China’s Surging Military Space Program – Space Quarterly Archives

A massive Chinese DFH-4 geostationary orbit communications satellite like that used by the Chinese military undergoes antenna dish tests. Photo Credit: Xinhua

Continuing with our Summer Reading Series of articles or interviews that still have some relevance today, we present Craig Covault’s March 2013 article China’s Surging Military Space Program from Space Quarterly Magazine. Of note, China has completed eight launches to date this year with one failure and another satellite being placed in the incorrect orbit.  Two communications satellites, one of which is for a military use, were successfully placed in orbit.

China’s Surging Military Space Program

China’s accelerating military space program is fielding new optical and radar imaging spacecraft as well as ocean surveillance and electronic eavesdropping satellites to monitor and even target U.S. Navy ships in the Pacific, while also monitoring the basing of U.S. air power in the region.

These Chinese “milsats” are also closely monitoring Taiwan’s military capabilities as well as Indian and Japanese forces, all of which could be engaged in hostilities with China in coming decades.

Two Chinese navigation satellite programs and dedicated military communications satellite systems are also vital parts of China’s rapidly modernizing military.

Major new infrastructure will also boost China’s military space program starting next year. China’s large, new Long March 5 oxygen-hydrogen powered rocket set is for its first flight in 2014. It will enable China to launch 20 ton (18,144 kg.) space station modules and heavier, much more advanced military spacecraft.

To build such massive satellites, a new 1.08 million-sq.-ft. (100,000-sq. meter) plant is being finished at Tianjin, the Xinhua News Agency revealed in early January. Tianjin plant officials say one of the site’s specialties will be remote sensing spacecraft, Chinese code for military reconnaissance satellites. In addition, the advanced Wenchang Launch Center for the Long March 5 is being completed on Hainan Island giving China a total of four major launch centers.

During 2006-2009, China launched only 3-5 military spacecraft per year. But starting in 2010, it more than doubled that rate by launching 12 military spacecraft out of the year’s total of 15 missions.

More importantly, China has maintained that aggressive pace by launching 12 military or dual use spacecraft per year out of 19 missions total for both 2011 and 2012. China says that in 2013 it expects to launch 16 missions carrying 20 satellites, and then increase the launch rate to 30 missions per year toward 2020. Intelligence analysts have determined that up to 70% of all Chinese satellites launched are military related.

“This is a really big deal. These military spacecraft are being launched at a very rapid pace” Andrew S. Erickson, a U. S. Naval War College expert on China’s space and naval forces told me during an earlier interview for the publication Aerospace America. “China is becoming a military space power within a global context,” Erickson said.

China’s accelerating military space program is also developing new anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons to attack a wide range of critical U.S. military spacecraft including those in geostationary orbits 22,300 mi. (35,888 km.) high, as well as intermediate altitude Global Positioning System (GPS) spacecraft at 12,600 mi. (20,278 km. ) altitude. China has already demonstrated the ability to destroy lower orbiting reconnaissance satellites.

The U.S. Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency are watching closely for the Chinese test of an ASAT against one of its own satellites in geostationary orbit or a lower target where GPS spacecraft orbit.

On Jan. 26, 2013, the China conducted what it described as the test of a defensive anti-ballistic missile (ABM) interceptor. But U.S. intelligence is closely deciphering intercepted Chinese data from the exercise to see if it was fully or partially ASAT related, as the Chinese did with a similar ABM test in 2010.

The U.S. Defense Dept. notes in its 2012 Annual Report to Congress on Chinese Military and Security Developments that the Chinese are “developing a multidimensional program to limit or deny the use of space-based assets by adversaries during times of crisis or conflict.”

The Pentagon says that “In addition to the direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon tested in 2007 [against a defunct weather satellite], these counterspace capabilities also include jamming, laser, microwave, and cyber weapons.”

In addition “Over the past two years, China has also conducted increasingly complex close proximity operations between satellites while offering little in the way of transparency or explanation,” says the 2012 Defense report. These also could be ASAT related.

A broader perspective on Chinese ASATs was offered in Washington D. C. by Barry D. Watts, a Senior Fellow with the center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments speaking before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission. “The Rumsfeld Commission before 9/11 warned about the possibility of a Space Pearl Harbor,” said Watts. “I don’t think we’re to that point, at least in this decade. But beyond 2020, it becomes more likely that China’s People’s Liberation Army would begin to interfere with U.S. space assets and present the U.S. military with some serious problems in space,” he said.

China has also begun launching satellites for eventual real time guidance of its DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) force being tested to deter and potentially attack U.S. aircraft carriers underway in the Pacific. As many as 3-4 Chinese military satellite systems are being linked to demonstrate real time guidance and targeting cues to the 932 mi. (1,500 km.) range DF-21Ds, intelligence sources tell Space Quarterly.

In November 2012, the Chinese erected a 600 ft. (183 m.) long wooden platform in the Gobi Desert mimicking a U. S. super carrier’s flight deck. Then as part of a Chinese war game, two DF-21D “carrier killer” missiles were launched from several hundred miles away with their warheads hitting the simulated carrier, creating large craters visible to even commercial imaging satellites. It is not known officially whether space based sensors played a role in targeting for this test, but they likely did, analysts believe.

These new Chinese military ASATs and ballistic missile targeting satellites are aimed directly at countering the most important U. S. military power projection capabilities including the right of U. S. aircraft carriers to freely patrol the Pacific, while U. S. based Pacific forces utilize their own missile warning, communications, navigation and reconnaissance spacecraft capabilities to support ship and aircraft operations.

In January, 2007 China used a version of the DF-21 missile to launch a direct ascent ASAT that destroyed its own FY-1C polar orbit weather satellite at 537 mi. altitude.
“China’s military space program is moving at a rapid pace and has to be taken very seriously,” said Erickson.

Key Chinese Military Satellite Programs

Yaogan spacecraft: Five Yaogan missions have been launched since 2011. These 6,200 lb. (2,800 kg.) spacecraft flown at about 404 mi. (650 km.) altitude in polar orbit form the core of China’s military reconnaissance fleet, although several other types of Chinese satellites also provide imaging. Since 2006, 16 Yaogan missions have been launched, 5 carrying high resolution imaging radars and 9 equipped with a high resolution electro optical imaging system. Two other Yaogan missions, one in 2010 and another launched in November, 2012 each involve three spacecraft that fly in formation for ocean surveillance and electronic eavesdropping.

Overall China usually has about 15 imaging spacecraft aloft at any given time spread between several operational Yaogans, two China – Brazil Earth Resources CBERS Satellites (which are for dual military/civilian use) and several smaller imaging spacecraft , demonstrating the value of “smallsats” to the Chinese military. A third 3,307 lb. (1,500 kg.) CBERS is set for launch by mid 2013, a fourth in 2014 and a fifth in 2016. In addition “China is expected to have multiple types of space-based imaging radar systems in orbit over the coming years that cater to various users,” Erickson told the Jamestown Foundation recently.

Haiyang ocean monitoring: China has started launching the first of 15 new Haiyang ocean monitoring satellites planned for launch through 2019. They have imaging systems for ocean color determination, sea surface temperature sensors and other ocean parameters. A Taiwan’s Navy report says that the Haiyang satellites are part of an “ocean monitoring system that has strengthened the PRC military’s knowledge of a potential Pacific Ocean battlefield.”

Shijian technology spacecraft: China has launched nine Shijian military space technology missions since 2009, often involving 2-3 satellites per flight. One of the latest was a triple satellite mission launched in October, 2012. Shijian’s have been developing new military imaging systems, and electronic eavesdropping capabilities. They have also been at the forefront of demonstrating Chinese spacecraft formation flight important for ocean surveillance and even ASAT capabilities. Noted Chinese military space analyst Ian Easton has warned that such co-orbital missions pose “worrisome security implications for both the space and the maritime segments of the global space commons in the coming years.”

Navigation satellites: China’s Biedou/Compass navigation satellite program is in the midst of being deployed with 6 spacecraft launched in 2012 and three in 2011. The complete system will have five geosynchronous orbit satellites and 30 medium altitude spacecraft. The new Chinese system is revolutionizing the capability of both Chinese military services, and civilian users earlier dependant on GPS satellites signals but degraded for use in China.

Communications: The Chinese military uses different versions of Chinasat geostationary orbit spacecraft to support its military communications needs. The spacecraft are based on the massive, but sometimes troublesome DFH-4 satellite bus. Several Chinasat spacecraft like the Fenghuo and Zhongxing satellites are dedicated to military encrypted operations, while others are dual use for both military and civilian communications traffic. The spacecraft are turning the Chinese military toward network centric operations similar to U. S. military operations.

About Craig Covault

Craig Covault
Craig Covault has written extensively on Asian space programs and Mars exploration. He has covered 17 Mars missions and visited major space facilities in China and Japan including the Tanegashima and Xichang launch sites, Long March and Shenzhou plants in Beijing and Shanghai and its unmanned mission control center in Xian.

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