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Tiangong 1 photo
A photo pf the Tiangong 1 “mini-station” under development by China. Will this really be a military outpost of some kind? (credit: CCTV)

Is the Chinese manned space program a military program?

In recent weeks China has disclosed more details of its manned space plan. Tiangong 1, a small man-tended space station, is one of the hot topics in China now. It also got received some attention in the western media. Craig Covault’s article “China readies military space station” published on Spaceflight Now was one example. It is interesting that the article concluded the Tiangong 1 will be a military station. Of course, it’s not unusual that the Chinese manned space program is often described as a military program in the west. It seems quite reasonable, because:

  • The Chinese manned space program is run by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)
  • Chinese taikonauts are military pilots
  • Previous Shenzhou spacecraft allegedly carried military payloads.
  • Many Chinese experts claim that the manned space program has important military applications.

However, it conflicts with China’s official statements. What’s the truth?

How did China initiate the manned program?

Looking back through Chinese space history, you will find that the military was not the advocate of a manned space program at any time. So far, there is no evidence indicating the military wanted such a program. It was the science community and the space industry that were continuously lobbying the government. Since 1986, the Ministry of Aerospace (part of it is now China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, or CASC) had been very active in pushing the manned program and done a lot of fundamental work within the framework of Project 863, China’s national high-tech program. In September 21, 1992, the decision was made during a special Political Bureau meeting and the program got approval from the government. It is worth noting that according to various reports based on declassified documents, including President and Party General Secretary Jiang Zeming’s speech during that meeting, the objectives of the manned program were set to have political, economic, scientific and technical, and military benefits, in which the military was last. A program with only minor military usage cannot be called a military program.

Looking back through Chinese space history, you will find that the military was not the advocate of a manned space program at any time. So far, there is no evidence indicating the military wanted such a program.

There are often reports on Chinese media quoting “space experts” as saying the Chinese manned space program has significant military value and important military applications. But there are no space officials or scientists directly in charge of the program making similar claims. By spending a little more time on these reports, you will find that most of these “experts” are not familiar with the manned space program. Some of them are scholars in colleges. The others are military analysts expert in non-space fields, scientists/engineers involved in related periphery projects, or retired officials or scientists/engineers. Theses reports, usually written by non-professional journalists, sometimes contain amplified or distorted facts. How can these reports represent the truth?

That is why the Chinese government always claims that the manned program is for peaceful use.

Who runs the manned space program?

It is first necessary to look at the organizational structure of the Chinese space program and its history. From the beginning, the Chinese military was responsible for the space program. This was natural as there were no civil programs at all in the 1960s and early 1970s. When the space program expanded with civil programs such as communication satellite and weather satellite programs, they were also led by the military sector. At that time, a military department called COSTIND (Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense) was responsible for the space program as well as other defense programs. In 1998 most of the responsibilities of COSTIND moved to the PLA’s newly formed General Armaments Department (GAD). The COSTIND was reorganized to carry out overall management of the space industry and to run civil space programs. Later, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) was founded as an organization under CONSTIND to oversee international cooperation. In 2008, COSTIND itself became a department within the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and lost most of its military color. Most of China’s civil space programs started in recent years are under COSTIND/CNSA, including the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), the Haiyang (Ocean) satellite program, and the Huanjing (environment) satellite program.

As early as the late 1980s, COSTIND was given the responsibility to lead the feasibility study of the manned program, and to run the program after its approval. In 1998 the manned space program was moved to the GAD, instead of staying in COSTIND. Under such an organizational structure, if judged by western mindset, the manned program is definitely a military program. But in China, things are quite different. Like the space program before 1998, and similar cases in aeronautics and nuclear industries (civil planes and nuclear power stations), the military also runs many civil programs. Today PLA still operates all space launch sites and tacking and control facilities for civil and commercial launches. In 1998 the PLA departments were busy building new ground facilities and training taikonauts. It was a wise decision to move the manned program to GAD along with most COSTIND programs. A smooth transition was very important to guarantee success of the maiden flight of the CZ-2F launcher and the Shenzhou spacecraft, which was already one year behind schedule. The manned space program’s military framework had its historic origin and practical needs.

It is true that the military is running the manned program, but it does not naturally mean the program itself is military.

How does the military run the manned space program?

Nearly 50 years after establishment of China’s space program, the military today still plays the most important role in it. All civil space programs are still heavily dependent on the military. There is an efficient cooperative system between the civil and military departments. Take the Fengyun weather satellite, for example: China Meteorological Administration (CMA) does funding, planning and requirement definition, CASC develops the satellite and provides the launch vehicle as the contractor, COSTIND organizes and coordinates the development, and the military (GAD) takes responsibility of launch and tracking operations. Once the satellite is delivered, the CMA receives data using its own ground stations, but routine orbital control and management is still done by control centers belonging to the GAD. The same is true for the Chinese commercial satellite programs. The military is experienced handling civil programs. The system works so well that there was no reason to change it for the manned program.

It is true that the military is running the manned program, but it does not naturally mean the program itself is military.

As stated previously, the military’s role does not mean it is a military program, even though the manned program has more military involvement than other civil space programs. The taikonauts are all military pilots, but this is not unusual because they are obviously most suitable to pilot or control the spacecraft. Early astronauts and cosmonauts all were military pilots. Many astronauts flying the civilian Space Shuttle today are also military personnel. A slight difference with NASA is that the Chinese military is directly in charge of taikonaut training and mission operation. The taikonauts officially belong to the PLA Taikonaut Squadron. It is a natural result that the program is directly run by the GAD. Like other cases of the military’s involvement in civil programs, the taikonauts’ military status cannot prove that the whole program is military, just like you cannot say that the Shuttle program is military, though it involves military astronauts and even specific DoD missions.

On the contrary, there is evidence indicating the manned program is different from other military programs, if we take a look at its funding and the way the GAD runs it. The Chinese Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO), a special department within GAD, takes full responsibility of the manned program from planning, budgeting and spending, overall management, till mission operation. And the manned space budget was specially allocated to the CMSEO and probably not within the national defense budget.

There is no hard evidence to support that China’s manned space program is for a military purpose. Instead, there are more clues pointing to a civil program.

How about these military payloads?

Shortly after the Shenzhou 1 mission in 1999, western observers noticed a “mystery” object installed on the top of the orbital module. Speculation was that it was a type of military payload. During the Shenzhou 5 and 6 missions, the large cameras in the orbital module were said to be military reconnaissance equipment. As China has ignored this equipment in its official reports, it seems reasonable to conclude that they are military payloads. This may be true. Unfortunately, many western analysts concluded that the Shenzhou missions mainly served military purposes and China’s manned space program is an important part of its military buildup. Most recently, some western observers claimed that the Tiangong 1 mini-station was a MOL or Almaz counterpart.

However, studies based on Chinese materials give an opposite conclusion. According to various records, the Center for Space Science and Applied Research (CSSAR), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), is responsible for planning, designing, development, and operation of the Shenzhou payload subsystem, one of seven subsystems of the Shenzhou manned system (the other six are the launch vehicle, spacecraft, launch site, landing zone, tracking and control, and taikonaut). CSSAR is the only subsystem contractor without military heritage. CSSAR has also published a large number of research papers on experiments during various Shenzhou missions. It is possible that military applications are considered in the design phase at some level, but hard to believe the whole payload system was designed for military usage. Similarly, Tiangong 1’s payload subsystem is also designed and developed by CSSAR. So the possibility of a Chinese military station is quite low.

Chinese leaders must have realized that a manned military system is not a good idea.

Of course, there may be various military or dual-use payloads in past Shenzhou spacecraft. And Tiangong 1 will very likely carry out military-related experiments, too. This is also a normal practice in Soviet and US manned space history. The manned system is cost inefficient for operational military tasks, but could be used as a testbed for military experiments. Combined scientific, engineering, commercial, and military usage is a way to offset the high development and operation costs of the manned system.

We can conclude that the Chinese manned space program is mainly for civil purposes: no different than that of the US and Russia today, though there are sometimes limited, experimental military payloads.

Just as Chinese decision-makers have studied other aspects of the Russian and American space programs, they have carefully studied the US and Soviet plans to deploy manned military spacecraft in space, both of which were finally abandoned. They must have realized that a manned military system is not a good idea. Most importantly, so far China is still on the right track with Deng Xiaoping’s warning almost 20 years ago that China has to focus on economic development instead of military buildup. Undoubtedly, China will not repeat the mistakes of the Soviets.