The United States and China recognize the strategic importance of space and are seeking to better utilize satellite systems. Both countries have built extensive space architectures, and they now depend on space-based assets for a wide range of economic, scientific, and military applications. Hence, Washington and Beijing are working to better protect their respective space architectures by making their satellite systems more resilient to attack while also taking actions to deter attacks against those systems.
Unlike those of the United States, China’s space architecture resilience objectives are unknown, and it cannot be assumed that Beijing is approaching space resilience in the same way as Washington. That said, it is possible to better understand China’s progress toward improving its space resilience through an assessment of its actions using open-source data, and through the lens of what the United States considers critical in this area. This approach has its limitations; while imperfect, it can nonetheless provide insights on China’s progress using metrics both important and familiar to U.S. military leaders and policymakers.
Space architecture resilience is a broad concept that is difficult to fully define and even more challenging to measure. However, U.S. military leaders have identified objectives to improve space resilience, and this paper evaluates China’s progress across four of these objectives: disaggregating space-based capability through satellite proliferation, diversifying orbital locations where satellites are placed, increasing access to space through a robust launch industry, and developing the ability to quickly launch satellites in response to need, a capability known as tactically responsive space launch (TRSL).
The analysis relies on publicly available data on orbital-class launch vehicles, space launch events, and the number and location of satellites placed in orbit. Sources include the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), CelesTrak, and Gunter’s Space Page. Alongside assessing China’s developments in these areas, we include brief comparisons with the United States’ progress across the aforementioned four dimensions. Key findings include:
- China is rapidly expanding its space architecture. According to CelesTrak, in the past four years alone, China has nearly doubled the total number of satellites it has placed in orbit since first successfully launching a satellite in 1970. Of the 842 Chinese satellites placed in orbit from 1970 through 2022, 419 have been launched since 2019.
- China is placing its new satellites in a diverse set of orbital regions. China continues to expand its presence in more traditional orbits such as low Earth orbit (LEO), medium Earth orbit (MEO), and geosynchronous orbit (GEO), while also positioning satellites in less common regions. In 2018, China placed the Queqiao communications satellite in cislunar space beyond the Moon, the first of its kind in this region of space. In 2021 and 2022, China placed two Shiyan experimental satellites in Molniya orbits, its first uses of the unique elliptical orbit that offers extended coverage over Earth’s North Pole.
- China is accelerating its launch pace and expanding its launch industry. In the past six years, China has doubled the total number of orbital-class launches since its first in 1970. Of the 505 Chinese launches from 1970 through 2022, 249 have occurred since 2017.5 To enable the faster launch tempo, China has constructed a fourth launch complex and introduced five new liquid-fuel and 11 new solid-fuel launch vehicles during the past decade (2013–22). Several of these launch vehicles include multiple variants.
- China has prioritized the development of a TRSL capability designed to quickly launch satellites in the event of an emergency. China is leveraging several of its new mobile, solid-fuel launch vehicles to provide this capability and has performed multiple demonstrations since 2013.
Beijing has demonstrated rapid progress in each area assessed for this study, and China appears to have surpassed the United States in one specific measure of space resilience: TRSL, which would be needed in the low-likelihood, high-consequence scenario that crucial mission-supporting satellites must be quickly replaced. Beijing has bolstered its TRSL capabilities through investments in comparatively small, mobile, solid-fuel launch vehicles, which can be launched faster than larger, liquid-fuel rockets that depend on extensive launch infrastructure. Beijing performed its first successful demonstration of such a launch vehicle, the Kuaizhou-1, in 2013, and has since continued to expand its fleet of mobile, solid-fuel rockets and conducted dozens of such launches. Meanwhile, the United States has performed only one stated TRSL demonstration, which took place in 2021. It has planned a second test for later this year. The United States has the most advanced space industry in the world, but it has not demonstrated a commensurate ability to launch rockets on short notice.
To address its TRSL capability and close the gap with China, the United States should consider:
- Developing strategies to produce and manage stored inventories of satellites, as well as prioritizing technical designs that enable satellites to be removed from storage and launched on short notice. TRSL requires that satellites and launch vehicles be kept in near ready-to-launch states. Satellites maintained in storage and designed for rapid launch would minimize the time required to reestablish a degraded on-orbit capability.
- Increasing investments in solid-fuel launch vehicles. A TRSL approach similar to that of China—using storable, mobile, solid-fuel launch vehicles—would require new investments in solid-fuel launch vehicle technology with a focus on storability, mobility, minimizing required ground support equipment, and rapid launch capability.
- Partnering with commercial launch providers to develop and maintain liquid-fuel launch vehicles able to meet TRSL objectives. Though most commercial, liquid-fuel rockets are not designed to launch on short notice, commercial and government interests in reducing launch preparation timelines may be aligned, and the commercial space industry is already exploring how to quicken its launch pace.