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China’s Space Capability and What This Means for the West

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The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has rapidly advanced in the space domain on several fronts simultaneously. Gen. Stephen Whiting, commander of U.S. Space Command testified in early 2024 that, “The PRC is moving breathtakingly fast in space. America must rapidly increase the timeliness, quality and quantity of our critical national space and missile defense systems to match China’s speed and maintain our advantage.”  The revelation in February that Russia was developing a nuclear-enabled anti-satellite weapon led to speculation about whether it was a fission reactor-powered electronic warfare satellite or a nuclear detonation device, with the latter seeming to be the more likely, despite Russia’s treaty commitments.  Such developments have also stoked anxieties about China’s intentions in space, including after its demonstrations of a so-called “fractional orbital bombardment system” and the deployment of a reusable spaceplane. PRC researchers have themselves studied the effects of upper atmospheric nuclear detonation on LEO, modeling radiological effects based on altitude for optimal strategic utility.    While Russia has garnered much of the spotlight with its employment or threatened employment of novel weapons systems, China’s development of similar emerging technologies deserves as much or more scrutiny.

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