Expert Speak Space Tracker
Published on Jul 14, 2022 Updated 10 Days ago
While digital connectivity proves to be a boon, many countries are concerned about the threat posed by the PRC’s satellite programme.
The PRC’s satellite programme: A growing threat Starlink had provided the Ukrainians renewed hope when the Russian Federation managed to shut down its internet. It enabled Ukraine to stay connected with the rest of the world and use satellite services for combat purposes. These include the operation of bomb-carrying drones. These developments have also prompted concern from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC has begun scrutinising the company for alleged links to the US military. This is the case even though the PRC has a similar satellite internet programme. The PRC’s space infrastructure programme follows an “explicitly civil-military integration approach”. This article examines the threats of the PRC’s satellite programme in the context of the PRC’s terrestrial digital infrastructure plans, the role of satellite communication in 5G and IoT, and the changing nature of modern warfare.

PRC’s Digital Programme

Digital connectivity has been a boon for many industries and individuals. The emergence of this new revolution has also highlighted the traditionally existing disparities in access. The PRC’s Digital Silk Road (DSR) initiative allegedly attempted to solve this. In developing regions like Africa, the initiative claims to have provided “broadband Internet access to 6 million households,...serving more than 900 million local people.” However, projects under the DSR, have been called “digital colonialism.” Such projects provide the PRC “access to valuable intelligence and intellectual property (IP) if unchecked by the host country.”

GSOs sport significant bandwidth capacity, but are plagued by high latency and rigorous infrastructure requirements. Low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations, on the other hand, offer comparable speeds to terrestrial alternatives.

Despite the DSR and related concerns, digital inequality persists. 2.9 billion people, do not have access to the internet. For the fulfilment of the promise of 5G, terrestrial fibre optic-based systems “will not be enough”. An alternative to terrestrial infrastructure exists in the form of satellite broadband. Geostationary orbit (GSO) has been used in telecom networks for about three decades. GSOs sport significant bandwidth capacity, but are plagued by high latency and rigorous infrastructure requirements. Low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations, on the other hand, offer comparable speeds to terrestrial alternatives. LEO constellations may “rapidly decrease satellite bandwidth costs globally.” Satellite broadband can also “bypass the infrastructure deployment challenges” plaguing terrestrial connectivity options. LEO systems are expected to play a great role in 5G networks. LEO internet is being used by a host of critical industries. For instance, a segment of mines has begun utilising autonomous equipment relying upon space-provided localisation and communication capabilities. Satellite internet is touted to serve as a “key enabler” in the transformation of IoT connectivity ning sectors and state boundaries. They include crucial industries such as “oil and gas, mining, and transportation.” The satellite internet market is, thus, expected to rise to 126 billion euros by 2025. Several are building and aiming to deploy mega constellations for delivering “affordable high-speed internet services”.  These include western companies like SpaceX, Amazon, and OneWeb. In recent times, companies from the PRC have also been making strides in the industry. Companies from the PRC are demonstrating “high ambitions” in developing LEO constellations. These projects are allegedly “supported or even steered” by PRC state authorities. Government-owned CASIC is developing a global network. Likewise, another government-owned corporation, i.e., CASC, has plans for a similar project titled “Hong­yan”. Galaxy Space projects a constellation of 140+ 5G-enabled satellites by 2025. They have placed seven satellites in orbit for their Mini-spider Constellation. By March 2022, GW is developing a network of over 13,000 satellites.

Guodian Gaoke, a company founded by former state-owned enterprise employees, is developing the IoT-focused narrowband constellation constituted by 38 LEO satellites.

The PRC’s space internet companies have also recognised the future demand for IoT-based satellite internet applications. CASIC is developing an 80-satellite strong IoT-specific satellite internet constellation. Guodian Gaoke, a company founded by former state-owned enterprise employees, is developing the IoT-focused narrowband constellation constituted by 38 LEO satellites.

Rising concerns

Concerns about the PRC’s terrestrial network infrastructure have spilt over to their space internet programme. PRC experts are focusing on the dual-use functionality and “extremely important military value” of this “new information infrastructure”. The objective is the creation of a “space-ground integrated three-dimensional structure”. Such a structure integrates satellite internet endeavours with technologies such as 5G communication and IoT. The PRC’s State Council has also identified "building communications satellites and other communications infrastructure” and the promotion of space-terrestrial integration information network projects as “Priority Area(s) of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense”. Satellite broadband technology can “bypass national regulations and supervision”. This implies a severe restriction on the ability of governments world over to “censor or otherwise limits the internet access”. This ability is considered detrimental to authoritarian regimes. Through “counter(ing) the “information control” of authoritarian regimes, the technology is expected to advance democracy. Similarly, the rise of western companies in the satellite broadband industry is concerning for the PRC. Such unfiltered information flows could “influence Chinese citizens in ways that could be detrimental to the CCP's grip on power”. This has led to the PRC developing its indigenous satellite broadband network. The initiative is no longer merely domestic. This very control is now being pointed outward. NIL 2017 compels all PRC companies to assist in foreign intelligence work. Governments served would thus lose the ability to block the PRC’s disinformation and propaganda websites. In essence, this would imply the opposite of “free internet” being provided to PRC space internet service availed.

The PRC’s satellite broadband initiative can thus be conceptualised as an extension of the PRC’s efforts to develop a “global data-collection ecosystem”.

The primary objective of the PRC’s satellite internet programme is the control of information, dubbed the “basis of 21st-century power”. The PRC’s satellite broadband initiative can thus be conceptualised as an extension of the PRC’s efforts to develop a “global data-collection ecosystem”. In the PRC’s conception of an “Informationised Battlefield,” “Data (数据)” serves as the metaphorical “Blood (血液).” The PRC’s “Yaogan <遥感> data policy” explicitly calls for the “sharing of satellite resources and data between the military and civilian sectors”. State-run satellite providers may be leveraged to enact overseas surveillance. The PRC’s state-owned enterprises have been previously leveraged for enacting foreign data surveillance. NIL 2017 may also be utilised to compel private operators to advance similar objectives. PRC satellite internet companies serve as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to extraterritorial customers. ISPs possess the ability to collect voluminous and “highly-granular” user data. ISPs can also “track the websites their subscribers’ visit, the shows they watch, the apps they use, their energy habits, their real-time whereabouts and historical location, the search queries they make, and the contents of their email communications”. This includes “build(ing) behavioural profiles” of users, in addition to “cross-device tracking”. PRC-based Edge ISPs have also previously used the practice of false content injection for censorship and injecting trackers into user network traffic. This data would fuel the PRC’s information operations. The PRC’s diplomatic apparatus also leverages such data to decipher “the other party’s negotiating strategy and tactics”. This is to gain an advantage in diplomatic negotiations. Methods to avoid such data surveillance exist for conventional ISPs. These include Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) encryption, DoH, and Virtual Private Networks (VPN). However, the PRC has banned many of the technologies mentioned. For instance, the PRC has blocked encrypted HTTPS connections which relied upon advanced protocols. This project enables the PRC to have kinetic impacts. The IoT-focused nature of some constellations puts critical infrastructure connected at risk. The “integrated” nature of the PRC’s “informationised warfare, and intelligent warfare ” are “underpinned by the IoT information system”. This risk manifests firstly as simple denial-of-service. In the case of critical infrastructure, “if any of the space-dependent services becomes disrupted, chaos ensues.”

Certain voices within the PRC’s security-intelligentsia apparatus are already calling for adaptability to “military-civilian fusion application scenarios”.

Second, the PRC can facilitate malware delivery. PRC-based ISPs have previously delivered malware to their users. This threat is not limited to the subscribers of these services. Certain voices within the PRC’s security-intelligentsia apparatus are already calling for adaptability to “military-civilian fusion application scenarios”. Initiatives such as the incorporation of adjustable and updatable “software-defined satellites” are aimed toward this objective. Software-defined satellites may allow the operators to “define RF frequency plans.” Non-PRC satellite broadband operators lacking radio hardening are at risk of integrity attacks. Such attacks are conventionally executed through hijacking the satellite Earth stations or satellites in a constellation. The PRC may similarly leverage its software-defined network to attack other satellite broadband providers. The PRC’s satellite broadband thus represents a threat to its adversaries. Most states demand a “kill switch” on these services. India must also utilise this option. India and its allies must offer a credible alternative to the PRC’s services. This is especially true for Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries which would be particularly vulnerable. The rise of the PRC’s satellite internet programme also represents the rise of the weaponisation of space communication. Worldwide systems of communication lead to an increase in a regime’s governmental and military capabilities, whilst also providing “enormous economic” advantages. India must recognise the strategic value of this information infrastructure. India must enact policies to leverage the data collected by its satellite broadband operators.
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