21 April 2010

Erickson Quoted in Asia Times Regarding Chinese Naval Exercise and Yaogan Satellites

Peter J. Brown, China’s Navy Cruises into Pacific Ascendancy,” Asia Times, 22 April 2010.

…the role of space assets and space defense-related issues [has] slipped under the radar in large part thus far. What is unfolding overhead in support of any or all of the PLAN operations may be the most significant aspect of this recent Chinese war gaming in the Western Pacific. In fact, absent evidence to the contrary, the presence aloft of so many new Chinese earth observation/military reconnaissance satellites is what sets this exercise apart from all previous PLAN exercises.

According to Associate Professor Andrew Erickson with the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College, China is rapidly improving its increasingly diverse network of space-based Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) sensors in support of military land, sea and air operations.

“Synthetic Aperture Radar [SAR] in particular offers wide coverage at sufficient resolution. Maritime surveillance, prioritized at the national level under China’s 863 State High-Technology Development Plan, is receiving significant funding,” said Erickson.

Over the past decade, China has launched two Haiyang (Ocean) maritime observation satellites, and a third is now scheduled for launch this year after its original launch date in 2009 was scratched. In addition, China’s has recently expanded its fleet of Yaogan satellites, which China describes as merely engaging in civilian earth observation missions. However, many experts identify them as dual role, military reconnaissance satellites. The Yaogans carry a mix of optical as well as radar-based sensors.

“Of particular note are the five Yaogan satellites that China has launched in the past five months. Yaogan 7 and 8 were launched in December. Yaogan 7 is optical and Yaogan 8 appears to be equipped with SAR,” said Erickson. “Yaogan 9A, 9B, and 9C, launched in March, share the same orbit, suggesting that they have a special mission to perform.” …

All of these Chinese satellites, together with China’s development of ground-based over-the-horizon radars, suggests that China is developing unprecedented capability to monitor and conduct operations along its disputed maritime periphery, according to Erickson. He marks this exercise as proof positive that the PLAN is now finally and fully prepared to meet strategic goals originally articulated by Admiral Liu Huaqing, who headed the PLAN from 1982 to 1988. In effect, PLAN is now starting to conduct “far seas operations” beyond the so-called “First Island Chain.” …

“Such PLAN operations at increasing range from China’s shores are ever-better-supported by improving satellite-based communications, positioning, and surveillance capabilities,” said Erickson. “Unprecedented and innovative use of satellite communications has been a major highlight of China’s counter-piracy deployments in the Gulf of Aden; there the PLAN apparently relied solely on indigenous capabilities for the first time. While US and most Western [as well as the former Soviet] navies have engaged in related operations for years, this was a new and important step for the PLAN.”

In advance of the PLAN’s December 2008 deployment to the Gulf of Aden, PLAN commander, Admiral Wu Shengli, and PLAN political commissar, Admiral Liu Xiaojiang, demanded “comprehensive coverage, all-time linkage, and full-course support.”

The PLAN’s newspaper, People’s Navy, reported that the PLAN Political Department worked with the PLAN Headquarters Communications Department and the State Information Center to improve a platform that:

[I]ntegrates a land base information collection and transmission system, an information integration and distribution system, a shore-to-ship information wireless transmission system, and an information terminal receiving system. They also sent technical personnel to Sanya [on Hainan Island] to conduct satellite receiving equipment debugging, system installation, and personnel training on the three combat ships that were about to set sail for escort operations. Moreover, they specially developed and improved a total of seven information processing software programs, which can send text, images, as well as video and audio documents quickly.

Satellite-based navigation and positioning via China’s Beidou-1, currently a 4-satellite constellation, has very limited range and can support ship-positioning on China’s immediate maritime periphery, but not further afield.

“It could not be used [during a missile attack] for short-range precision guidance because it is too slow, allowing for insufficient information [flow] during a missile’s relatively short flight time,” said Erickson. “In part to support broader operations, China is deploying a 35-satellite Beidou-2/Compass system that would provide much improved accuracy, with regional navigation and communications coverage anticipated by 2011 and global navigation coverage by 2015-20. Three Compass satellites have been launched thus far.”

While the PLAN is gradually increasing focus on areas beyond mainland China, this is part of a two-level process – Erickson refers to a “tale of two navies” – with nearby priorities still at the core.

“Preparing to defend China’s territorial and maritime claims by asymmetric means is likely to remain the PLAN’s focus for the foreseeable future, even as it pursues secondarily lower intensity missions further afield,” said Erickson. “China’s capabilities are clearly growing, but its naval intentions – at least beyond asserting control over its claimed territorial waters, to include Taiwan – are somewhat unclear.” …