Military Technology 05/2021

critical piece of civil infrastructure. Ensuring this reconnaissance is avail- able to the most appropriate assets, at the right time, requires a complex network of C4ISR systems. The PLA understands that success in this also relies on precision-guided weapons, an early warning and recon- naissance subsystem, and an information support system that shares gathered intelligence in real time, according to RAND. It is clear, from its current development path, that space infrastructure and reconnaissance assets are being designed and deployed to contribute to these opera- tional concepts. Groundwork Every space programme relies on a network of ground control stations that are used to track and control satellites, and act as a datalink and dis- tribution centre for the derived intelligence. For the PLA, its ground con- trol stations fall under the remit of the Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), a service established in 2015, reportedly responsible for much of China’s civil and military space infrastructure. The PLASSF itself is designed to provide the information umbrella for the PLA and enable ‘informatised’ warfare. A 2016 People’s Daily report described it as follows: “The stra- tegic support force provides accurate, efficient and reliable information support and strategy for the entire army…it will be integrated with the operations of land, sea, air, and rocket forces…and is the key force for victory in war.” The importance of the PLASSF – and its ability to disseminate data gathered by China’s satellite networks using ground, and space-based control stations – cannot be overstated as far as information dominance and target-centric warfare are concerned. China’s primary satellite control centre is the Xi’an site, formerly the 26 th Testing and Training Base. It has eight subordinate fixed location ground control stations, four mobile tracking stations and a deep space network station. Key responsibilities include satellite tracking, data transmis- sion and information processing, according to a 2021 China Aerospace Studies Institute report. The subordinate stations are variously equipped to provide space situational awareness, using systems such as the 154-IIB monopulse radar found at the Changchun Station. Others, such as the Zhanyi Station, are equipped with the Type 110 tracking radar that can be used to identify targets at up to 1,700km and track them at 1,200 kilometres. The US intelligence community has unequivocally branded China’s space ambitions as an attempt to challenge US dominance in this area. Amid the many analyses emanating from the West of China’s military are multiple bellicose accounts of how China will “weaponise space” and is seemingly determined to destroy every US satellite in orbit. What is clear is that China is developing its space assets, and that there is certainly a military element to a lot of what has been de- ployed. However, it is worth examining China’s space infrastructure, and what is known of its concept of operations, to establish a clearer understanding of what this means for the world. Information Dominance and Target-Centric Warfare Understanding the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) space programme is best achieved through the lens of its guiding military thought and per- ception of modern warfare. A 2020 report published by RAND Corporation observed that key doctrinal concepts of the PLA’s current characterisa- tion of war are information dominance and target-centric warfare. Both feed into each other: the PLA perceives all conflict as a competition between operational systems. An operational system can be considered as the totality of an opposing military (the Indian Army, for instance), or an operational formation, such as an expeditionary force. The PLA believes that key elements within an opponent’s operational system are critical to its functioning and that, without them, the system will likely fail to perform as planned. Examples of key elements can be found within the broad category of systems typically considered to fall within the C4ISR remit. A command building or satellite ground control station might, in the PLA’s view, be critical to an opponent’s operational system. From available PLA texts on military thought, it is apparent that controlling the flow of information to that system, or guaranteeing information on that system is available to the relevant PLA strike assets, will dictate the outcome of a conflict. From this flows the second doctrinal concept of target-centric warfare. The PLA seeks not only to control the flow of information during a con- flict, but to focus its kinetic effects on key targets, rather than generically trying to destroy its opponent’s military might. This requires accurate and timely reconnaissance – the position of a carrier strike group, location of an enemy commander or disposition of missile defence forces around a Morgan Douro China’s Long March to Space 68 · MT 5/2021 Special Feature The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, responsible for launching a significant number of the 363 satellites China had in orbit as of March 2020 – a significant number of which are believed to have military as well as civil applications. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)