28 November 2011

Space, China’s Tactical Frontier

Everyone interested in the military implications of Chinese space development should read this nuanced, well-researched analysis.

Eric Hagt and Matthew Durnin, Space, China’s Tactical Frontier,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 34.5 (October 2011): 733-61.

ABSTRACT In recent years, China has made stunning progress in its satellite reconnaissance capabilities. Starting from almost no capacity for live surveillance ten years ago, today the PLA has gained the capability to support real-time tactical naval operations from space. China’s suite of electro-optical, synthetic aperture radar, and electronic intelligence satellites would be key to its antiaccess/area denial capabilities, through which the PLA could deny the United States military the capability to operate with impunity close to its shores. Furthermore, these achievements suggest a shift towards more military-dedicated space assets and form the contours of a crucial support system for expanded PLA operations.

KEY WORDS: China, Space Security, Satellite Reconnaissance

China’s space program has been on vivid display over the past few years. It has put its taikonauts into orbit, launched data-relay and global positioning satellites, and proven its anti-satellite prowess. Wonderment at China’s rapid progress in space must be tempered by the realization that these milestones were passed decades ago by other major space competitors. In fact, by most contemporary assessments, China’s capabilities in space rank a distant third behind the United States and Russia and fall to fourth when the collective efforts of the European Union are included. In one critical area, however, China is rapidly emerging as a leader. Since December 2009, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made great strides in its satellite reconnaissance capabilities, particularly in the maritime environment. Within a year of the December launch of Yaogan-7, the daily time in which China could use its satellites to locate and identify naval vessels may have doubled. These new capabilities mark a turning point: China’s constellation of satellites is transitioning from the limited ability to collect general strategic information, into a new era in which it will be able to support tactical operations as they happen. In combination with its nascent satellite data relay system, older imaging satellites, and growing Beidou satellite navigation network, these reconnaissance satellites mark China’s ascension into an exclusive club. Next to China, only the United States possesses more capable tactical support systems in space for tactical operations.

Despite being shrouded in secrecy, the growth in China’s satellite reconnaissance capabilities can be estimated quantitatively using opensource data and orbital modeling software. These figures can then be measured against US capabilities for similar tasks. This comparison is not important in an operational sense as the two sides have different demands and priorities for space-based reconnaissance. Nonetheless, the analysis in this article suggests that China has substantially narrowed the gap between it and the United States in the amount of time it can reconnoiter maritime targets from space each day. In locating and tracking moving targets, however, China still has significant ground to cover. Despite recent activity in this area, China lacks a complete system of broad-scale sensors that can help to quickly and dependably locate moving targets such as ships. This gap may be closed partially by terrestrial and airborne technologies, but space offers unique advantages and will likely continue to grow into a dominant appendage of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) operations. These developments are significant because the expanded use of reconnaissance satellites will allow better and more frequent views from above and at ranges far from China’s shores. Satellites are emerging as a key component of China’s ‘active defense’ strategy and are particularly relevant to new weapons such as the anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). But China’s growing capability in space is not designed to support any single weapon; instead it is being developed as a dynamic system, applicable to other long-range platforms. With space as the backbone, China will be able to expand the range of its ability to apply force while preserving its policy of not establishing foreign military bases.

Moreover, this rapidly emerging space reconnaissance capability accentuates the unique path China is taking in its satellite development. Until recently, China focused on building and launching dual-use satellites. However, with the Yaogan (literally ‘remote sensing’) series

in particular – but also possibly the current Shijian and new Huanjing satellites – this trend appears to be giving way to space capabilities with clearer military application. The implications for the PLA acquiring dedicated systems both in terms of capabilities as well as command and control could be significant. Also, China’s current successes in space are linked to a defense industry direction that juxtaposes efficiency and cost-effectiveness with concentrated efforts on innovation in key technologies. Even as these efforts are now bearing fruit with China’s higher tempo of satellite launches, the fiscal and political constraints of this approach may be loosening which could further stimulate the drive for dedicated military assets. …