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The X-37B, seen here after one of its missions, has generated considerable speculation about the true nature of its long-duration orbital missions. (credit: USAF)

The X-37B program: an American exercise in the Art of War?

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All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is superior in strength, evade him. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.1

Of all the space activities over the past four years, none has generated more conjecture and controversy than the United States Air Force and its operation of the X-37B mini-shuttle. The X-37B program began as a NASA program in 1999 before the program was transferred to the US Department of Defense in 2004. The first flight of the first of the two vehicles, designated OTV-1, was launched on April 22, 2010, and ended on December 3, 2010. The second flight, OTV-2, flown by the program’s second vehicle, launched on March 5, 2011, and returned over a year later on June 16, 2012. The third flight (OTV-3), performed by the refurbished first vehicle, is so far the most impressive: it launched on December 11, 2012, and landed almost two years later on October 17, 2014. The date of the fourth flight has yet to be announced, but at least one release points to a launch sometime in May of 2015.2

The most vexing characteristic of the X-37 for analysts and the public alike is the classified nature of its mission.

These long-duration flights are not the only things that draw attention to the program. The fact that the program is under the auspices of the Department of Defense and that its on-orbit activities remain classified generates substantial speculation. The US Air Force has maintained that the purpose of the X-37B is to test new sensors and new satellite technologies, and there is no reason to doubt that part of its mission entails that. Despite this, many speculate that the secrecy surrounding the X-37 shrouds a more nefarious purpose such as that of a “space weapon” or an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT). However, as noted by some, the size and the lack of maneuverability of the X-37, and the fact that the X-37 can be tracked even by amateurs as makes such a purpose dubious at best.3 Nevertheless, wild speculation about the purpose of the X-37 runs rampant, including space bombing, surveillance, interfering with other satellites, spying on the Chinese Tiangong-1, or deploying spy satellites.4 These theories about the X-37’s purpose are denied by the Air Force yet remain popular despite their impracticability, which ultimately works to the benefit of concealing the true nature of the program.

The activities of the X-37 have not gone unnoticed by other spacefaring nations either, including geopolitical rivals. China in particular has taken notice of the X-37, and Chinese media reports echo the speculation that the X-37 could serve as a space weapon or a space bomber carrying nuclear weapons.5 While media reports such as this are clearly intended as propaganda, Chinese analysts and the PLA leadership likely take a pragmatic view of the X-37 and recognize the technical shortcomings of the vehicle that prevent it from being utilized as a space weapon or a space bomber. Even so, they do seem concerned that it could be the first step towards the development of a space-based weapon that could be deployed against ground targets.6 This line of thought is not surprising because this is a move that is not only considered an eventuality by Chinese military theorists but also has its foundations in the teachings of Sun Tzu.7

The most vexing characteristic of the X-37 for analysts and the public alike is the classified nature of its mission. The unwillingness of the Air Force to release details of the spaceplane’s purpose fuels speculation and generates concern that the opaque nature of its activities might cause a geopolitical adversary like China to overcompensate and lead to an escalation of military activity in outer space. This concern has led at least one group to call for more transparency in the program.8 Despite this concern, the Air Force will likely be unwilling to provide that transparency not only to protect the specific activities that the X-37 may be performing in orbit, but also to protect the perception of what a geopolitical adversary may infer its purpose to be.

It goes without saying that the X-37 garners substantial attention, which the Air Force carefully cultivates to tantalize the imagination but not enough to reveal its function. Pre-launch photos of the X-37 being encapsulated, live launch webcasts, and post-landing photos are carefully released to the public to attract its attention and undoubtedly the attention of other players in the outer space arena. This, coupled with observations of the spaceplane’s orbital behavior by amateurs and foreign governments alike, feed an elusive yet alluring fixation with the spacecraft. In an exercise reminiscent of the Cold War space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Air Force may have used this interest to shift the world’s attention from an important Chinese human spaceflight launch. On June 16, 2012, Shenzhou-9 launched with China’s first woman in space, which was the same day that the Air Force chose to bring OTV-2 back from space. While it may be coincidence that the two high-profile events happened on the same day, the return of OTV-2 from orbit gained wide media attention and stole some of the thunder from a geopolitical competitor. Whether this was intentional or not, the result is that a Chinese crewed mission to outer space played second fiddle to the return of an uncrewed United States military spacecraft from its clandestine mission in outer space.

If the X-37 program is intended as a deception campaign to mislead the Chinese leadership into expending resources to react to a perceived threat, then it may have succeeded.

While it may seem incongruent to have such a high public profile to a classified mission, the dichotomy of the high-profile public face of the X-37, coupled with the cloak of secrecy surrounding the program, contributes to what may be its primary purpose: deception. As pointed out by John Pike, the main purpose of the X-37 may be to keep Chinese military intelligence officials guessing since they will have to respond to everything it might be.9 Building upon this view, the opaqueness of the X-37 program may a serve the purpose of forcing a geopolitical rival like China to expend national security and intelligence resources to discover the spacecraft’s mission and make a strategic decision on whether to duplicate or develop a countermeasure to the perceived capability. This effort of deception is enhanced by not keeping the program in the same cloud of secrecy surrounding the typical launch of an NRO or other national security asset but instead by keeping enough of the program out of the shadows to entice the public and geopolitical rivals to watch its activities even closer.

This form of deception, whether intentional or not, is part of Cold War brinkmanship and is highly effective. A case in point occurred during the Cold War with the Soviet perceptions of the American Space Shuttle program. From the viewpoint of the Soviet military leadership, the shuttle represented a means to strategically bomb the Soviet Union from orbit, and as a potential ASAT because of the shuttle’s robotic arm. These perceptions were an impetus for the Soviet space program to develop its own shuttle and ancillary infrastructure, which required a substantial expenditure of resources for a shuttle that made one uncrewed flight.10 It is open to question whether the Space Shuttle was intended as an instrument for a deception campaign, and the Soviets response may have been merely tit-for-tat, yet the Soviets made a reactionary decision to move their space program along a path that they perceived was being taken by the United States.

If the X-37 program is intended as a deception campaign to mislead the Chinese leadership into expending resources to react to a perceived threat, then it may have succeeded. Chinese media reported in 2011 a test flight of the Shenlong spaceplane that apparently included an airdrop from an H-6 bomber. But the nature of the Shenlong project’s testing, as well as what the robotic vehicle truly represents, remains sketchy. Several China watchers in the US have speculated what the Shenlong might represent, with some experts postulating that the Shenlong is simply a tit-for-tat response to the X-37 program.11 Regardless of whether the Shenlong is a direct response to the X-37, a reaction or response to another perceived threat, or the natural progression of Chinese military doctrine, the existence of the X-37 program surely played a role in the decision making process, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was required to expend resources to that end. Therefore, if the X-37’s role is that of deception, then it may well have succeeded in deceiving the PLA to follow the path they have taken with the Shenlong.

On the other hand, deception campaigns can have unintended consequences and could potentially move a geopolitical rival to escalate a situation or mount its own deception campaign. PLA leadership, ingrained with the lessons of Sun Tzu, have unquestionably considered that the X-37 program may indeed be a deception program and decided to use the Shenlong as a means of deception as well. Yet, as noted earlier, the PLA leadership may see the X-37 as an eventual escalation in military activity by the United States and may decide to preempt the United States with an escalation of its own. An illustration of this occurred with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which was initiated on March 23, 1983, by President Ronald Reagan. The Soviet leadership perceived SDI as a space-based weapons system and paranoia among the Soviet leadership caused their existing space weapon program to be accelerated with the eventual, albeit unccessful, launch of the Polyus-Skif “battle station” on the inaugural flight of the Energia rocket.12

Whatever the true purpose of the X-37, the question always comes back to whether the program is worth the financial cost. If the primary purpose of the X-37 is deception, then the question is expanded to include whether it is worth the risk of prompting an escalation in outer space military activity.

It is debatable whether SDI was intended as a deception program, but the unintended consequences of Soviet perceptions of SDI contributed to an escalation that was thwarted by the failure of the Polyus-Skif to properly insert itself into orbit. Likewise, the X-37 program and its probable mission of deception gambles with the risk of unintended consequences, including an escalation of aggressive military activity in outer space, which is the purported rationale for calls of transparency.

Whatever the true purpose of the X-37, the question always comes back to whether the program is worth the financial cost. Moreover, if the primary purpose of the X-37 is deception, then the question is expanded to include whether it is worth the risk of prompting an escalation in outer space military activity. The answer to both questions appears to be a qualified yes. X-37 operations appear to be expanding with the addition of a processing facility at Cape Canaveral, and public remarks from officials regarding the program are resoundingly positive. Therefore, it appears that whatever the mission of the X-37 may be, it has produced the intended results, and if deception is the primary or even unintended mission of the X-37 program, then that mission is sure to continue.13 Regardless of the program’s true purpose, if the X-37 program instigates the teachings of Sun Tzu to haunt the waking thoughts and dreams at night of Chinese analysts and the PLA leadership, then by one measure it can be considered an unqualified success.


  1. James Clavell (translator), Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter I, p. 11.
  2. On December 19, 2014, SpaceFlight Now released a manifest for ULA showing a launch sometime in May 2015.
  3. Mike Wall, “X-37B: The Air Force’s Mysterious Space Plane,”, March 28, 2014.
  4. Elizabeth Howell, “X-37B Space Plane Returns: 5 Theories About Its Secret Mission,” LiveScience, October 17, 2014
  5. “US X-37B aircraft had to stay in space for 400 days the task is unknown,” Xinhua, February 19, 2014 (via Google Translate).
  6. Dean Chang, “When the Chinese look at the US X-37B, they see the future of space-based attack,” Foreign Policy, October 23, 2014.
  7. Specifically, in the Art of War (James Clavell translation), Sun Tzu teaches that “With regard to precipitous heights, if you proceed your adversary, occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up.”“…if the enemy has occupied precipitous heights before you, do not follow him, but retreat and try to entice him away.” From the Chinese perspective the X-37 may represent a first step by the United States of occupying the high ground of outer space. Chinese foreign policy has been such that it is trying to prevent the deployment of so-called "space weapons" by the United States through initiatives in the international arena such as the PPWT. While the issue of "space weapons" is amorphous at best, initiatives like the PPWT generate soft-power and give the issue political substance. This can be seen by 12 recent first drafts by the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) dealing with among other matters the ‘no first placement of arms in outer space and ban on new types of weapons of mass destruction.’ The Committee voted (with the United States, Georgia, Ukraine and Israel voting against) to begin work on the latest draft of the PPWT, which would encourage those States... "with major space capabilities, to contribute actively to the peaceful use of outer space and to the prevention of an outer space arms race and refrain from actions contrary to that objective." Effectively, this gives the current draft of the PPWT, which may not ever have legal significance, sufficient political significance and creates legitimacy to the otherwise nebulous issue of "space weapons". All this is against a backdrop where China (with the help of Russia), seeking to ban a "space-based weapons" capability for other States, continues to develop a similar capability for itself. See generally, Michael J. Listner, “An exercise in the Art of War: China’s National Defense white paper, outer space, and the PPWT,” The Space Review, April 25, 2011.
  8. Marica S. Smith, “Air Force X-37B Due to Land Tuesday, SWF Wants More Transparency About Its Missions,” SpacePolicyOnline, October 13-15, 2014.
  9. Leonard David, “Secretive Air Force Space Plane’s Purpose Questioned,”, June 25, 2012.
  10. See Michael J. Listner & Joan Freese-Johnson, “Object 2014-28E: Benign or Malignant?,” Space News, December 8, 2014
  11. Leonard David, “China’s Mystery Space Plane Project Stirs Up Questions,” SPACE.Com, November 9, 2012.
  12. Dr. Dwayne Day and Robert G. Kennedy III wrote an excellent article concerning Soviet efforts to develop space weapons during the Cold War and the history of the Polyus-Skif spacecraft itself. See Dwayne A. Day and Robert G. Kennedy III, “Soviet Star Wars, The launch that saved the world from orbiting laser battle stations,” Air & Space Smithsonian, January 2010.
  13. Another angle of the deception campaign of the X-37 program may be to provide a high-profile target to distract ground surveillance away from a truly black outer space activity. Such distractions have been used to great effect to spoof photo reconnaissance satellites photographing targets of interest on the ground, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that the X-37 is used at times during its long-duration missions to distract amateur and government satellite trackers from other more sensitive orbital activities.