A comparison of two recent war games reveals that the current U.S. plan of action to ensure space resilience may not adequately deter and defend against new emerging Chinese space threats from the mid-20s. 2020s. However, these wargames suggest a practical path for timely spatial resilience in the 2020s and beyond.
On January 10, the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank, released a 165-page report stating that “CSIS has developed a war game for a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan.” [in 2026] and ran it 24 times. In most scenarios, the US/Taiwan/Japan defeated a conventional amphibious invasion by China and maintained a self-governing Taiwan.
The fact that the United States is likely to be able to defeat China in the “pace scenario” for the US military is reassuring news, especially in the wake of Russian military adventurism in Ukraine and the steady advancement of President Xi Jinping’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) timeline to achieve sufficient military capability to credibly seize Taiwan.
On the other hand, while the costs of helping Ukraine fend off Russia are already high, the costs of helping Taiwan fend off China are likely to be much higher. China’s economy is about six times larger than Russia’s and much more deeply embedded in global trade, complicating sanctions and increasing collateral damage. And even military “victory” would have a high price. For example, the United States would likely lose between 12 and 40 percent of its operational inventory of combat aircraft in a matter of weeks. At the same time, Taiwan is a vital strategic anchor for access to the Greater Pacific and is home to some 92% of the world’s most advanced semiconductor manufacturing capacity. Moreover, Taiwan is a bastion of democracy and a “canary in the coal mine” with respect to both global standards of sovereignty and China’s intentions in the region.
Fundamentally, the outcome of any wargame depends on its underlying assumptions. The CSIS study was methodologically robust and fairly transparent about the assumptions and parameters adopted. One of the most important “major assumptions” expressly identified in the report was that China’s anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons are “moderately effective”. In particular, this assumption was based on a “lack of historical evidence” and the judgment that “co-orbital interference will take more than…a month”. This determination weighs heavily on the resilience of the American space architecture, but another recent war game calls it into question.
In June 2021, the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), a nonpartisan think tank led by former Pentagon official Henry Sokolski, sponsored a China Space Wargame set in the time period 2027-2029. The NPEC war game assumed that, in the first move, “PRC [Republic of China] launched space control operations designed to weaken U.S. regional allies (e.g., Japan, Republic of Korea (RoK), Australia) intent on opposing an enforcement effort the PRC Economic Exclusion Zone against Taiwan. More than two dozen wargame participants, with diverse ideologies and backgrounds, proposed and responded to a variety of potential ASAT threats. Ultimately, the report found that a key variable likely to affect the composition, usability and impact of PLA ASAT capabilities is whether the United States and its allies are ready – and say publicly – inadequate legal and technical countermeasures to the use of hostile weapons. Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO).
Following intensive discussions and in the 2029 scenario, the initial war game used a rough estimate of 115 small Chinese spacecraft capable of such dual-purpose RPOs (or R spacecraft) – 100 designed for dedicated ASAT use, plus 15 others reassigned from satellite maintenance and space debris removal missions. In August 2021 and March 2022, this estimate was revised to around 200 R spacecraft by 2026, following China’s achievement of numerous technical milestones – the most notable of which was the successful docking with a satellite. unresponsive to a geosynchronous orbit (GEO) and maneuvering it to a higher orbit. This capability was demonstrated in January 2022, approximately three years ahead of the estimated timeline in the original NPEC wargame and less than two years after American commercial space companies followed suit with a willing Satellite.
By adopting this estimate of 200 R spacecraft in 2026 – which is the same year chosen for the CSIS war game in Taiwan – China would likely be able to disable most of the three dozen Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. into medium earth orbit (MEO) in record time. succession at the start of a war. Additionally, China would likely still have many R spacecraft to disable or interfere with other critical but vulnerable satellites hosted in GEO and highly elliptical (HEO) orbits. These include, for example, major communications, imaging, and weather satellites, as well as missile warning satellites and highly sensitive communications satellites that support US nuclear and conventional forces.
Such attacks may well impact the outcome of a Taiwan event. Even if they did not, they would generate unique escalation risks and directly increase the costs of any military engagement. The temptation to carry out such attacks at the onset of a crisis, given both the operational impact and the potential to force the United States into full retreat, could be immense. The CSIS report points out that one of the four conditions for success is that “the United States must be able to rapidly and en masse strike the Chinese fleet from outside the Chinese defensive zone.” Such operations become considerably more difficult with greatly degraded GPS capabilities, which would make it much more difficult to accurately locate Chinese targets, as well as guide precision munitions to targets (e.g. Chinese fleet ships).
These potential vulnerabilities are not yet addressed, although efforts are being made in this direction. General John W. Raymond, the first Chief of Space Operations, ordered in November 2020 that the Space Warfighting Analysis Center (SWAC) be created to develop “future force design options”. SWAC’s first force design was a proliferating missile warning and tracking architecture. In September 2022, the director of the Space Development Agency (SDA), Derek Tournear, reaffirmed that after the launch of the three GEO satellites, “the future will be fully proliferated LEO [low earth orbit] with a semi-proliferated MEO to give you that resilience. Although this is a very positive step, the transition to such an architecture will take time: a detailed analysis published on January 3 shows that the vulnerability will persist at least until the end of the decade, if not longer. Thus, the vulnerability of these constellations for the 2020s remains a serious issue for the DoD to address and resolve. The commercial sector, through space traffic management for example, can contribute to this objective in various ways, but only if clear corrective actions are taken quickly; an eventuality in Taiwan may well be only a few years away.
War games do not provide immutable facts about the world, but rather provide a way to test the likely consequences of a given set of assumptions. Comparing the results and stated assumptions of these two recent CSIS and NPEC wargames leads to the conclusion that the US coalition would likely win a war against Taiwan fought in 2026 – but only if the US and its allies and partners prepare adequate defenses against Chinese ASAT capabilities in the next three to five years, in particular the prepositioning and utilization of China’s likely arsenal of R spacecraft.
However, if the United States fails to do so, such an eventuality will be, at best, fraught with increased risks of nuclear miscalculation and a significant increase in the loss of human life, military platforms and business assets; and, at worst, may end in successful forced reunification of Taiwan and mainland China.
The recommendation from the comparison of two wargames is therefore that the DoD should continue to transition vulnerable space systems to proliferated constellations, whenever resilience can be achieved by doing so; as well as out-of-the-box defenses against new emerging ASAT threat vectors. Given the magnitude of the potential consequences, even a low probability would be enough to warrant proper preparations – and the probability could well be much higher. To do otherwise would be to violate the U.S. commitment to the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, which “affirms U.S. policy to oppose any attempt by the PRC to unilaterally impose a unification timetable on Taiwan.” .
Brian Chow (Ph.D. Physics, MBA cum laude, Ph.D. Finance) is an independent policy analyst with over 170 publications. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Brandon Kelley is the debate director at Georgetown University and a graduate student in the Security Studies program. He can be contacted at email@example.com.