13 February 2011

Satellites Support Growing PLA Maritime Monitoring and Targeting Capabilities

Andrew S. Erickson, “Satellites Support Growing PLA Maritime Monitoring and Targeting Capabilities,” Jamestown China Brief, 11.3 (10 February 2011): 13-19.

Article covered in the KMT Central Policy Planning Committee’s bi-weekly report on Mainland China.

New satellites are enhancing Chinese command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. These systems will enable the Chinese military to strengthen cueing, reconnaissance, communications, and data relay for maritime monitoring and targeting. The successful achievement of high quality real time satellite imagery, target-locating data and fusion, as well as reliable indigenous satellite navigation and positioning would facilitate holding enemy vessels at risk via devastating multi-axis strikes involving precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles. Emerging space-based C4ISR capabilities could thus greatly increase China’s capability to use military means to assert its interests along its contested maritime periphery.

Beijing’s satellite capabilities, while still far from cutting-edge in many respects, are improving rapidly. China today has only a fraction of the overall space capability of the United States, retains major gaps in coverage in every satellite application, and relies to a considerable extent on technology acquired through non-military programs with foreign companies and governments. Beijing will likely purchase supplementary “high-resolution, electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar commercial imagery,” according to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), until it is able to deploy a more advanced set of reconnaissance satellites in the coming decade. The current sources of Chinese space imagery include “all of the major providers including Spot Image (Europe), Infoterra (Europe), MDA (Canada), Antrix (India), GeoEye (United States), and Digital Globe (United States).”

Yet, Beijing is combining foreign knowledge with increasingly robust indigenous capabilities to produce significant advances in maritime C4ISR. High-resolution satellites, launchers, and launch infrastructure are prioritized. China is developing and acquiring relevant technologies via all available means, with satellite-specific “thermal insulation blankets” and “traveling wave tubes” cited by DoD as particular areas of foreign collection. Chinese satellite developers are implementing a competitive workplace culture that emphasizes modern management, standardization, quality control (including ISO 9000 management initiatives) and emerging mass production ability—part of a larger trend in China’s dual-use military-technological projects. China’s in-orbit assets are growing rapidly. Near/real-time C4ISR is facilitated increasingly by China’s integrated Qu Dian system and related networks and data links, which include secure People’s Liberation Army (PLA) voice/data communications provided by Fenghuo/Zhongxing/Shentong comsats. …