China, space, and military are three words that, when assembled, can inspire a lot of hysterical silliness, which can then encourage a poor grasp of reality, which leads to a bunch of dumb questions being asked by everyone from pundits to politicians.
This week, the English-language China Daily quoted Chinese President Xi Jinping when he told the Chinese Air Force to more closely integrate its air and space capabilities. That was then breathlessly communicated and spun by other media outlets as Xi saying he wants China to militarize space — presumably by building a Death Star and staking a territorial claim on the moon.
China is certainly aggressive these days, rattling lightsabers at anything within a five-hour flight from Beijing. And it's undoubtedly true that the country is rapidly ramping up its military, space program, and military space capabilities.
But this is not the apocalyptic, scare-mongering story you’re looking for.
Pretty much every advanced military relies heavily on space. Even militaries from countries that don’t maintain their own military satellites move a vast amount of communications via communication satellites. US pilots at bases in the US operate drones halfway around the world via satellites — and even those are often commercial communications satellites. And that's not to mention other ubiquitous space applications, perhaps most notably GPS.
Whatever you think about the realism of the movie 'Gravity,' it was absolutely right about one thing — space debris can really ruin your day.
Beyond the commercial and public utility of stuff in space, militaries and intelligence agencies rely heavily on stuff in space for reconnaissance, mapping, and intelligence, keeping track of forces in the field, planning missions and logistics, eavesdropping on communications, and watching for missile launches and nuclear detonations. One way or another, space has been used for military purposes — in other words, it has been "militarized" — since essentially the start of the Space Race.
The problem is that the more easily excitable amongst the commentariat frequently conflate “militarization” with “weaponization.” Weaponization — actual guns and missiles and planet-destroying lasers mounted on suspiciously vulnerable space stations — is another, entirely more dangerous and deadly proposition.
The main issue with blowing things up in space is that it’s fantastically messy. When something gets blown up on the ground, it generates shrapnel which, while deadly, eventually comes to rest on the ground, rendering it harmless to anything but the unwary bare foot. When things in space get blown up, they continue to orbit, traveling more than four miles per second. A chunk of debris with the mass of a billiard ball moving at orbital speeds imparts as much energy on a target as a round fired from a tank. Whatever you think about the realism of the movie Gravity, it was absolutely right about one thing — space debris can really ruin your day.
All of this said, concerns about the Chinese weaponization of space aren’t entirely groundless. In 2007, China carried out a test of an anti-satellite system, blowing up one of their defunct weather satellites. The test created not only a huge outcry here on Earth, but also the largest debris incident the planet has seen in a few billion years. But Xi was talking about militarization, not weaponization. If China had plans to weaponize space, Xi probably wouldn't casually announce it during a mundane speech.
And so while there may be a lot of reasons to worry about China's future plans — some of which even make sense — the announcement that Xi wants the Chinese military to get a better handle on space isn't a planet-imperiling catastrophe. It's business as usual.
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