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"Implications for US and Multilateral Export Control and Investment Screening Regimes" PRC Space and Missile Capabilities

Testimony Prepared for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing on "China’s Pursuit of Defense Technologies"
Kevin Pollpeter
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Chairmen Bartholomew and Wong and members of the Commission, thank you for inviting me back to testify before you today on the  important topic of People’s Republic of China (PRC) space and missile capabilities. Space and missile technologies are central to the PRC’s efforts to build strategic deterrent and conventional warfighting capabilities. Since its inception in 1956, the PRC space and missile program has stressed “self-reliance” (自立更生) in developing its space and missile programs. Despite this adherence to relying on its own abilities, foreign assistance has played an instrumental role in advancing China’s space and missile program.

In fact, despite far-reaching US export control restrictions on space and missile technologies, the PRC has become a world leader in these technologies in terms of quantity and quality. In 1999, the US Congress passed legislation that prohibited the launch of satellites manufactured with US components on PRC rockets. Additional legislative action was taken in 2011 when Congress voted to restrict bilateral contacts between NASA and China, ending most forms of contact between them.

Multiple factors account for China's success. Its extensive and expanding relationship with Russia has played an instrumental role in advancing know-how and providing technologies. However, these efforts have been necessary but insufficient in accounting for China's progress in space and missile technologies. Just as important to China’s success has been a techno-nationalist approach to science and technology that has resulted in long-term planning, ample funding, a commitment to reforming its program management system, and the recruitment of a younger and better-educated workforce. As a result, China's space and missile programs are an example of the limitations of “decoupling” in preventing China's rise as a technological power.

China’s space and missile capabilities

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has a large inventory of ground-, air-, surface-, and subsurface launched ballistic and cruise missiles (See Table 1). The majority are short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) that are most likely for use in a Taiwan contingency but also include an inventory of  medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), such as the DF-21 with a range of 1,500–2,000 km, and the DF-26, with a range of 3,000+ km that gives the PLA the ability to strike targets as far as Guam.

The PLA’s inventory of ground attack and antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) includes the DF-10 and DF-100 ground attack cruise missiles with ranges of 1,500 and 2,000 km, respectively. The PLA’s ASCM inventory includes the YJ-83, which has a range of 185 km, and the YJ-62, with a range of 277 km, as well as the supersonic, surface-launched Russian SS-N-22/SUNBURN, with a range of over 200 km. The PLA has also deployed the YJ-18 ASCM that was described in 2016 by the Defense Department as a “significant step forward in China’s surface anti-surface warfare capability.” These missiles can be launched from surface ships and submarines, have a range of 537 nm, and can reach speeds of Mach 3. Additional submarine-launched ASCMs are the Russian SS-N-27, with a range of 222 nm, and the YJ-82, with a range of 37 km. In addition to surface and subsurface launched ASCMs, China has air-launched ASCMs. These include an air-launched version of the YJ-83, as well as the YJ-12, which can deliver a 500 kg warhead at speeds up to Mach 3 and a range of 300 km.

China has also deployed hypersonic weapons that can travel at least five times the speed of sound. The PRC fielded the DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle in 2020, which the Defense Department assesses as having the potential to transform the PLA’s missile force. Although “primarily a conventional platform,” the DF-17 “may be equipped with nuclear warheads.” In July 2021, the PLA tested a hypersonic glide vehicle and an orbital bombardment system that the Defense Department assesses is probably intended to become an advanced nuclear delivery system.

The PLA’s missile inventory presents several challenges to the US military (see Table 2). The most common US antiship missile (ASM), the Harpoon ASCM with a range of 130 km, is out-ranged by most PLA ASMs, allowing PLA Navy ships to fire their ASMs in relative safety from distances well beyond the range of US surface-fired ASMs. Although the air-launched version of the Harpoon can alleviate the range deficit, it places a reliance on US aircraft carriers that are likely a main target for PLA war planners. The range deficit will be ameliorated by the introduction of an antiship version of the land-attack Tomahawk cruise missile and the introduction of larger numbers of the long-range antiship missiles (LRASMs). The Maritime Strike Tomahawk has a range of over 1,600 km, and the LRASM has a range of 560 km, but these ranges are still shorter than the PLA’s DF-21D and DF-26 ballistic missiles and the CJ-10 cruise missile. Moreover, LRASM is air launched, which again places a focus on naval aviation and aircraft carriers (see Figure 1).

Similarly, the longer ranges of PLA air-launched ASCMs gives the PLA Air Force and PLA Navy aviation units the ability to launch their missiles from well beyond the defensive ranges of US air defense systems. The US anti-air missiles SM-2 and Sea Sparrow with their ranges of less than 170 km, for example, are out-ranged by PLA ASCMs, which can have ranges of several hundred kilometers.
With a reliance on ballistic and cruise missiles, the PLA has come to realize what the US military has realized for some time: long-range power projection requires space-based command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. Space-based C4ISR can provide remote sensing to identify targets and conduct battle damage assessments, navigation to guide precision munitions, and communication to connect and integrate the actions of multiple services into joint operations.

With more than 500 operational satellites now in orbit, the PRC has the second-largest fleet of satellites in orbit behind the United States. Over 200 are remote-sensing satellites, including electro-optical, synthetic aperture radar, and signals intelligence satellites. The PRC also has over 60 communication satellites and is planning to build a megaconstellation consisting of nearly 13,000 communication satellites. In 2020, the PRC established Beidou, a global satellite navigation system. When taken together, the elements of this space-based C4ISR architecture, when combined with airborne, maritime, and ground-based C4ISR systems, will form the basis of a system to locate, track, and target US military assets.

China is also developing a wide range of counterspace technologies that are intended to threaten adversary space systems from ground to geosynchronous orbit. These include direct-ascent kinetic-kill vehicles, co-orbital satellites, directed-energy weapons, jammers, and cyber capabilities. In 2007, China destroyed one of its weather satellites with a direct-ascent KKV. According to the Director of National Intelligence, “the PLA has an operational ground-based antisatellite (ASAT) missile intended to target low-Earth-orbit satellites, and China probably intends to pursue additional ASAT weapons capable of destroying satellites up to geosynchronous orbit.” The PLA is also expected to deploy a ground-based laser system for use against satellites in low-Earth-orbit by 2020.

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DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT A. Cleared for Public Release April 2023


  • Pages: 15
  • Document Number: DOP-2023-U-035269-Final
  • Publication Date: 4/13/2023
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