China's Satellite Super Factories and US National Security
By Josh Baughman, MCPA Chief Marketing Officer
July 22, 2021
By early next year, three privately owned Chinese satellite super factories, backed by billions in Yuan (CNY), will be able to produce upwards of 1,000 satellites per year. This is part of a growing trend in China. The roots of this movement date back to the release of Document 60 in 2014 encouraging private capital's participation in China's construction of civilian space infrastructure. Since that time, around 100 private space companies have been established. Once controlled solely by state-owned enterprises such as the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) and China Aerospace Science and Technology (CASC), many private companies are now producing their own satellites. Three major companies have emerged that are greatly accelerating production: Geely, Galaxy Space, and Commsat. These companies have received millions in investment to create “super factories'' designed to quickly build hundreds of satellites a year.
Globally, “super factories” have also emerged. In the United States, SpaceX is now able to produce 120 satellites a month for Starlink (internet constellation) or nearly 1500 satellites annually outpacing total numbers of China’s private satellite superfactories. OneWeb’s new mass production facility in Florida is capable of manufacturing up to 15 satellites a week (780 annually). Berlin Space Technologies (Germany), a global leader in small satellite systems has teamed up with Azista Industries (India) to build a factory to mass manufacture small satellites in the range of 50-150kg in India with a capability of up to 250 satellites annually.
This trend will fundamentally change the space domain as we quickly move from thousands of satellites to many tens of thousands in production. Although the advancement in technology will bring opportunities, China’s ability to produce satellites introduces major national security concerns that include challenges to space domain awareness, People’s Liberation Army utilization of the satellite industry, and the greater ability to use deception to weaponize space.
Chinese Satellite Super Factories at a Glance
Geely ( 吉利)
Geely, first established in 1986, has focused on the automotive industry primarily and currently sits as the third largest carmaker in China behind General Motors and Volkswagen. In a shift in strategy, Geely has been making major moves to become a satellite manufacturer. On February 18, Geely Technology Group's satellite manufacturer Taizhou Xingkong Zhilian was issued a commercial satellite license by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). With an investment of $326 million into the factory, attaining the production license is a major step as the car company moves into producing satellites that will ultimately be used to implement vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications for full autonomous self-driving as well as other commercial applications. Geely plans to establish an ecosystem that integrates automobile networks, artificial intelligence, and autonomous driving technologies through the establishment of a satellite network. When production begins this October, the Taizhou factory will have an estimated production output of over 500 satellites per year.
Geely officially explained that the project is part of their overall satellite industry chain, and the satellite project is a booster for technological transformation. Geely believes that the future of the car will be a highly integrated online and offline smart space mobile terminal. Essentially, the car will become a third living space for its passengers rather than just a mere tool of transportation where work, relaxation and entertainment can all be possible. Geely's deployment of low-orbit satellites intends to provide systematic positioning services for high-level intelligent driving. This provides consumers a safe and convenient travel experience. Xu Zhihao, CEO of Geely Technology Group, said that satellite manufacturing is crucial for the entire satellite industry chain and the Taizhou facility will meet the development needs of this rapidly developing industry, including shortening development cycles of micro-satellites, faster technology updates, and more functionality.
Galaxy Space (银河航天)
Founded in 2016, Galaxy Space has focused on a commitment to mass produce low-cost, high-performance small satellites. With a vision for the company’s future inspired by American firms like OneWeb and SpaceX, Galaxy Space is well on its way to the construction of its satellite “super factory” in Nantong, Jiangsu. In July of last year, Galaxy Space signed an agreement with the Nantong Economic and Technology Development Zone to invest in the construction of a satellite factory that will also house a significant research and development arm. It is reported that after the completion of the first phase of the facility, it will achieve an annual output of more than 300 satellites and an estimated annual revenue of more than 5 billion yuan. Some Chinese news outlets have even stated the factory could produce up to 500 satellites in a year in future phases of development.
Founded in 2015, Commsat is focused on satellite development, communication, ground terminal development and industrial application. September 1 of last year marked an important step in the company's future with an investment of $39 million. They broke ground for their new satellite factory in Tangshan City. Ding Xiufeng, mayor of Tangshan, said at the groundbreaking ceremony that the establishment of the satellite factory will boost the city's endeavor to foster local high-tech industries such as satellite-based internet and artificial intelligence and help to speed up Tangshan's economic transformation. Completion of the factory is slated for mid-2021 and will use intelligent software and hardware to streamline production with such tools as automatic guided vehicles (AGV) and manufacturing execution systems (MES). This is projected to enable low-cost and short-cycle production of more than 100 satellites a year ranging from 50-500kg in size.
Peng Yuanyuan, co-founder and president of Commsat, said: “The satellite factory is not only a satellite assembly production base, but also a satellite technology and application research and development laboratory. The company will rely on the existing satellite and communication technology accumulation to actively develop next-generation communication systems.” Commsat CEO Xie Tao views this as the beginning of a much larger trend for China’s domestic communication satellite sector and expects ”explosive growth” in the next three to five years.
Impact to US Space Security
A total of 3,372 satellites currently orbit Earth as of January 1, 2021 as well as 23,000 large pieces of debris greater than 10 cm tracked by Space Force’s U.S. Space Surveillance Network. In a year's time, China’s commercial space industry from just these three “super factories'' will be able to manufacture roughly 1,000 satellites a year. Of course, with the inclusion of SOEs such as CASIC and CASC and other smaller private companies producing micro and nano satellites, that annual production number grows immensely.
However, this is only the beginning of the surge in the private space sector in China. Document 60 has incentivized a very competitive and robust space industry in China. The Defense Intelligence Agency’s “Challenges to Security in Space'' points out that lower costs and greater production of space capabilities will “present new risks.” The following sections explore three major risks: threats to space domain awareness, military application of the commercial space satellite production, and weaponization.
Space Domain Awareness and Space Congestion
The concept of space domain awareness has replaced space situational awareness. Air Force Space Command, the organization that became the U.S. Space Force in 2019, defined the new concept as, “identification, characterization and understanding of any factor, passive or active, associated with the space domain that could affect space operations and thereby impact the security, safety, economy or environment of our nation.” The explosive growth in the number of satellites that China can produce creates an entirely new environment in space with the potential for tens of thousands of satellites in orbit. Gen. James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command, testified on this topic to the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 20th saying that congestion in space, mostly fueled by commercial activity, could create safety problems if it is not managed. Gen. Dickinson made the conclusion, “We need a new level of awareness." The ability to identify and characterize the satellites launched from China will become a growing challenge. With similar constellations to OneWeb, which if fully realized will be a 50,000 satellite network, new capabilities and strategies must be devised. Collisions will become a much greater risk with so many satellites in space. A collision could cause a cascading effect that could wipe out large numbers of assets and, in a worst case scenario, make certain orbits unusable until properly cleaned at a very high cost.
Space is a military domain in the perspective of the U.S. military. The PLA has a similar opinion, viewing space superiority, the ability to control the information sphere, and denying adversaries the same as key components of conducting modern “informatized" war as a critical strategic goal. Science of Military Strategy 2013 writes that “space is a new domain of contemporary international competition and confrontation, the commanding heights of war (fares) under informatized conditions.” 2015 was a pivotal year for the PLA with the establishment of the Strategic Support Force and more specifically the Space Systems Department. The Space Systems Department is China’s version of the U.S. Space Force, consolidating space/counter-space research, development, acquisition, training, and operations. The Chinese see future wars as a function of joint operations, not simply in land, air, and sea but also outer space and electronic warfare.
Although the new factories discussed above are not under the direct control of the Chinese government, they can be rapidly nationalized for satellite production. China could also utilize the super factories to quickly scale up capabilities and allow for quick reconstitution if a capability was disabled. Satellites sent up for private industry use could also be used in the event of a conflict and assure easy access to real time geolocation, high-resolution video of the U.S. military activities, and navigation.
The PLA already utilizes the Beidou Navigation Satellite System (China’s version of GPS). In a 2014 release by the former PLA General Staff (command organ and headquarters for the PLA) they wrote, “The Beidou satellite navigation system has been in operation for more than 10 years and has been fully used in various fields and tasks such as military combat readiness, combat, and training. Its supporting role in deepening military preparations and advancing informatization has become increasingly apparent.” The PLA if needed could also utilize the navigation network established by Geely if their own capabilities are disabled. The mass manufacturing of satellites allows for increased resilience and redundancy of space assets. For the military-industrial nexus in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Blackjack program wants to buy commercial satellite buses and marry them with military sensors and payloads. DARPA believes “the design and manufacturing could offer economies of scale previously unavailable.”
Weaponization & Deception
The proliferation of satellites from China’s super factories in the coming years creates a greater strain on the ability of the U.S. military to locate, identify, and track objects in the space domain. Some satellites can be weaponized and used during a conflict in space. One example is the idea of satellites physically intercepting other satellites to destroy them. A “parasitic microsatellite” mentioned in the FY04 Report to Congress on PRC Military Power falls into this category. Although this capability is not confirmed, this microsatellite would attach to an adversaries satellite during a conflict and send a signal to interfere or destroy the satellite. Satellites could also be used as space mines, set to disrupt or destroy based on certain parameters. Satellites could be equipped to use high-powered microwaves, jammers or some other means to disrupt another space-based system.
The space domain is going to change rapidly as China, as well as other nations, develop capabilities to manufacture satellites quickly. With this opportunity comes great risks that the United States must be ready to face. In the next five years, we can expect global production of satellites per year to surpass the total number of satellites in orbit at this moment. Greater competition with an ever growing number of satellites in space increases the likelihood of conflict. What happens if a collision or even near collision occurs? Depending on the circumstances, this could be perceived as an act of war resulting in escalating conflict. Moreover, many of the new satellites are being launched into low-earth orbit. Although it is unclear how many satellites can maintain this orbit at one time safely, there is certainly a limit. International space agreements on the use of LEO will need to be established to avoid potentially catastrophic consequences. No longer are we in the hypothetical or theoretical realm when nations like China achieve greater ability to manufacture and place satellites in orbit; it is now the reality. The three Chinese super factories are just the beginning of a trend that will continue in China and around the world.
Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.
About the Author
Josh Baughman currently serves as an Analyst at Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI) and as Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of the Military Cyber Professionals Association (MCPA). He has also served on the staff of the National Defense University (NDU) College of Information and Cyberspace (CIC) as well as the US Air Force Academy, and as a national security journalist in Beijing, and Boren Fellow at Tsinghua University.