10 November 2010

China’s Secret Co-orbital Satellites: The Quiet Surge in Space

Ian Easton, China’s Secret Co-orbital Satellites: The Quiet Surge in Space,” AsiaEye, 9 November 2010.

The emergence of space as a strategic frontier in the Asia-Pacific has raised concerns that China’s nascent space capabilities could be employed in future military operations. Beijing’s rapid progress in space has been marked by milestones such as manned space flights, anti-satellite (ASAT) missile tests, and a significant increase in its co-orbital satellite activities. The latter involves small satellites that orbit in constellations and is a crucial component of China’s dual-use satellite program and military modernization.

The first (and perhaps most strategically significant) of the co-orbital satellite constellations to form this year was launched in March. Unlike previous electro-optical and radar imagery satellites deployed in the series, the Yaogan-9 launch positioned three satellites orbiting in a highly choreographed triangular formation, suggesting that China had deployed a dedicated Naval Ocean Surveillance Satellite system to bolster its burgeoning anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) program. Space-based surveillance and cueing capabilities represent an essential (and previously underdeveloped) element of the ASBM program. …