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China Waging War in Space: An After-Action Report (Occasional Paper 2104)

Last Friday, Space News reported Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten wanted to demonstrate a classified American anti-satellite capability before he left office this fall. Why? Because, he argued, keeping America's space capabilities secret is undermining its ability to deter Chinese and Russian attacks against key U.S. space-based nuclear and conventional military command, control, communications, and surveillance satellites.

He’s got a point. In the space war game my center recently conducted, uncertainties about what space military capabilities the United States had and was willing to use caused serious confusion among our allies in responding to aggressive Chinese space actions.

The game was perfected by Mark Herman, an internationally recognized war game designer that worked closely with the Pentagon for more than 30 years. The game’s play was further enhanced by the participation of some of the nation’s top military space experts, staff, and officials.

The scenario had China using its anti-satellite capabilities to intimidate Japan. Beijing's plan was to keep Japan from helping Taiwan which China was about to blockade. The good news is China's ploy didn't work. The bad news is it was a close call. The game was played over two weeks and generated four key takeaways, which are posted below. For the full 100-page report, click here.

Aug 24, 2021
2104 China Space Wargame Report (PDF) 2,162.10 KB

China Waging War in Space: An After-Action Report

Workshop Report 


Executive Summary:

This debrief reflects not only what happened during a three-move wargame NPEC hosted in June, but the game’s three preparatory meetings. Game participants represented the United States, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and Japan and U.S. Indo-Pacific allies. The first move was set in 2027. The second and third moves were set in 2029. In the first move, PRC initiated space control operations intended to weaken U.S. regional allied (e.g., Japan, Republic of Korea (RoK), Australia) resolve in opposing a PRC economic exclusion zone enforcement effort directed against Taiwan.

The game produced four takeaways:

1. The United States and its space allies will have to defend against new, immediate Chinese co-orbital anti-satellite threats and make efforts to operate near and beyond the moon, or risk losing free access to space. Chinese co-orbital anti-satellite weapons capabilities (ASATs) in low Earth orbit (LEO) and Geosynchronous orbits (GEO) are real and growing and require immediate U.S. and allied acquisition and pre-positioning of bodyguard spacecraft to protect high-value military satellites. Pre-positioning is essential given that orbital mechanics do not allow for last-minute launches or maneuvers. Unfortunately, neither the United States nor its space allies have bodyguard spacecraft on station with the maneuverability required to protect their military satellites. Chinese efforts to control cislunar space are also a major emerging threat that the U.S. and its allies’ moon exploratory efforts do not adequately address. Unless America and its space allies act more quickly to address these issues, China will get the right stuff at the right time and gain much more control of space than America and its allies.

2. The U.S. and its space allies must give greater attention to how commercial space systems could be targeted and used for military purposes. Peaceful space operations – co-orbital satellite servicing and refueling, debris removal, laser satellite tracking, etc. – could be quickly flipped from legitimate civil activities to hostile military actions. At a minimum, the U.S. and its space allies should be worried that China might use its financial clout to buy and control foreign commercial space firms (especially those operating in states that are not signatories to the Outer Space Treaty). This could allow China to use these firms’ space systems to undermine U.S. and allied space operations with plausible deniability.

3. Given the history of Russian and Chinese gaming of diplomatic agreements, and the ambiguities associated with space controls, the U.S. and its space allies should reach no new space agreements with either China or Russia unless those understandings are clearly enforceable. This includes agreements to clarify redlines and penalties for when the redlines are crossed. Because hostile space operations can produce significant strategic military results quickly, any effective space agreement should give all parties the unilateral right to protect their own assets and place the burden of proof on the accused party. Finally, enforcement actions should be proportional. The scope of defensive actions should be limited to measures sufficient to bring the violating party back into compliance; no more, no less. For example, bodyguard spacecraft should be used not to destroy hostile space systems, but to gently push offending satellites far enough away that they no longer violate agreed safety zones. Also, certain laser, cyber and electronic warfare systems can be operated only to disable their targets temporarily. Agreements that meet the criteria noted (agreed to either internationally or, at least, among America’s space allies) would make it far easier to orchestrate timely, effective responses to hostile space actions. Agreeing to anything less, however, could risk encouraging just the opposite.

4. The United States will have no chance of contesting or besting China in space unless Washington works much more closely with its space allies. Being able to call on NATO, the EU and America’s Indo Pacific allies to deescalate or prevail in a space confrontation is an advantage the United States enjoys over China. America and its space allies must maintain this advantage by increasing U.S.-allied space training, planning, and gaming. America’s space allies need to know in advance what the United States is likely to do in a variety of space conflict scenarios. Any major surprises on this front will come at a steep cost to U.S.- space allied relations. Finally, the game demonstrated that it is far less likely that China can successfully peel Japan from the United States than it might separate South Korea from the United States. This recommends increasing U.S. and allied space-related cooperation with Seoul.


To read the full report, click here.

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
1600 Wilson Blvd. | Suite 640 | Arlington, VA 22209 | phone: 571-970-3187 |