China: The PLA Goes To The Moon

Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

China’s October 24 launch of its Chang-e 1 (Moon Goddess) Moon survey satellite has been heralded by the Chinese government as a “giant leap” for China’s peaceful exploration of outer space. But the launch of Chang-e, as well as subsequent Chinese Moon missions, to very likely include manned Moon activities, should also be viewed as a major step into space for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which controls all of China’s space activities.

It is perhaps somewhat hopeful that in late 2007 that China, Japan, and India—with some American inputs—are pursuing unmanned Moon exploration programs, whereas the United States, very likely China, and perhaps Russia, are pursuing manned Moon programs. And while there are positive pressures to prevent the possible militarization of Moon exploration, such as the 1979 United Nations Moon Treaty which forbids major weapons on the Moon or in its orbit, it is not likely that Moon exploration will for long remain separate from Earth’s violent politics.

The first race to the Moon in the 1960s occurred in the backdrop of the Cold War. While it can be said that neither the six U.S. manned missions to the Moon, nor the nine Soviet unmanned Moon missions involved military activities, both pursued extensive military space programs for Earth orbit. The Soviets developed several unmanned anti-satellite weapons, for a brief period had armed manned space stations (Almaz/Salyut), were unsuccessful in launching a large space weapons platform (Polyus), and did not complete plans for small and large armed space shuttles. The U.S. considered manned military space stations and even military Moon bases but did not pursue either. Political and financial disinterest following America’s initial Moon successes, plus program failure followed by social and political breakdown for the Soviets caused a hiatus in Moon activities. But it certainly worth considering that had the Soviet Union remained viable and powerful that the Cold War’s military competition would have been carried to the Moon.

In 2007 there is clearly a renewed interest in the Moon which as during the Cold War, is occurring amid a backdrop of looming strategic confrontations on Earth. This time it is a rising China which is seeking to assert itself globally, even as a military power, while pursuing broad commercial and economic cooperation with much of the world. However, China’s preparations to conquer the democratic government on Taiwan, which it claims as territory, its territorial conflicts with India and Japan, plus its pursuit of Greater Asian political dominance, make real the possibility of future wars with the United States and others. And like its Soviet Communist predecessor, China’s still Communist leadership is pursuing a broad space program to build its “comprehensive national strength” as well as to mobilize domestic support for its political dictatorship.

China’s Change-e series, which will include landing a Moon rover vehicle by 2012 and a sample return mission by 2017, and its Shenzhou manned capsule, constitute the most well known aspects of China space program. However, high level Chinese policy dictates that all civil research be made available for the military’s benefit, plus the PLA’s overall control of the space program, underscore Shenzhou’s and possibly even Change-e 1’s use to advance military goals. All six Shenzhou missions have carried either electronic or optical surveillance systems, and on October 23 a Hong Kong human rights group reported that China will use a nuclear submarine to communicate command signals to Change-e 1, so as to exercise military control of future ASAT craft.

China shocked most of the world this past January when it successfully tested its SC-19 direct ascent anti-satellite missile, which was derived from its KT-1 solid fuel space launch vehicle. However, since the early 1990s PLA literature on space warfare has been voluminous and Chinese space technical literature indicates a healthy PLA interest in a range of anti-satellite and space warfare platforms, to include Earth-bombing space platforms and aircraft that can operate at very high altitudes and in low Earth Orbit. In 2004 a PLA officer explained to me that the PLA was debating which existing PLA service should dominate a new “Space Force” that would be co-equal with other PLA services.

Chinese military scholars are also apparently debating how much China should honor existing space “law” or even “convention” as they explore the PLA’s requirements to exercise “space dominance.” This activity, when combined with China’s penchant for secrecy, prompts many troubling questions about China’s future in space. Will future Chinese space labs, space stations and planned space shuttle platforms also be configured for military use as have the Shenzhou series? Should a China that is apparently moving ahead to prepare for active and passive outer space warfare in Earth orbit also be expected to prepare for combat on the Moon?

All of this justifies our seeking a deeper dialogue with China, and especially with its military-space officers and academics. But as long China refuses to be fully transparent about its military-space intentions, other space faring nations have little choice but to defend their access to space, their assets in space, and if necessary, to build a full range of military-space capabilities to deter China.

Author Note
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a Vice President with the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia.