Special to CosmicTribune.com, December 6, 2023
By Richard Fisher
China may have a new command dedicated to combat in “Near Space,” which is usually defined as between 20 kilometers and 100 kilometers in altitude, or just below Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
This is significant because for decades, the United States and China have researched combat in the near space realm, where radar has difficulty tracking hypersonic speed platforms, and hypersonic platforms can also perform combat missions targeting LEO.
According to a Nov. 20 report in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) by Steven Chen, whose writing usually promotes Chinese military technology and military power, “China has established a near-space command equipped with a professional hypersonic weapons force that reports directly to the highest level of the military.”
Chen reported that according to a paper from National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), submitted to the 11th China Command and Control Conference last October, “The near-space combat force is in the process of rapid development. The establishment of relevant units is not yet mature, and combat operations have not been standardized. The understanding of near-space combat command needs to be deepened.”
Chen’s report stated the PLA was building a “Fifth Force,” but the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) already has five branches: PLA Ground Force; PLA Navy; PLA Air Force; PLA Rocket Force; PLA Strategic Support Force.
While it is possible, as the article suggests, that the New Space Command is a new unified command, perhaps meaning there is a 6th PLA branch, it is also possible that a new Near Space Command would be subordinate to the new Strategic Support Force, which also controls China’s “Space Force” and most Chinese space activities.
However, historically, the PLA Air Force has also pressed to command Near Space operations, so to quell interservice rivalry the PLA may have opted to create a new unified command.
This creates a potential asymmetry with the United States, which formed the United States Space Force in December 2019, but it is not clear that the Space Force would be responsible for combat operations in Near Space, which may have to rely on new capabilities for the U.S. Air Force.
The creation of a Near Space Force for the PLA may create an advantage in that it forces definitions of responsibility which results in better defined missions and thus organization of force structures and development programs.
At a minimum, this will force the U.S. Air Force to increase its capabilities in Near Space, which will then present new budgetary challenges for this service.
What is much less in doubt is that for decades the PLA has been developing a range of platforms and systems to conduct combat operations in near space.