A Long March 3B rocket carrying the Beidou-3GEO3 satellite lifts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwestern China's Sichuan province on June 23, 2020. Photo: AFP / STR

If a war between China and the United States erupted today, an American victory would not be assured. US Navy Admiral John Aquilino recently testified before Congress that American forces deployed to the Indo-Pacific are overmatched by their Chinese rivals.

Any conflict between the United States and China would likely begin at sea and in the skies over the Indo-Pacific region. Thus the US Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps would form the tip of America’s spear in the region. 

These US military forces (and their allies) would require untrammeled access to satellites in order to defend against Chinese aggression. 

For the US Navy to defend either the South or East China Sea effectively or to assist Taiwan, in the event that China attempted to invade the besieged democratic island-nation, American warships would need to coordinate and communicate with one another and their combatant commands across the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite constellation in geosynchronous orbit. 

Nearly 70% of the US Army’s weapons rely on satellites to function. Therefore, another critical set of satellites China might target is the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation. 

The ubiquitous Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation of satellites is essential for the movement and deployment of US forces, especially in a large area of operation like the Indo-Pacific. Even America’s vaunted nuclear command, control and communications (NC3) satellites could be destroyed in geosynchronous orbit, nullifying America’s nuclear deterrent.

Denying the Americans access to these vital satellite constellations would be key for any plan by Beijing to invade Taiwan or to capture the South or East China Sea. A “Space Pearl Harbor” would temporarily blind and confuse the otherwise potent US military. This temporary blinding of US forces would create a unique window of opportunity for China in which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could defeat a confused American military. 

And while the US military has plans also to attack China’s satellite constellations, should such a space war ever erupt, the fact is that Beijing’s forces are nowhere near as dependent on satellites as America’s forces are – not yet.

Plus, America’s space warfare plans leave the all-important initiative to China; American forces would wait to be attacked in space before responding in-kind. This gives Beijing the advantage by allowing the PLA escalation dominance in a space war – which would translate to China’s advantage on land, at sea, in the air, and within cyberspace, at least for a short time.

With US forces defending Taiwan or elsewhere blinded, Washington might be reticent to send even more American units into harm’s way. While the US does have competent regional allies, they too would be negatively affected by a Chinese-led “Space Pearl Harbor.”

It’s unlikely that America’s regional allies would be more galvanized into fighting a Chinese invasion force without reliable American support than they would be if the US military was in optimal fighting form. Western dithering in the face of Chinese aggression will lead to their defeat.

Further, China’s leadership knows it does not need to defeat the United States and its allies totally in a war. Beijing’s war planners assume that they simply need to delay US military power from intervening against their forces long enough for China’s military to achieve most of their strategic objectives (say, capturing Taiwan).

Once fully enmeshed in their target, with few American and allied forces able or willing to respond, China’s leaders believe that their decadent American rivals would be unwilling to commit the resources needed to restore the status quo. 

In this very possible scenario, Beijing hopes that Washington would seek a negotiated settlement that creates a new regional paradigm wherein China, not the United States, is the dominant player.

And China’s leaders would use their crippling defeat of US military forces in the Indo-Pacific as the leverage they’d need to achieve this political objective. The Middle Kingdom would therefore be restored, and the Americans would be kept permanently over the horizon, forever on the defensive.

President Joe Biden’s administration must demand a larger budget for the fledgling Space Force and must insist upon a doctrine of satellite defense coupled with total space dominance, so as to deter China or any other foe from enacting a Space Pearl Harbor. After all, it is easier to preserve America’s satellite capabilities in peacetime than it is to try to restore them in war.

If the United States continues to leave itself vulnerable to attack in the ultimate strategic high ground of space, an aggressive and innovative foe like China could exploit such weaknesses in a moment of geopolitical crisis. At that point, China’s military could beat the US military.

Such a defeat of the US military by China would only put another nail in the coffin of America’s superpower status and augur a China-dominated world order – a development that few outside of Beijing desire.

Brandon J Weichert

Brandon J Weichert is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower. He is a geopolitical analyst who manages The Weichert Report: World News Done Right. His work appears regularly in The Washington Times and Real Clear Politics. Weichert is a former US congressional staffer who holds an MA in statecraft and national security affairs from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, and is an associate member of New College, Oxford University.