space components from its air force and other forces were shifted into a re-established Russian Space Force, which had been disbanded in 1997.

“The US Space Force plan is mostly an internal political issue, rather than a specific measure aimed at China,” said Zhou. “Trump should understand that Space Force alone cannot ruin China’s political and economic systems in the way Reagan’s SDI did to the former Soviet Union.”

Military analysts say China’s careful approach is reflected in its allocation of resources to space defence technology.

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Current economic and political circumstances in China are very different from those of the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, said Zhou, who suggested that Trump’s ultimate goal could be to widen the gap the US has over China and Russia in space technology.

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said that although boosting US military capabilities and technologies for possible space combat seems to be the main goal, putting pressure on China may also be part of Washington’s calculation.

“The Americans might also be hoping that China will overspend on the space arms race as the former Soviet Union did,” said Li.

“An arms race is inevitable, but Beijing always treads carefully, because China learned important lessons from how the Soviet Union’s defence spending exhausted its economy and contributed to its collapse.”

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, China has engaged steadily in a global space race that now has some 60 countries investing in related technology for commercial and military use.

“In modern warfare, space capability can help attain a geopolitical edge, military competitiveness and technological development,” said Michael Raska, assistant professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

In 2007, China tested a missile that targeted and destroyed one of its own satellites. Alarm was voiced by the National Security Council in the US, which had already held growing concerns about threats to its dominance in space because of Russia’s claims that it, too, had satellite-killing technology.

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“Beijing has publicised its technical prowess and space ambitions in areas such as satellite launch vehicles, satellites and human space flight, as well as command and control, anti-satellite technologies and sensor capabilities,” Raska said, listing advances that could be used to fight space battles.

Scientists in China and the US are also in a race to develop quantum computers capable of processing massive amounts of data and extremely resistant to hacking – technology that the Pentagon sees as vital to space warfare.

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The US spends about US$200 million a year on quantum computer research, according to July 2016 government data reported by Bloomberg.

Although overall spending on quantum computers by China is unknown, Beijing is building the US$10 billion National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences in Hefei, in the country’s southeastern Anhui province, which is due to open in 2020.

Also in 2020, Beijing is expected to complete the Beidou navigation satellite system – its own competitor to the Global Positioning System developed by the US – which will be used for both military and civilian purposes.

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And last year, China launched Micius, a quantum satellite that can provide a secure internet.

Meanwhile, the amount of potential funding for Washington’s new Space Force is being questioned by analysts. US Vice-President Mike Pence said in August that the White House would ask lawmakers for US$8 billion to establish it over the next five years.

Hong Kong-based military observer Liang Guoliang said that US$8 billion over that period would be far from adequate to support a new military branch similar to the PLA’s Strategic Support Force, which has thousands of professionals studying space technology development and cybersecurity strategies.

US Air Force officials were this month quoted by Reuters as saying that the start-up costs for the new branch would probably be around US$13 billion for the first five years.

Even that figure contrasts sharply with the US$32.6 billion budgeted for the 1980s SDI programme, intended for developing lasers and other space-based weapons designed to nullify and usurp nuclear weapons.

But Chinese military experts have doubts over whether China’s efforts so far can challenge US dominance in space.

Song Zhongping, a military expert based in Hong Kong and former instructor with the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps – the predecessor of the country’s missile force – said he believes China’s overall scientific research and technology development, especially in military hardware, is lagging behind that of the US.

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“Beijing might have some advantages in some specific fields, but overall there is a big gap between China and the US,” Song said.

Margaret Kosal, associated professor at Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, said that unlike the neck-and-neck competition between Washington and Moscow during the cold war, the US remains the leader in space, while China is quickly catching up.

She said Beijing’s 2007 destruction of one of its weather satellites had created a harmful cloud of debris in orbit around the Earth, exposing how far China still trails the US in space exploration technology.

Despite that imbalance and China’s cautious approach to spending, Kosal warned that Trump’s Space Force plan may still “drive a militarisation of the space race”.

“The uncertainty that this president is creating definitely has the potential to cause destabilisation – in the militarisation of space and other realms too,” Kosal said.

Shanghai-based military observer He Qisong said Space Force could have a positive influence if it pushes countries investing in space to come up with a multilateral treaty on space arms control, similar to what China and Russia proposed to the United Nations in 2008.

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“China would not be surprised by Trump’s proposal, based on his ‘America First’ slogan,” He said. “And Space Force indicates a need to set up a space arms control treaty.”

He said a new treaty could be similar to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty signed by nuclear powers in 1968. Initiated by the US, Britain and the Soviet Union, it has remained open to be signed by other nuclear states since then, to continue to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy.