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Special report China and America

Military development

Sputnik moments The military relationship needs new rules


eep, beep, beep went the first satellite to orbit Earth, the primitive Sputnik1, launched in1957. No matter that it could do little else. That Soviet communists had won the first space race sparked an American crisis of confidence. This had useful effects. Abroad, America strengthened such alliances as nato. At home, vast sums were poured into science. The Sputnik crisis felt like a loss of innocence—the enemy was overhead. But the actual Soviet threat had not changed much. The Soviet Union was, as before, a nucleararmed foe, bent on spreading a rival ideology. Now America is having a crisis of confidence about China, and the cause is not one Sputnik moment but many smaller ones in a row. Talk to strategists in America and China—military officers, politicians, business bosses and scholars—and it is shocking how many say the chances of a limited conflict are underestimated. In part that is because China’s armed forces are catching up fast. America spent 17 years becoming expert at sending drones to find and kill individual terror suspects half a world away. Meanwhile China retired old Soviet weapons and acquired advanced fighter planes and warships. It invested in anti-ship missiles to increase the cost to America of intervention in its near seas, and in fleets of submarines (though its subs are still noisy compared with America’s). It fortified small islands and reefs in contested waters of the South China Sea with missiles, radar domes and runways (pictured). President Xi Jinping urged the navy to develop an ocean-going mindset, now that ties of commerce and security bind China—for millennia an inward-looking, agrarian power—to the sea. China has a lead in hypersonic glide weapons, travelling at a mile a second, against which aircraft carriers currently have no reliable defences. Ask about China’s weaknesses, and American officers will mention rigid chains of command which give little autonomy to junior officers. They wonder, too, whether different services could work together in complex missions such as invading Taiwan, the democratic island that China claims as its own. All-out war for Taiwan is not the most urgent flashpoint. The latest China Military Power Report, sent annually to Congress by the Pentagon, sees “no indication China is significantly expanding its landing-ship force necessary for an amphibious assault on Taiwan”. Instead, planners fret about efforts to push America out of China’s near seas and beyond the “first-island chain” that includes Japan and Taiwan. American ships and planes regularly exert legal rights to cross the South China Sea, triggering Chinese responses that could escalate unpredictably. Far out This era of doubt even has its own emblematic Chinese satellite, the Shijian 17. Officially an experimental craft, testing new propulsion systems and imaging devices for spotting space debris, American scientists and military leaders have watched the sj-17 perform remarkable manoeuvres since its launch in 2016, scooting between three different Chinese satellites high above the Earth and parking itself within a few hundred metres of one of them. China, like America, is becoming skilled in the dark arts of anti-satellite warfare. It first tested a satellite-destroying missile in 2007, strewing debris in space, and is thought to have tested anti-satellite lasers and jammers. Last year Mike Pence, the vice-president, in-

The Economist May 18th 2019

cluded “highly sophisticated” Chinese satellite manoeuvres as one of the reasons to set up a “Space Force”, a new service branch drawing on a broad range of specialists. Strategists talk about the difference between capabilities and intentions. Alarm at China is eroding that distinction. When the us-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressional oversight panel, held a hearing on China’s space programmes last month, a Pentagon representative, William Roper (the assistant air force secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics), noted that the commission was really asking whether America is in a strategic competition with China in space. “I hope you conclude ‘yes’,” he told them. Noting America’s vast lead in space—it deploys more than half the world’s declared spy satellites—Mr Roper asserted that “countries like China have already demonstrated their intention to escalate hostilities into space.” President Donald Trump takes the idea of a Chinese space challenge seriously, says Michael Pillsbury, an outside adviser to the White House. “The Space Force is all about China.” He expresses dismay at China’s 38 orbital launches in 2018, surpassing America’s 34 (see chart on next page). “That shouldn’t be happening.” The mood of alarm is bipartisan. A space-threat assessment published in April by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington, dc, opens with a warning from Jim Cooper of Tennessee, a Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the space programme: “The risk of a space Pearl Harbour is growing every day…Without our satellites we would have a hard time regrouping and fighting back. We may not even know who had attacked us, only that we were deaf, dumb, blind and impotent.” Chinese experts suspect unseemly panic. After all, America tested its first anti-satellite weapon in 1959, and most of China’s 1

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The Economist - 18.05.19  

The Economist - 18.05.19