International Companies Should Not Work With Chinese Space Launch Providers: US Space Force

‘It’s important not just for U.S. companies ... but for international companies not to help the CCP move forward, a senior Space Force intelligence chief warns.
International Companies Should Not Work With Chinese Space Launch Providers: US Space Force
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from launch pad SLC-40 at the Kennedy Space Center on NASA's PACE mission in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Feb. 8, 2024. (Gregg Newton/AFP via Getty Images)
Frank Fang

International companies seeking space launch services should avoid partnering with Chinese entities, as China may use the commercial revenues to advance its space military development, warned Maj. Gen. Gregory Gagnon, deputy chief of space operations for intelligence at the U.S. Space Force.

Maj. Gen. Gagnon gave the warning during a panel discussion at the Air & Space Forces Association’s Warfare Symposium in Colorado on Feb. 13. He said a declining Russian space industry has allowed China to expand its commercial space launch businesses.

“Over the last three years, we’ve watched the Russian launch market collapse. It collapsed because of the actions of Roscosmos, the further invasion of Ukraine, sanctions, them trying to hold one web hostage on a launch with their satellites because they were already in Russia,” Maj. Gen. Gagnon said. Roscosmos is NASA’s Russian counterpart.

In 2023, Chinese commercial rocket firms carried out 17 orbital launches out of a total of 67 attempts from China. In comparison, the United States conducted 109 launches last year, with Elon Musk’s SpaceX responsible for 98 of the attempts.
“Demand has not returned to Russia for launch. Beijing and the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] recognize this, and they are rapidly expanding launch capabilities in China. They’re expanding beyond their national spaceports today. And they’re executing those first hops that happened before reusable launch, and we’re seeing that inside China today,” Maj. Gen. Gagnon added.
In January 2023, Djibouti inked a preliminary agreement with Chinese company Hong Kong Aerospace Technology to establish a spaceport in the country’s northern Obock region. The spaceport project, which will cost $1 billion, will include the construction of a port facility and a highway.
Experts have since questioned China’s motives for building a spaceport in Djibouti. In April last year, Benjamin Silverstein, a then-research analyst for the Space Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a commentary published on Foreign Policy: “It seems that China may have ulterior motives for its interest in foreign spaceports.

“Specifically, because Djibouti is a nonparty to the major treaties governing outer space behavior, China may see this new partnership as an opportunity to enable a potentially rogue actor and reshape global expectations of responsible behavior in space.”

Maj. Gen. Gagnon stressed the need for a consensus against supporting the CCP’s space program, which is primarily managed by its military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

“It’s important not just for U.S. companies, which probably will have restrictions anyway, but for international companies not to help the CCP move forward,” Maj. Gen. Gagnon said.

“Now, that seems like an easy task, but what does that mean? That means don’t take launch contracts with Chinese launch providers because commercial launch[es] in China actually started in 2023. They’re trying to gain international revenue that can help offset costs that will support national security launch for the PLA,” he continued.

“So let’s not help them. I think we should all agree on that.”

China’s Space Assets

China’s equivalent to the U.S. Space Force is the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), which was established in 2015. The U.S. Space Force was established in 2019, joining the Air Force, Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps as a distinct military service.

During the panel discussion, Maj. Gen. Gagnon pointed out how much China has advanced in space since 2015.

“From 2015 to today, they’ve increased their on-orbit assets [by] 500 percent. They now have over 900 satellites in outer space,” he said.

In comparison, the United States has a larger fleet of 9,000 satellites, but 70 percent of them “are communication satellites or broadband satellites,” according to Maj. Gen. Gagnon.

“Over half of the CCP’s satellites in outer space are remote sensing. For the last two years, they’ve put over 200 satellites in orbit each year, and in each year, over 100 of those were remote sensing satellites,” he explained.

“Those remote sensing satellites are designed to find, fix in, and track joint forces in the western Pacific. In just my time in the Space Force, which is only three years, they have moved from good enough to almost just as good with their surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in the western Pacific. That is an important fact for all of us to understand,” he added.

A report published by the U.S. military in January found that China and Russia are populating space with dual-use satellites while concealing their military applications.
A debris mitigation satellite could function as a weapon system, the report says, pointing to China’s satellite Shijian-21, which in January 2022 towed a defunct Chinese navigation satellite to a graveyard orbit.
The report also pointed to another Chinese satellite, Shijian-17, as an example of China’s space-based robotic arm technology that could be used in the future for “grappling other satellites.”
Another topic that came up during the panel discussion was China’s robotic spaceplane called Shenlong. The Chinese spaceplane—which experts have suggested could be similar to the U.S. X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle—was launched in December last year for its third mission, following a mission in 2020 and another in 2022.

Maj. Gen. Gagnon said the Chinese spaceplane poses a threat to the United States.

“This spaceplane is designed for them to get to outer space, test experiments, and also provide maneuverability for on-orbit collection ... and a number of other sensing kind of experiments that they want to do,” Maj. Gen. Gagnon said.

“It also enables them to practice remote proximity operations and things similar, which are advanced space operations. And that’s important for them to develop as a space force,” he continued.

“But for us, it’s threatening. We need to be developing advanced tactics in advanced operations in space so that we can learn and get better.”

Lt. Gen. Douglas Schiess, commander of U.S. Space Forces-Space, said at the panel: “We are watching what they are doing with their spaceplane.

“We are obviously concerned as the Chinese continue to bring on space control capability, and we have to have the ability to defend our assets. So this is a high priority for us to watch what they’re doing with the spaceplane.”