China's escalating expertise in space is also enhancing its competence as a global military force. Along with lofting future radar, ocean surveillance, and high-resolution photoreconnaissance satellites, China's rise as a space power also includes pursuit of an offensive anti-satellite system.
Those observations are included in a new report-Military Power of the People's Republic of China: A Report to Congress-issued by the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense.
The annual Pentagon report issued late last month addresses the current and future military strategy of the People's Republic of China. It takes a look at the current and probable future course of military-technological development on the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the tenets and probable development of Chinese grand strategy, security strategy, and military strategy, and of the military organizations and operational concepts, through the next 20 years.
Regional power projection
Underscored in this year's report as a high priority in China's military modernization efforts is development of advanced space-based C4ISR and targeting capability. C4ISR in military jargon is short for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance.
Furthermore, China's access to space will continue to improve as it develops newer boosters to replace the aging Long March system, the report stresses. "Acquiring more sophisticated space systems will allow China to expand the reach of its anti-access forces and could serve as a key enabler for regional power projection."
In the area of satellite reconnaissance, the report notes that China participated in the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS) program with the CBERS-1 and CBERS-2 remote sensing satellites.
These space assets can take 66-foot (20-meter) resolution images in swaths exceeding 62 miles (100 kilometers), and transmit those digital images to earth stations. "The program will continue with follow-on satellites CBERS-2B, CBERS-3 and CBERS-4, which reportedly increase camera resolution substantially," the report explains.
The Pentagon assessment spotlights China's interest in acquiring a disaster/environmental monitoring satellite constellation called Huanjing.
A first phase of the Huanjing program calls for three satellites, two of which are equipped for visible, infrared, and multi-spectral imaging. A third spacecraft will possess a synthetic aperture radar (SAR). Phase two of the Huanjing initiative allows for eight satellites: four imaging and four SAR in orbit simultaneously.
"In the next decade, Beijing most likely will field radar, ocean surveillance, and high-resolution photoreconnaissance satellites. China will eventually deploy advanced imagery, reconnaissance, and Earth resource systems with military applications," the report states.
In the interim, the Department of Defense (DoD) report adds, China will likely supplement existing coverage with commercial systems, utilizing the French SPOT, the U.S. Landsat, Canada's Radarsat, as well as the American commercial Ikonos satellite, as well as Russian satellite imagery.
Navigation and timing
The Pentagon report also focuses on China's navigation and timing space attributes, noting that the country orbited three BeiDou satellites to provide navigation coverage with an accuracy of 20 meters over China and surrounding areas.
"BeiDou is an active positioning system that requires transmissions between satellite and the user, slowing the time it takes a user to receive a corrected position. The BeiDou system is best suited for use by troops, ships and vehicles that move slowly. The active part of BeiDou also enables leadership to send and receive secure orders," the report explains.
In this space application area, the report continues, China also uses the U.S. Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system and Russia's GLONASS navigation satellites, and has invested in the European Union's Galileo navigation system program.
In the human spaceflight arena, the Pentagon report explains that China launched its second manned space mission on October 12, 2005, nearly two years after its first piloted Earth orbiting mission. The two-person crew returned safely on October 17, 2005.
"This was the first occasion during which Chinese astronauts performed experiments in space. Press reports indicate China will perform its first space walk in 2007, and rendezvous and docking in 2009-2012. China's goal is to have a manned space station by 2020," the report observes.
The success of China's human spaceflight program to date "required a substantial amount of systems integration and planning, and serves as an indicator of China's rapid and relatively smooth rise as an emerging space power," the report concludes.
In the marketplace
The newly issued report highlights the fact that not only is China expanding indigenous capabilities, it is also marketing its technological space knowledge-satellite building, manufacturing, and launch services-to the international market.
As example, the report describes two international contracts between China and other nations-one with Nigeria and one with Venezuela-for the design and manufacture of communication satellites based on their Dongfanghong-4 (DFH-4) spacecraft.
"China may be developing a system of data relay satellites to support global coverage, and has reportedly acquired mobile data reception equipment that could support more rapid data transmission to deployed military forces and units," the report states.
Additionally, China is studying and seeking foreign assistance for developing small satellites, lofting a number of them since 2000 for oceanographic, imagery, and environmental monitoring purposes.
China is also developing microsatellites-weighing less than 100 kilograms-for remote sensing and networks of electro-optical and radar satellites," the DoD assessment notes. "These developments could allow for a more rapid reconstitution or expansion of their satellite force given any disruption in coverage."
The Pentagon report warns that Beijing "continues to pursue an offensive anti-satellite system," saying that China can currently destroy or disable satellites only by launching a ballistic missile or space-launch vehicle armed with a nuclear weapon.
"However, there are many risks associated with this method, and potentially adverse consequences from the use of nuclear weapons," the report adds. "Evidence exists that China is improving its situational awareness in space, which will give it the ability to track and identify most satellites. Such capability will allow for the deconfliction of Chinese satellites, and would also be required for offensive actions. At least one of the satellite attack systems appears to be a ground-based laser designed to damage or blind imaging satellites."
China is also working on several types of "new concept" weapon systems, the report says, including a radio frequency (RF) weapon, citing Chinese writings that suggest it could be used against satellites in orbit.
A critic of the U.S. Secretary of Defense-issued report is space policy and arms control analyst, Jeffrey Lewis. He thinks poorly of the assessment and judges it far from a work of scholarship.
Lewis is Executive Director of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
"This report, as in previous years, suffers from the usual defects associated with a report drafted by committee and rushed into print with poor or compromise editing," Lewis told SPACE.com.
He added that the report's space section is little more than a laundry list of Chinese space activities.
"A member of Congress or defense analyst looking to argue that China is developing anti-satellite weapons might find such a list useful," Lewis said. "But an analyst attempting to make a serious, evidence-based assessment should regard the report as a useless compendium of previously established facts lacking the necessary qualifications about what the intelligence community does not know."
For example, Lewis said that the Pentagon view of China's laser weaponry proficiency falls short. Previous reports, he added, described limits to what the intelligence community knew about Chinese laser research, noting that "whether this claim extends to actual facilities" or "whether Beijing has tested such a capability is unclear."
Want to take a look at the report yourself? It is available here.
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Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.