OSIX Threat Analysis US/China/Russia Space Competition: Endangering the Future of Space Commerce

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The Open Source Intelligence Exchange is the applied-research component of Fairmont State University’s National Security and Intelligence Studies (NSIS) Program.  Working with faculty mentors, student-analysts leverage open-source information, including social media, to identify and assess national security and public safety threats.  OSIX analysts gain valuable hands-on experience as they produce and disseminate finished intelligence products for real-world consumers at the federal, state and local levels.

Executive Summary

China and Russia are expanding their space and counter space capabilities, challenging US space superiority to secure an economic and military advantage. The US relies heavily on its space assets for GPS, reconnaissance, weather tracking, communication, navigation. Space businesses are expected to make great investments as the US, China, and Russia race to benefit from space technology. China is expanding its space capabilities by establishing satellite surveillance of the Arctic and discussions to build a lunar base. Russia is focusing mainly on its counter space capabilities which include advancements in its cyber, anti-satellite rockets (ASATs), space-based ASATs, and Electronic warfare capabilities in space. These actions could potentially threaten future US space commerce.

People’s Republic of China

China has consistently pushed the narrative to both the international community and the Chinese populace that the United States seeks to militarize space, while China seeks to cooperate peacefully in outer space with other powers.[1]  Since China’s ban from the international space station in 2011 for space related hacking and testing anti-satellite weaponry, Beijing has viewed the United States as attempting to bar the nation from space travel.  Although previously unable to contest the U.S. role in space, China has been emboldened by recent successes with the Tianwan-1 Mars probe.  It has pushed the idea that the United States wants to begin a space race, with Chinese commentators noting, “Russia and China had encountered a range of difficulties in working with the US as it pushed its space agenda, such as the Artemis Accords, with an aggressive and obsolete Cold War mentality.”[2] China seeks to entice more countries, such the United Arab Emirates, for cooperation in joint space projects.
China has extensively claimed the idea that the United States is militarizing space.  Its state-run media notes that the “U.S. has long neglected the appeal of the international society, and rejected to initiate the negotiation of international treaties on the prevention of arms race in outer space.”[3] China also has serious concerns over the establishment of the new U.S Space Force, considering it to be clear evidence of further militarization.[4]
This mindset has carried over to the future prospect of lunar bases. China is presenting itself as the all-inclusive power, with China’s National Spaced Administration noting, “we also welcome other countries around the world that are carrying out international moon base construction programs to join us, and make contributions to the cause of enhancing human well-being with space solutions.”[5]  China views any U.S lunar base as being a clear example of an expansion of U.S. military power.  One of the more interesting claims about this expansion involves China’s linkage of the prospect of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) use of nuclear generators to power the lunar facilities to the deployment of nuclear weapons in space: “The US would commit a crime against humanity if it caused damage to the lunar ecology and geology through nuclear weapons tests.”[6]
While unlikely to result in any major cooperation, China has had talks with Russia over cooperation in space, particularly in the development of lunar bases.[7]  Discussion of Sino-Russian cooperation in space functions more as a propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist Party to show China’s peaceful intent concerning the use of outer space.
China’s confrontation with the United States concerning the use of outer space will likely result in Beijing distancing itself from Western companies in general.  China desires autonomy in its own space development and will likely only use cooperation as a means to illicitly collect technology and information, a practice in which it routinely engages in other technology-related areas.[8]  China will also likely promote its space-related companies in cooperation efforts with wealthy Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates.

Relations to U.S. Businesses

China plans to launch 10,000 satellites to compete with the U.S. entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX.[9]  China also owns stakes in Musk’s Tesla.  China currently has sanctions on U.S. aerospace companies Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.[10]  The U.S. Department of Justice has charged the Chinese state-sponsored hacking group ATP41 with attempting to penetrate the networks of more than 100 U.S. companies.  Chinese hackers exploited a flaw in software made by SolarWinds Corporation to hack into the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Federal Finance Center in 2020.[11]

Space-Related Espionage Efforts

China’s Thousand Talents Program is a government-run program to recruit people familiar with foreign technology and intellectual property.  In January 2021, a senior NASA scientist plead guilty to lying about his ties to the program.  China uses this program to steal technology and intellectual property from foreign countries and governments, including the United States.[12]
Chinese hackers such as state-affiliated groups ATP31 (also known as Zirconium) have copied and actively used cyber offensive toolkits developed by the U.S. National Security Agency for their operations since at least 2014.  Dubbed “Jian,” the malware developed from this was a toolkit by APT31 which was used until it was discovered in 2015.[13]

Chinese Space Capabilities in the Arctic

OSIX assesses that it is highly likely China is seeking to exert its influence over the Arctic region to gain new trade routes and to establish satellite surveillance over the area.  This area contains new fisheries, hydrocarbons, natural resources and faster trade routes.  As China does not border the Arctic, it must seek other means to gain access to the region.  China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will use increased satellite capabilities for geospatial intelligence collection.[14]
China has the second highest number of satellites in space after the United States.  China is working to create frequency jammers and lasers to blind military satellites.[15]  Some Chinese satellites possess electro-optical sensors, synthetic aperture radar, and electronic-intelligence collection technology.[16]  China’s Naval Ocean Surveillance System Satellites provide constant maritime surveillance of the western Pacific and Indian oceans.  These platforms could potentially be used for Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles or triangulation of a target’s location as well as to support military operations in the Arctic region.[17]
China has already announced plans to launch imaging satellites to monitor Arctic shipping routes in 2022.  Utilizing synthetic aperture radar, these satellites will be able to see the surface through clouds and during both day and night.  China’s Academy of the Sciences and Technology and Sun Yat-sen University developed these satellites.[18]  The satellites will be able to view most of the Arctic every 24 hours and will be able to discern which trade routes are blocked by ice.[19]  These satellites will augment the capabilities of the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, which Beijing seeks to develop further as a viable alternative to GPS and which already supports PLA operations worldwide.[20]

Chinese Ground Stations Near the Arctic

OSIX assesses that, in order to exert its influence over the Arctic, China must establish ground control stations near the Arctic region.  In 1986, China established its first Remote Sensing Satellite Ground Station (RSGS).  It currently operates five RSGS stations (named Miyun, Kashi, Sanya, Kunming and Kiruna) that provide full coverage of the Chinese territory.  These stations are able to see real time data from “polar-orbiting earth observation satellites, geostationary earth observation satellites, and space science satellites.” Additionally, RSGS might encompass creating a “Virtual Ground Station” that allows users in undisclosed “neighboring countries” to see real-time images. [21]
Although China is not part of the Arctic region, it claims to be a “near-Arctic state.”  In 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources created the “Arctic Environment Satellite and Numerical Weather Forecasting Project,” which gave rise to the establishment of ground stations in the Arctic to support overhead satellite reconnaissance of the region.[22]
The Chinese Academy of the Sciences operates the RSGS station in Kiruna, Sweden.  In January 2019, the Swedish Ministry of Defense’s Research Agency assessed the station may be controlled by the PLA and used for military surveillance.  The Polar Research Institute of China operates the China-Iceland Arctic Science Observatory in Iceland.  In the 2008 recession, Iceland’s banks collapsed, and China offered to be a new trading partner. In 2010, China and Iceland made a currency swap to help Iceland’s economy.  They signed a free trade agreement in 2013 and have since partnered in many businesses, including space observation. Similarly, China operates the Yellow River Station in Norway to examine impacts of climate change.  Beijing has an agreement with Finland to establish a “Joint Research Center for Arctic Space Observations and Data Sharing” as part of a “2019-2023 China-Finland Joint Action Plan.” The Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and Global Change and Earth System Science Research Institute of the Beijing Normal University established a satellite ground-control station in 2017. Some Chinese companies are involved in uranium mines and rare-earth minerals in Greenland, making it a potentially important part of the Polar Silk Road. China offered to help build international airports in Greenland to try to gain land in the country, but the plans were stopped due to concerns of Denmark and the United States. [23]

Chinese and Russian Space Collaboration

Since 2017, Russia and China have been working together on projects in the Arctic to further China’s One Belt One Road initiative (Figure 1), including space cooperation programs.  Both countries seek the Arctic’s shipping routes and resources, which creates the need for greater surveillance of the area.  In November 2017, Roscosmos (Russia’s space agency) signed a cooperation agreement with China for the period 2018-2022.  The program calls for joint efforts concerning the “study of the Moon and the far space, space science and related technologies, satellites and their use, hardware components and space materials, cooperation in remote sensing of the earth and other issues.”[24]  According to the China National Space Administration and Roscosmos, the countries will engage in lunar research and potentially work together to build a lunar base. [25]

Chinese Polar Silk Road

Figure 1: Chinese Polar Silk Road [26]

Russian Federation

Russia is expanding its anti-access/area denial approach in outer space in the form of electronic warfare (EW), sustainable communications systems, antisatellite (ASAT) capabilities and offensive capabilities against ground-based space infrastructure.  Moscow seeks to prevent its adversaries from using space-related infrastructure in the event of a military conflict with Russia.[27]  Russia maintains the third-largest satellite constellation in orbit, which has more than 160 satellites, 100 of which perform military-related functions.[28]   

Counterspace Capabilities

Evidence suggests that Russia is advancing its counterspace program and regaining many of its Cold War-era capabilities in this arena.  Since 2010, Russia has been testing technologies for rendezvous and proximity operations in both low-earth and geosynchronous orbits.  These technologies that could lead to or support a co-orbital capability.  In this context, research suggests that Russia has prioritized two separate programs: Burevestnik, a co-orbital ASAT program, and Nivelir, a space surveillance/satellite tracking program.  A third program that is currently in development called Ekipazh, will be used to develop nuclear-powered space-based electronic warfare capability.[29]
Russia seeks to mitigate US space superiority by organizing its space military force so that it has a combination of space, air defense and missile defense capabilities.  Russia’s stated reasoning for developing counter space capabilities is to limit the ability of the United States to impede Russia’s freedom of action, especially during periods of conflict. 

Cyber Capabilities

Cyberattacks pose the greatest vulnerability to US assets in space.  Russia has many self-trained and state-sponsored hackers who can disrupt U.S. and allied space operations.  Cyberattacks can send false information to satellites, forcing them to collide with another or change their orbits. Such attacks are difficult to trace.[30]  Known by the nicknames APT29 or Cozy Bear, these Russian hacking groups are associated with Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service.[31]  It is also likely that additional, unknown groups devoted to computer network operations against U.S. space assets are housed within the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff.

Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Capabilities

Russia can destroy satellites in low Earth orbit with Soviet-era direct-ascent ASAT missiles and seeks to modernize this capability.  Toward this end, it is testing additional direct ascent anti-satellite capabilities.  Russia has expressed interest in developing ASAT capabilities that can reach all orbits by 2025.[32]
Russia also may be developing a space-based ASAT capability.  On 15 July 2020, Russian satellite Kosmos 2543 secretly released a sub satellite into orbit that could be part of a secret ASAT program.  Kosmos 2543 was itself deployed by the Kosmos 2542 satellite in December 2019.[33]  While it is not unusual for a satellite to be deployed from another satellite, what makes the object different is that it was traveling faster than its parent satellite, leading to the strong possibility that this object could be used to destroy or disable other satellites.  In February 2020, Chief of Space Operations of the U. S. Space Force General John Raymond stated that the sub-satellites “exhibited characteristics of a space weapon”.[34]

EW Capabilities

Russia has invested heavily in modernizing its EW capabilities for counter space purposes.  It is now capable of jamming user terminals, including GPS receivers, within close proximity.  Russia has also revived a former Soviet program whose goal was to use an airborne laser system to disable reconnaissance satellites.[35]  There is no indication that this program has been successful thus far.


China and Russia both want their own space market to be able to compete with the US’s. China’s advancements into the Arctic and potential plans to build a lunar base with Russia shows it is interesting in advancing its space program. Russia’s advancements in counter space capabilities could endanger the future of space commerce by threatening US space assets. Russia is advancing its ASAT rockets that can already take down satellites in LEO and could potentially take down satellites in all orbits in the near future. Cyber-attacks will also remain a threat from both Russia and China. Despite their advancements, both Russia and China have stated that they wish to keep space peaceful.
[1] Xinhua, “China’s Lunar Endeavor Docks with World’s Shared Space Dream,” en.people.cn, 17 December 2020; http://en.people.cn/n3/2020/1217/c90000-9800194.html.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[2] Harvey Morris, “Reaching for Stars Will Rely on Teamwork,” China Daily Global, 24 February 2021; https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202102/24/WS6035aa03a31024ad0baaaa4e.html.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[3] Kong Jun, “So-Called Rules-Based International Order Preached by U.S. Officials Totally Nonsense,” People’s Daily, 13 December 2019; http://en.people.cn/n3/2019/1213/c90000-9640356.html.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[4] Liu Caiyu and Cao Siqi, “NATO Space Center Serves US Military Superiority, Provokes Space Race,” Global Times, 21 October 2020; https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202010/1204220.shtml.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[5] Deng Xiaoci, “China Roadmaps Ambitious Space Projects, Starting with 11 Launches in Next Two Years,” Global Times, 18 December 2020; https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202012/1210341.shtml.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[6] Huang Lanlan, “US to Turn Moon into ‘Nuclear Weapons Site,’” Global Times, 18 December 2020; https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202012/1210357.shtml.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[7] Morris, “Reaching for Stars Will Rely on Teamwork.”
[8] Jonathan Stempel, “NASA Scientist Pleads Guilty to Lying about China Ties,” Reuters, 13 January 2021; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-nasa-plea/nasa-scientist-pleads-guilty-to-lying-about-china-ties-idUSKBN29I345.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[9] Smriti Chaudhary, “China Plans to Launch 10,000 Satellites to Compete with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Eurasian Times, 19 November 2020; https://eurasiantimes.com/china-plans-to-launch-10000-satellites-to-compete-with-elon-musks-spacex/.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[10] Gillian Rich, “China Hits Defense Stocks over Taiwan Weapons as Missile Can Reach Coast,” Investor’s Business Daily, 26 October 2020; https://www.investors.com/news/defense-stocks-china-sanctions-boeing-raytheon-lockheed-weapons-deals/.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[11] Christopher Bing, Jack Stubbs, Raphael Satter and Joseph Menn, “Exclusive: Suspected Chinese Hackers Used SolarWinds Bug to Spy on U.S. Payroll Agency – Sources,” Reuters, 2 February 2021; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cyber-solarwinds-china-exclusive/exclusive-suspected-chinese-hackers-used-solarwinds-bug-to-spy-on-u-s-payroll-agency-sources-idUSKBN2A22K8.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[12] Stempel, “NASA Scientist Pleads Guilty.”
[13] Aditya Saroha, “Chinese Spies Cloned U.S.’s Cyber Weapon and Used It for Years,” The Hindu, 23 February 2021; https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/chinese-spies-cloned-uss-cyber-weapon-and-used-it-for-years/article33911888.ece.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[14] Thomas Ayres, “Op-Ed: China’s Arctic Gambit a Concern for U.S. Air and Space Forces,” SpaceNews, 5 October 2020; https://spacenews.com/op-ed-chinas-arctic-gambit-a-concern-for-u-s-air-and-space-forces/.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[15] Liane Zivitski, “China Wants to Dominate Space, and the U.S. Must Take Countermeasures,” DefenseNews, 23 June 2020; https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2020/06/23/china-wants-to-dominate-space-and-the-us-must-take-countermeasures/.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[16] Mike Yeo, “China’s Missile and Space Tech is Creating a Defensive Bubble Difficult to Penetrate,” DefenseNews, 1 June 2020; https://www.defensenews.com/global/asia-pacific/2020/06/01/chinas-missile-and-space-tech-is-creating-a-defensive-bubble-difficult-to-penetrate/.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Malte Humpert, “China to Launch Satellite to Monitor Arctic Shipping Routes,” High North News, 8 December 2020; https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/china-launch-satellite-monitor-arctic-shipping-routes.  Accessed 2 April 2020.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Malte Humpert, “China Looking to Expand Satellite Coverage in Arctic, Experts Warn of Military Purpose,” High North News, 4 September 2019; https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/china-looking-expand-satellite-coverage-arctic-experts-warn-military-purpose.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[21] China Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth (RADI), “China Remote Sensing Satellite Ground Station,” no date listed (n.d).; http://english.radi.cas.cn/RD/crssgs/.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[22] Jana Robinson, “Arctic Space Challenge for NATO Emerging from China’s Economic and Financial Assertiveness,” Transforming Joint Air and Space Power, ed. 30 (spring-summer 2020), https://www.japcc.org/wp-content/uploads/JAPCC_J30_screen.pdf.  Accessed 2 April 2021.
[23] Ibid
[24] TASS, “Russia, China Discuss Technical Aspects of Joint Lunar Station,” 2 February 2021; https://tass.com/science/1252033.  Accessed 7 April 2021.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Pavel Luzin, “Russia Is behind in Military Space Capabilities, but That Only Drives Its Appetite,” Defense News, 2 April 2020; https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2020/04/02/russia-is-behind-in-military-space-capabilities-but-that-only-drives-its-appetite/.  Accessed 7 April 2021.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Brian Weeden and Victoria Samson, eds., Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment, Secure World Foundation, April 2021, pp 2-1 – 2-38; https://swfound.org/media/207141/swf_global_counterspace_capabilities_2021.pdf.  Accessed 7 April 2021.
[30] Nayef Al-Rodhan, “Cyber Security and Space Security,” Space Review, 26 May 2020; https://www.thespacereview.com/article/3950/1.  Accessed 8 April 2021.
[31] Ellen Nakashima and Craig Timberg, “Russian Government Hackers Are behind a Broad Espionage Campaign That Has Compromised U.S. Agencies, Including Treasury and Commerce,” Washington Post, 14 December 2020; https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/russian-government-spies-are-behind-a-broad-hacking-campaign-that-has-breached-us-agencies-and-a-top-cyber-firm/2020/12/13/d5a53b88-3d7d-11eb-9453-fc36ba051781_story.html.  Accessed 8 April 2021.
[32] Luzin, “Russia Is behind in Military Space Capabilities.”
[33] Loren Grush, “Russia Just Tested Satellite-Destroying Tech in Space, US Space Command Claims,” The Verge, 23 July 2020; https://www.theverge.com/2020/7/23/21335506/russia-anti-satellite-weapon-test-kosmos-2543.  Accessed 8 April 2021.
[34] Chelsea Gohd, “Russia Has Tested an Anti-Satellite Weapon in Space, US Space Command Says,” Space.com, 23 July 2020; https://www.space.com/russia-tests-anti-satellite-weapon-in-space.html.  Accessed 8 April 2021.
[35] Doug Messier, “A Summary of Russia’s Counterspace Capabilities,” Parabolic Arc, 20 April 2020; http://www.parabolicarc.com/2020/04/20/a-summary-of-russias-counterspace-capabilities/.  Accessed 8 April 2021.

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