The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

ISDC 2024

Earthrise photo
Reported model of a Yaogan surveillance satellite. The synthetic aperture radar array is clearly visible at left. (credit: SinoDefence)

This space intentionally left blank: The limits of Chinese Military Power

Bookmark and Share

One of the odd quirks about Department of Defense reports is that occasionally they will include a blank page upon which is printed the phrase “This page intentionally left blank.” The reason is so that when somebody prints the report out themselves, or receives a photocopy, they don’t assume that a page is missing, thus undermining national security. Of course, the text contradicts itself, because its presence means that the page is not actually blank, the bureaucratic equivalent of Rene Magritte’s painting of a pipe titled “This is not a pipe.” But in the case of the newly-released edition of the Department of Defense’s annual report on Chinese military power, the presence of this text on several pages of the report prompts one to wonder what else is not in the report, but could be, and ultimately leads one to conclude that, at least when the subject is space, the report is more about what the White House and Pentagon want to say about China than it is about what is actually going on in the Chinese space program.

This past week the DoD released its annual report Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China. This is a new name for the report, which previously was called Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, but was euphemistically called “Chinese Military Power” by many, in a nod to a well-known series of bi-annual reports produced in the 1980s titled Soviet Military Power. (Somewhat humorously, despite the name change, the DoD used the shorthand “CMPR” for the new report’s file name.) Soviet Military Power was the brainchild of some people in the Pentagon who used it to highlight what they considered to be the dangers of the Soviet military. It was a propaganda document intended to justify the Reagan administration’s defense buildup. But just because its purpose was propaganda does not mean that SMP was not an interesting and worthwhile document. Some enterprising history Ph.D. could write a fascinating dissertation about the origins of Soviet Military Power and could even compare what it said about Soviet capabilities to what has now been revealed in declassified American intelligence reports, as well as actual Soviet documents from the era.

The 2010 version has only a third as much text on China’s manned space program as the 2009 version. Whereas the 2009 version referred to China’s robotic lunar activities and plans, the 2010 version omits them.

It will be a lot longer before somebody can do the same with Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China. But it would be a worthwhile exercise. The report on China’s military is also a form of propaganda, but unlike its well-known predecessor, the DoD produces the China report because Congress requires it in the defense authorization act. Congress certainly had an agenda in requiring the report—and probably had an agenda in ordering that the title be toned down a bit this year. DoD and intelligence community officials undoubtedly have agendas (or at least interests) when they decide what is and is not on the printed page in the report, but are certainly following a different set of calculations than their 1980s predecessors. (See “Paper dragon: the Pentagon’s unreliable statements on the Chinese space program”, The Space Review, June 23, 2008) They may be more interested in defending their sources and methods of gathering information on China because they consequently have less interest in using the intelligence information to justify a defense buildup. The costs and benefits for this report, in 2010, are certainly different than the costs and benefits for the early 1980s versions of Soviet Military Power.

China’s space power

The conflict between what to reveal and what not to reveal is almost certainly at play when the report discusses China’s space program. Soviet Military Power devoted an entire chapter to Soviet strategic and space developments and in fact contained some revelatory details about the Buran space shuttle program. In contrast, although the China report devotes a fair amount of text to Chinese strategic systems, there is relatively little information on China’s space program—a couple of pages at most, nearly identical to the text in the 2009 edition.

Over the years, the China report has promoted or demoted the threats of various Chinese weapons capabilities without any explanation. It has used dubious sources. And it has entirely missed reporting on actual Chinese space systems in development. Most notably, the 2003 version of the report stated that China was developing a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon that could be fielded in the 2005–2010 timeframe. But the 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 reports did not mention the direct-ascent ASAT. Then, in January 2007, the Chinese tested such a weapon and created a large cloud of debris in orbit around the Earth. Later leaks from the Pentagon indicated that the intelligence community had been monitoring the weapon’s development and flight testing for some time. The lesson is clear: sometimes the report deliberately omits information about Chinese military activities, presumably to prevent the Chinese from knowing what the US intelligence community knows. That was a case of the page on ASATs being deliberately blank.

There is less information on Chinese space developments in the 2010 version than there was in the 2009 version. For example, the 2010 version has only a third as much text on China’s manned space program as the 2009 version. Whereas the 2009 version referred to China’s robotic lunar activities and plans, the 2010 version omits them, presumably because they are civilian and have no bearing on Chinese military capabilities. Both the 2009 and 2010 versions mention that China’s human space program has the goal of developing a permanently-manned space station by 2020 (and no mention about China landing a man on the Moon in the next decade, an occasionally-repeated claim made by some media sites and bloggers, for which there is no evidence).

Also omitted from the new version is discussion of China’s smallsat development work. There was a paragraph about small satellites in the 2009 version and it is unclear why this was not included in the latest version. Indeed, some media and bloggers have equated China’s smallsat development in general to a military threat, although their logic was dubious since nothing about a satellite’s size makes it inherently more or less dangerous than a differently-sized satellite. However, in the past, the China report has stirred up controversy by claiming that China was developing “parasitic microsatellites” that could attach themselves to American satellites and interfere with or destroy them. That claim was based upon the flimsiest of data and called into question the methodology and quality of the report, or at least its space section. Eventually the claim was omitted.

Something else missing from the report is any mention of China’s small Shenlong spaceplane research and development program. Is there no information in the report because the US intelligence community knows nothing about Shenlong, or is there no information because they don’t want the Chinese to know what they know? Alternatively, there could simply be nothing to report. But the lack of information itself is a puzzle.

One recent development that occurred too late for inclusion, but will be interesting to watch, is the apparent Chinese effort to conduct automated rendezvous of two spacecraft in low Earth orbit, Shijian-12 and SJ-6F.

The 2010 report contains more text than the 2009 version on China’s reconnaissance satellite efforts, noting that “China currently accesses high-resolution, electrooptical and synthetic aperture radar commercial imagery from all of the major providers including Spot Image (Europe), Infoterra (Europe), MDA (Canada), Antrix (India), GeoEye (United States), and Digital Globe (United States).” Needless to say, this imagery is being used by China’s military. As an old wag once said, the capitalists will sell the rope by which to hang them. Perhaps those concerned about China’s increasing military power should turn their attention to the western companies selling China high-resolution reconnaissance imagery.

The report has very little information on the development of China’s new Wenchang launch site, although presumably American satellites have been watching the construction there closely.

One recent development that occurred too late for inclusion, but will be interesting to watch, is the apparent Chinese effort to conduct automated rendezvous of two spacecraft in low Earth orbit, Shijian-12 and SJ-6F. The two satellites may have come within only a few hundred meters of each other in recent days, and there is even some evidence that they actually made contact on August 19. So far this has been unmentioned in the West. A Russian media article quoted the highly-regarded Russian space researcher Igor Lissov who said that there was no indication that the rendezvous was connected to China’s manned space program, raising the prospect that it might be an effort to develop satellite inspection or anti-satellite capabilities. Maybe this will be mentioned in next year’s Pentagon report. Or maybe not.

Sam Black of the website Arms Control Wonk has produced a nice side-by-side comparison of the 2009 and 2010 reports. His analysis can be found here, and the summary can be found here.

Open sources

Unlike Soviet Military Power in its heyday, there is apparently nothing in Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China concerning China’s space program that could not be obtained by open sources. During the 1980s, Teledyne Brown Engineering published the annual Soviet Year in Space report, which was based upon open sources, such as magazines like Aviation Week as well as Russian media. Soviet Year in Space was an excellent resource, and its publication was eagerly awaited by those interested in the subject. The Soviet Union’s space program was more closed than China’s space program is today. It would be possible, if someone is so inclined, to produce a fairly detailed annual report on Chinese space activities using open sources. However, there is at present nobody willing to sponsor such an effort. (NASA was encouraged by Congress to report on China’s space activities a few years ago, but instead of producing a report, the agency reportedly merely delivered a bundle of press clippings.)

There are a few people in the West who occasionally write about the subject of the Chinese space program. Perhaps most notably is Andrew Erickson, an associate professor at the Naval War College and a founding member of the China Maritime Studies Institute, who has written a few articles about China’s space activities. In the March 2010 issue of the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine Erickson described several of China’s recent developments of navigation, communications, and surveillance satellites.

The threat from space

China has been engaged in a military buildup for a number of years now. One of China’s recent military developments that received a lot of attention was the country’s work on an anti-ship ballistic missile which could fly up to 1,500 kilometers before homing in on a target such as an American aircraft carrier. Because it is ballistic, it would pose a greater challenge to defenders than a conventional sea-skimming cruise missile. In the past few months a DoD official stated for the first time that China was not only developing such a weapon, but was actually testing it, although some later comments indicated that the Chinese have so far not conducted full-scale tests.

China has also stepped up its launching of surveillance satellites, launching its tenth Yaogan series satellite since 2006 on August 10.

Simply having such a weapon is not sufficient. The oceans are big, American aircraft carriers can actually move pretty fast, and the US Navy has had decades of training playing hide and seek in the big ocean, although it hasn’t faced a blue water opponent in over two decades. In order to hit an aircraft carrier, you first have to find it, and then keep track of it well enough for the missile to get close enough to home in on it. That is not an easy task, and it requires extensive surveillance capabilities as well as communications to relay the information to the launch site—what the American military refers to as the “sensor-to-shooter” cycle.

The US military loves its acronyms and has coined the acronym C4ISR, for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Information, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance to refer to the collection of systems required to find and put weapons on a target. American military officials have commented that they do not believe that China has mastered the C4ISR required to usefully employ an anti-ship ballistic missile when they develop one. Admittedly, China has built some advanced radars for searching for ships, and made some general improvements in its maritime patrol aircraft.

But China has also stepped up its launching of surveillance satellites, launching its tenth Yaogan series satellite since 2006 on August 10. Rather remarkably, despite this substantial improvement in capability that indicates China is making a concerted effort to improve its space surveillance system, that subject received only one short paragraph in the Pentagon’s newly-released report. But understanding capabilities requires more than simply counting satellites in orbit, because the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts—or less, if China does a bad job of integrating its systems.

Understanding China’s newly-emerging C4ISR capability is undoubtedly a major challenge for the American intelligence community. But perhaps they can be forgiven if they don’t exactly want to put what they know into a report delivered to Congress—and the public—once a year.

A pdf of the one page of the report devoted exclusively to space and counterspace can be downloaded here.