May 9, 2023

Tiangong-1: Another Sputnik for the U.S. to Respond To?

China marked an historic milestone in its space program when it launched and orbited its Tiagong-1 space module on September 29, 2011. The module, whose name means “heavenly place,” was launched by a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center located in China’s northwest desert area, otherwise known as the Gobi Desert. Coincidentally, the module was launched less than a week before the 54th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik-1.

Tiangong-1 is held out publicly to be the cornerstone of the technology and procedures for an independent space station to be put in place starting in 2020. The module’s mission will include a rendezvous and docking by three Shenzhou spacecraft, of which two will be manned. Beyond that China has made no public statements about its plans for Tiangong-1; however, given what is known about China’s space program some presumptions can be made.

It should be noted that the launch of Tiangong-1 is not part of a space race between the United States and China. As noted by Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation, China has been interested in developing a space capability since 1949 with focus on space systems that would facilitate economic development, and only recently has its focus shifted to national security concerns. Thus, while China is rightfully waving the flag over its achievement and to some extent rubbing it in the United States’ face, Tiangong-1 and its successor missions do not represent a present or future space race with the United States.

Although much has been made of Tiangong-1′s scientific and technological goals, it is prudent to expect that the launch of the module and its successor missions have a military purpose in addition to its scientific functions. The likelihood of the Tiangong series of missions performing a military role is not without precedence. During the Shenzhou-7 manned mission, in addition to the first space-walk by Chinese taikonauts, Shenzhou-7 released a small micro-satellite registered as BX-1 in the official satellite catalog. The purpose of the BX-1 publicly released by the PRC was to photograph the Shenzhou-7 and its taikonauts from a distance and demonstrate the ability to inspect the capsule and conduct limited proximity operations. However, it has been concluded by some experts that the BX-1 could have been a test-bed for a co-orbital anti-satellite weapon or the test of a rudimentary satellite inspection capability. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the PLA would use the the Tiangong series of missions as an opportunity to test dual-use technology or perform military missions such as manned reconnaissance the likes of that intended for the United States proposed Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) and the former Soviet Union’s Almaz space station. This becomes more likely with China’s soft power organs posturing the Tiangong series of flights being performed for scientific purposes. This terminology is often proffered by China for activities which have a military purpose and in fact which China has used when publically touting their newly refurbished aircraft carrier.

Aside from Tiangong’s utility as a platform for China’s furthering of its space program, it also serves as a basis to expand China’s ability to build on its soft power and in turn its political and diplomatic clout. Even before the launch of Tiangong-1, China took the opportunity to again proclaim its long-used diplomatic position that China was committed to the peaceful use of outer space, and the fact that the launch of Tiangong-1 was broadcast live for the world to see lends credence to the supposition that China regards this achievement as a means to enhance its national prestige as well as its technical capabilitiest. Most notably, this achievement runs in stark contrast to the United States whose manned space program is no floundering with no certain goals for future after leading in the realm of outer space for over 50 years. This fact is not lost on China and with a vibrant, visible space program, China recognizes the opportunity to upstage the United States in terms of prestige in the area of manned space flight even if they publicly deny that is their intention.

As noted earlier, the launch of Tiangong-1 occurred almost 54 years to the date of the launch of Sputnik-1. The launch of former achieved many laudable scientific goals and even contributed unwittingly to customary international law regarding the free passage of space. However, perhaps the most significant accomplishment from the perspective of the Soviet Union was the reaction of the American public and members of the United States government that Sputnik-1 represented a clear and present threat to United States in terms of its security and leadership. This perception fueled the Soviet propaganda machine and spurred the United States into a full-fledged space race with the Soviet Union. While the launch of Tiangong-1 and China’s public plans may raise concern in light of the United States current manned-spaceflight predicament that China is gaining the lead over the United States, that concern is not the same as the panic that led to public outcries that fostered the seeds of the space race.

Still, concerns have been raised in Congress about China’s growing space capabilities and in at least one instance that growing space capability has been put forward as a reason to rush ahead with the enormous expenditure of building a heavy lift rocket without any tangible mission to utilize it. The answer to China’s growing capabilities in space is not to panic and take the nation into a space race with China, which China as noted before is not looking for; however, should U.S. space policy and strategy decide to engage China in a tit-for-tat competition in space, it will find that China, unlike the former Soviet Union, will not directly engage the United States but rather use the United States’ challenge to fuel its own propaganda by pointing out the rashness and folly of the United States’ approach to space in comparison to its own. Additionally, the answer to China’s growing space capabilities does not lie in cooperation with in outer space. China would only consider such cooperation if it stood to benefit technically and politically, notwithstanding that agreeing to cooperation would only bolster China’s soft power in terms of United States’ acquiescence to China’s growing space capabilities.

Given this, the question is not whether the United States should engage China in the realm of outer space, but rather how it should engage China. In that regard, Dean Cheng, Research Fellow for Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation outlined recommendations to policy makers in his recent web-memo “Five Myths About China’s Space Program” to prevent China from surpassing the United States’ preeminence in outer space.

In order to effectively compete with China in outer space, Mr. Cheng recommends that United States’ policymakers and strategists must recognize the significance of space to American power and security. Mr. Cheng states in his memo that a variety of U.S. interests are effected by space capabilities and without a strong space capability and the industry to support its space systems, the underpinning of American power will deteriorate.

Mr. Cheng goes on to advise that policymakers need to understand that China is not engaged with a space race with the United States. China is in a power competition with the United States with outer space as one of many arenas to play out that competition, and as long as the two nations are in competition, outer space will be a major setting for that competition. Because of the significance outer space plays in this competition, Mr. Cheng notes that China is unlikely to be swayed by diplomatic overtures regarding conduct in space or meetings with the heads of America’s civilian space program.

Finally, Mr. Cheng suggests that policymakers need to recognize the political significance of a space presence or the absence of such. According to Mr. Cheng, United States’ policymakers would be well advised to look at the significance of having a solid space capability through the eyes of China. Mr. Cheng notes that China understands that a strong space capability coupled with highly visible achievements serves a significant terrestrial purpose whether by advertising technical prowess or sending a strong political message to its allies and adversaries. Relinquishing the role of manned space flight to China or even the Russian Federation has a global impact beyond that of the space community.

In addition to the recommendations outlined by Mr. Cheng, U.S. policymakers would do well to coordinate official responses to China’s growing space capabilities both publicly and internally to minimize the propaganda and soft power value inured to China. Specifically, the United States should be proactive towards China’s achievements and not to publicly dismiss or otherwise denigrate China’s efforts. The United States should publicly assuage China’s cultural sense of honor and respond to China’s achievements not with threats or dismissive comments, but rather with a demeanor of congratulations deserving of their achievements. The approach of recognizing China’s accomplishments such a Tiangong-1 and its successor missions would serve to negate the propaganda value that China might otherwise find in a dismissive response that the United States might otherwise have. Out of the public eye; however, the United States should be calculating how China’s achievements affect the standing of the United States in terms of its outer space capabilities and hence its position in the scheme of the world competition between the two countries.

United States’ preeminence in space is seeing its most significant challenge since the launch of Sputnik-1 and the beginning of the space race with the former Soviet Union. The challenger to the United States’ preeminence this time takes a different view of the role of outer space capabilities and understands that preeminence in that arena will pay dividends in the grander competition it is engaged in. The advantage in outer space capabilities that the United States has enjoyed since winning the space race against the former Soviet Union can be lost simply if it chooses to let China take it. To that end, United States’ space policy and strategy would do well to resist the impulse to simply react to Chinese achievements in outer space and at the same time pursue policy and goals that will not only maintain its lead in outer space capabilities but augment them as well.


Space flight in service of science, China Daily, September 30, 2022

Brian Weeden, China’s BX-1 microsatellite: a litmus test for space weaponization, The Space Review, October 20, 2008.

Dean Cheng, “Five Myths About China’s Space Program”, The Heritage Foundation, September 29, 2022


China’s Beidou Global Navigation System

The China news agency Xinhua reported on July 27, 2022 that a Long March-3A carrier rocket launched the next satellite in the Beidou global navigation constellation from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China’s Sichuan Province. The launch is the second this year of a satellite for the system and is part of China’s plan to deploy more than thirty satellites, which will provide global navigation much to the extent that the dominant GPS system controlled by the United States provides. There are currently eight Beidou satellites deployed, with Wednesday’s launch adding the ninth. The satellites will provide commercial global positioning for civilian use as well as an enhanced signal for military use, both of which could provide China with a dominant strategic advantage in the Asia-Pacific region.

The seeds of China’s global navigation project were planted in 1983 after a proposal was made by Chen Fangyun to develop a regional navigation system using two satellites in geosynchronous orbit in contrast to the system utilized by the United States’ GPS. In 1989, using two in-orbit DFH-2/2A communications satellites, the two-satellite concept was proven comparable to the United States’ GPS in terms of precision. The Beidou-1 program was approved in 1993 after this successful demonstration using the DFH-3 satellite as the platform, and the first two indigenous Beidou experimental navigation satellites were launched in 2000. The final Beidou-1 constellation consists of four geosynchronous satellites: Two operational satellites and two satellites to serve as backups.

The two-satellite concept achieved similar accuracy to the United States’ GPS, but it did have its drawbacks. On the other hand, it did provide for a China with only two satellites an indigenous, independent, high-accuracy military navigation system that could function in anything less than total war with a major military power as well as support military communications.

Despite the success of the two-satellite system, the geosynchronous system was limited to the Asia-Pacific region in terms of coverage and that along with its other limitations prevented its marketability in certain areas of the commercial global navigation market. To meet this challenge, China formed a private company to develop the commercial capabilities of the Beido system and a announced in 2006 the deployment of a supplementary system to the geosynchronous Beido system.

This second phase, Bediou-2, was envisioned to consist of a constellation of 35 satellites. Five of the satellites would reside in geostationary orbit. The other thirty satellites of the system were to occupy medium-earth-orbit (12-hour, 55 deg inclination, 11,339 nautical mile (21,000km) altitude circular orbits) and use the same navigation principle as the United States’ GPS. These thirty satellites were planned to provide two-levels of service. The first, a public service, would be free to China’s citizens and have an accuracy up to 10 meters. The second service would be a more accurate military signal that would also provide system status information for the constellation and the capability to manage military communications.

The ultimate goal of the Bediou-2 medium-orbit global navigation system was to represent a new regional independence from foreign global navigation systems for China’s civilian-sector and for the use of commerce, and to provide a lucrative income for China’s private subsidiaries, who currently look to systems such as the GPS.

Aside from the commercial applications of Beidou, the placement of an independent global navigation system would give China a considerable strategic military advantage in the event hostilities should break out in the Asia Pacific Region. Most notably, such an advantage would be useful in countering foreign naval forces and with particularity those of the United States. Of late, China has been posturing its desire to obtain the ability to eliminate United States’ aircraft carriers through the use of it Dongfeng 21D ballistic missile. With an active GPS such as Beidou in place, China could theoretically use that capability in combination with drones to accurately guide these anti-ship missiles to their targets. Such an advantage could prove useful in deterring or hindering the ability of the United States or even India to project air power to intervene with any military operation China decides to take againt Taiwan, the Philippines or any other interests China has in the South China Sea.

Of course, the military utility of Beidou would not be limited to engagements with the United States. China’s neighbor India as well as Vietnam and Taiwan itself could find itself a target of munitions guided by the Beidou system, and given China’s heavy reliance in its doctrine of using missiles to destroy fixed targets, the utility of Beidou is apparent.

All this is overshadowed by China’s proven ASAT capability. With the ability to destroy or disable satellites within the United States’ GPS system, either through direct-ascent ASATs or ground-based lasers or ECM, China can selectively deny military GPS coverage for the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Such a move would leave China as the only power within the region with a viable global-positioning capability for military use. Moreover, the loss of GPS coverage would also deny consumers the use of global-positioning service in the Asia-Pacific region and leave China’s system as the only viable option to fill the void for consumers and international commerce. Therefore, China in essence could in one action gain a significant military and economic dominance in the Asia-Pacific Region.

Of course, this all presupposes that China will attempt to assert itself militarily against its neighbors in the near future, but if it chooses to do so, it is likely that it will be prepared to assert the advantage offered by its global-positioning system while denying the same capability to its adversaries. With the potential that exists for China to gain the upper-hand in the Asia-Pacific region the need for the United States and its allies to bolster the security of their collective space assets, including GPS is apparent, as is the importance to resist veiled diplomatic overtures by China and others that would otherwise compromise that security.


Thanks to Mark Wade and Encyclopedia Aeronautica for the background on the Beido navigation system.


Forty-Two Years After Apollo 11, the Russians Win the Space Race

On July 21, 2011, almost 42 years to the day since the United States won the race to the moon and supposedly the space race, the United States sent its manned space program on a course with an uncertain future. The final space shuttle mission, STS-135, not only marked the end of thirty years of manned space flight for the United States with the space shuttle system, but it also marked a new era for the space program inherited by the Russian Federation from the former Soviet Union.

With no successor to the space shuttle launch-ready, the United States is taking a lesson in supply/demand economics from Russian Federation, who is the only country now able to provide transport for United States’ astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The Russian Federation is taking this lesson to heart and is charging the Unites States $63 million dollars per seat to fly its astronauts to the ISS, which was primarily possible by the financial and space resources of the United States.

Politicians and pundits tout that the United States won’t be out of manned spaceflight forever and point to the federal government’s investment into commercial space to replace the space shuttle and take over the responsibility of manned spaceflight from NASA. Of the companies involved, Space X and its Dragon capsule are the closest to actually producing a man-rated spacecraft. However, the federal government has made no firm commitments to these space entrepreneurs with regard to manned launches and may decide it isn’t worth the investment given the availability of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

There is also the possibility that the Russian Federation may seek to preserve its new-found monopoly on manned spaceflight and use a portion of the money it is collecting from the United States to lobby Congress and the White House to preserve the status-quo. It may well also use its clout under the International Space Station Agreement to ensure that commercial spacecraft are either stalled or canceled by placing impediments to commercial spacecraft docking with the ISS or insisting on sweeping international regulations for commercial spacecraft.

Aside from the speculation of where we are going, there is the question of how the United States found itself in this situation. It could be argued that the political environment of the United States today seems to accept mediocrity and not the excellence exemplified during the era of Apollo and the space shuttle program. A more likely scenario, however, is that having won the race to the moon 42 years ago, the United States has become like the hare who decided that the race against the tortoise was already won and that it need not race anymore.

An anonymous author once said the race does not always go to the swift, but to the ones who keep running. Clearly the Soviet Union never stopped running after the United States declared victory 42 years ago when Armstrong stepped on the Moon, and its successor now finds itself holding the prize willingly relinquished by its former competitor in the realm of manned spaceflight. So, to the victor go the spoils and with it the consequences that follow.


Russian PM Confirms Obama Administration Scrapped BMD Deal

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed on July 7, 2022 during an interview with the state-run Rossiya 24 television station that the Obama Administration scrapped a ballistic-missile defense agreement that was scheduled to be signed in June during the G-8 summit in Deauville, France.

The Washington Times reported on June 15th that the Obama Administration rejected its own proposed ballistic missile-defense agreement with the Russian Federation because of concerns it had that two provisions within the four-part agreement would limit U.S. missile defenses to be deployed in Europe.

The first part of the proposed agreement that raised concern was a provision that could be interpreted by the Russian Federation to be a legally-binding guarantee that the U.S. would not point SM-3 Block II interceptors deployed in Europe at the Russian Federation. The second provision that raised concern was language that might have been interpreted as a limitation on the number of interceptors the United States would be allowed to position as well as the capabilities of those interceptors.

The United States is currently in talks with the Russian Federation, and both countries are expected to sign an agreement relating to other aspects of the proposed ballistic missile defense shield, including the placement of radars in countries once under the umbrella of the former Soviet Union.


TCBMs: A New Definition and New Role for Outer Space Security

Frank A. Rose, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance for the United States Department of State, recently participated as a panelist in “Defining Space Security for the 21st Century.” The panel, which convened on June 13, 2011, was part of the Space Security Through the Transatlantic Partnership Conference sponsored by the European Space Policy Institute and Prague Security Studies Institute, held June 12-14.

In his remarks, Mr. Rose discussed the diplomatic activities being pursued by the United States to enhance stability in outer space and as result its security.  Specifically,  Mr. Rose limited his remarks to the policy tools that the United States is considering, if not already using, to advance and to promote security and stability in outer space with an emphasis on the use of  transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs).   Mr. Rose noted the United States’ use of TCBMs through USSTRATCOM’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) and its provision of notifications to the Russian Federation and the Peoples’ Republic of China regarding close approaches between satellites.

Mr. Rose also remarked that the United States is considering signing on to the European Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (CoC)  as part of its policy to strengthen stability and security in outer space.  Mr. Rose further commented that the United States will be participating in the Group of Government Experts on Outer Space TCBMs in 2012.  The Group of Government Experts, which was established by Resolutions 65/68 during the 65th session of the United Nations General Assembly, is anticipated by the United States to serve as a positive mechanism to examine voluntary and pragmatic TCBMs in space to remedy concrete problems presented in space stability and security.  Ironically, or perhaps by design, Mr. Rose’s remarks concerning the use of TCBMs come one week after Huang Huikang, director of the Department of Treaty and Law in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Peoples’ Republic of China addressed the 54th session of United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) on June 5th, where he spoke about China’s space policy.   In his address, he noted the importance of space law as an important instrument for safeguarding the peaceful use of outer space.

While not mentioning the PRC’s defense policy or the PPWT in particular, Huang also noted that space law is important for the prevention of the weaponization of space, thus intimating that space stability and security can be achieved only through an expansion of the current legal regime for outer space.  The approach of the United States policy and that of the PRC towards space stability are diametrically opposite and should provide an interesting dichotomy when the Group of Government Experts meets next year to consider the role of TCBMs should play in space activities.

Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures

Transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) are part of the legal and institutional framework supporting military threat reductions and confidence-building among nations.    They have been recognized by the United Nations as mechanisms that offer transparency, assurances and mutual understanding amongst states and they are intended to reduce misunderstandings and tensions.  They also  promote a favorable climate for effective and mutually acceptable paths to arms reductions and non-proliferation. The General Assembly at its 73rd plenary meeting on December 7, 2022 endorsed the  guidelines for TCBMs  decided upon by the Commission on Disarmament on December 12, 1984.
TCBMs have been used extensively for the purpose of arms control and specifically in the arena of nuclear weapons.  However, when applied to space activities TCBMs can address other space activities outside of those performed for by the military or for those performed for national security reasons. While TCBMs promote transparency and assurance between states, they do not have the legal force of treaties and states entering into them are bound only by a code of honor to abide by the terms of the instrument.  By their nature TCBMs are considered a “top-down” approach to addressing issues.  They are not intended to supplant disarmament accords but rather to be a stepping stone to legally enforceable instruments.
Redefining TCBMs for outer space activities
TCBMs as envisioned by the United States provide the Obama Administration with a diplomatic and policy  tool that it can utilize to unilaterally project its foreign policy agenda without interference from Congress and in particular the Senate.  With the loss of the majority in the House of Representatives and a greatly diminished majority in the Senate, the Obama Administration is faced with a less than favorable political environment to propose a treaty such as the PPWT.  TCBMs give the Administration an alternative to side-step political impediments to pursue its foreign policy objectives in place of an actual treaty in regards to outer space stability and security.The position set forth by the United States regarding the use of TCBMs does not coincide with the traditional view and use of TCBMs.  Per the National Space Policy, the United States is seeking to enter into TCBMs to define space activity and conduct as an alternative to entering into legally binding treaties.

This approach to TCBMs was articulated by Paula Desutter when discussing the implications of the United States signing onto the CoC.   Ms. Desutter remarked that the CoC was preferable to the draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) proposed by the Russian Federation and the Peoples’ Republic of China.  She noted that the CoC could provide an alternative approach and vehicle to ensuring space security and stability that could undermine or ultimately lead to the demise of the PPWT.   If this is the tack that the United States intends to take at next year’s meeting of the Group of Government Experts, then it will meet opposition from several constituencies.

The PRC and the Russian Federation will certainly oppose as they have in the past any form of TCBMs that are not linked to some sort of arms control agreement such as the proposed PPWT.  The Russian Federation in particular has noted that TCBMs have been used in the past to address issues relating to space activities, and that it has used unilateral TCBMs itself in regards to notifications of launches and the pledge not to be the first to deploy space weapons.  The Russian Federation has stated it will likely continue to support the use of TCBMs to lay the ground work for adoption of the PPWT and that the adoption of the PPWT would be the most important confidence-building measure in outer space.

If reaction by Asia-Pacific nations to the proposed CoC is any indicator, the United States could also find opposition from other space-faring nations in that region.  Open-source material criticizing the CoC suggests that India might object to the United States’ approach to space security and stability. Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan’s, a Senior Fellow in Security Studies at the Observer Research Foundation remarked on whether India should endorse the CoC.   Dr. Rajagopalan notes in her critique of the CoC that the European Council did not consult Asian nations while drafting the instrument, and that while the Coc is voluntary, its mandate for states to establish national policies and procedures to mitigate the potential for accidents in space could be seen as intrusive.   She further critiqued that the voluntary nature of the CoC would preclude any penalty on states violating the norms within.  Similarly, some of the concerns voiced by Dr. Rajagopalan could be expressed by India and other nations within the Asia-Pacific region concerning the use of TCBMs with the most prominent being their lack of enforceability and verification.

The United States will also find opposition from the non-space faring nations.  The United States is portrayed as the neighborhood bully when it comes to matters of international security, especially in the realm of outer space security, and the realities of soft politics will ensure that will not change anytime soon.  Attempts to address the issue of space security and stability via TCBMs as proposed by the United States will be met with suspicion by non-space faring nations and the delegation from the PRC and Russian Federation will likely stoke that dissension.

The use of TCBMs in place of treaties may not be the ideal diplomatic solution to deal with the issue of space security and stability.  However, until such time that a reliably verifiable and workable treaty is introduced that can pass Congressional muster, the use of TCBMs are a prudent course for the United States to take to address the issue of stability and security in outer space while simultaneously preserving its national security interests in that realm.  Only time will tell whether this approach will ultimately be embraced or rejected by space faring and non-space faring nations alike.


  • Defining Space Security for the 21st Century, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Remarks, United States Department of State, June 13, 2001.Stephen Clark, “Nearly 400 satellite crash notices sent to Russia, China”, Space Flight Now, June 15, 2011.Jeff Foust, “Debating a code of conduct for space”, The Space Review, March 7, 2011.

    Liu Gang, “Building harmonious outer space to achieve inclusive development: Chinese diplomat”, Xinhua, June 5, 2011.

    Andrey Makarov, Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures: Their Place and Role in Space Security, Security in Space: The Next Generation-Conference Report, 31, March-1 April 2008, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), 2008.

    U.N. General Assembly, 43rd Session, 1988, Guidelines for confidence-building measures (A/43/78H).

    George C. Marshall Institute, “Codes of Conduct in Space: Considering the Impact of the EU Code of Conduct on U.S. Security in Space”, February 4, 2011.

    The Value of Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures – Next Steps, Statement by V.L.Vasiliev, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation, at the UNIDIR Conference on Space Security 2010, Geneva, 29 March 2010.

    Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “Establishing Rules of the Road in Space: Issues and Challenges”, Observer Research Foundation, May 6, 2011.

  • Share
    Social Buttons by Linksku