An artist's illustration of SpaceX's Starlink internet satellites in orbit. Photo: SpaceX

China lodged a formal protest with the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in December, pointing out that SpaceX’s Starlink satellites almost collided with China’s Tiangong Space Station on two occasions earlier this year.   

On both occasions, the Starlink X satellites forced the Tiangong Space Station to take evasive action to avoid a collision. 

In addition to this diplomatic protest, China’s official state newspaper Xinhua published an editorial criticising the US for endangering the lives of its Tiangong astronauts, reminding the US of its responsibilities under the UN Outer Space Treaty and pointing out the US’ double standard as it advocates for the responsible use of outer space, yet its recent behavior shows otherwise. 

CNN Business tried to get comments from SpaceX and the US Vandeberg Space Force Base which monitors space traffic and attempts to track potential collisions, but neither responded.

The near-collision between SpaceX’s Starlink satellites and China’s Tiangong Space Station may herald the arrival of gray-zone anti-satellite hybrid operations.

In an exclusive interview with Asia Times, Blackwater founder Erik Prince called for the primacy of low-visibility, localized, deniable forces, backed by private sector efficiencies. He argued that conflict could be more effectively conducted using a hybrid model that deploys smaller, nimbler and more localized units, managed and fought by unconventional players such as intelligence agencies, special operations units or private military contractors (PMCs).

Prince also mentioned that these gray-area forces offer plausible deniability and operate under the threshold of the enemy, containing conflict and avoiding a big-war and state-to-state response.

He added that the private sector has extensive roles to play on an increasingly sophisticated battlespace, such as securing personnel, cyber offense and defense and combined arms operations. 

Using that line of thought, the near-collision between SpaceX’s Starlink satellites and China’s Tiangong Space Station may have served as a US test to prove the viability of using private firms for anti-satellite operations, serving as a proof-of-concept for cooperation between private space firms and the US military for gray-zone anti-satellite hybrid operations. 

In the event of hostilities between the US and China over the South China Sea or Taiwan Strait, China’s military satellites are prime targets for US anti-satellite capabilities, as they have critical command, control, computer and communications intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) functions.

Also, they are critical nodes in China’s “kill chain” of DF-21D and DF-26 “carrier killer” missiles, which threaten US ships in the Pacific.  

Disrupting or destroying these satellites will deny China its critical nerve centers necessary for military operations in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. Their loss would also deprive China of much-needed real-time targeting information to attack a fast-moving aircraft carrier with its “carrier killer” missiles.

In addition, forcing these satellites out of their pre-planned orbits can prevent them from potentially tracking US naval deployments or mapping US and allied military bases in the Pacific region. 

The US has a variety of anti-satellite weapons with which to destroy or disrupt China’s military satellites, such as the air-launched AGM-135 anti-satellite missile first tested in 1985, the ship-launched RIM-161 Standard Missile 3, which has been tested in an anti-satellite role, and the Counter Communications System operated by the US Space Force to disrupt enemy satellite communications.

However, any overt attack or disruption attempts by the US military on China’s military satellites may lead to a further escalation in other domains. Thus, the use of private space companies for anti-satellite missions fulfills the US need for plausible deniability, and the need to operate below the threshold of conventional big state-to-state conflict with China in outer space. 

Also, the civilian legal status of private space companies performing anti-satellite operations presents the same confounding policy challenges gray zone warfare does in other domains.

Possible US gray zone operations in outer space pose significant challenges to Chinese military planners in formulating rules of engagement and policy responses in addressing this hybrid challenge.

This reduces China’s options on how to defend its military satellites which play a key role in its military ambitions in the Pacific.