China's growing military space capabilities, including a constellation of maneuverable robotic spacecraft operating today, are being bolstered by a hefty increase to the nation's civil and defense space coffers over the next five years.
In March, Beijing announced a 10.7% increase in its annual defense budget to $114 billion, continuing more than two decades of sustained annual spending increases. The U.S.says that from 2003-12, China's officially disclosed military budget grew at an average rate of 9.7% per year in inflation-adjusted terms.
A portion of this growth is being used to acquire technologies that will improve Beijing's military space and counterspace capabilities. According to a Euroconsult analysis, “Government Space Markets, World Prospects to 2022,” China's total space budget grew an average of 14% for the period 2007-12. Over the next five years, it is expected to nearly double to more than $6 billion by 2017, with roughly two-thirds of spending going to civil and commercial programs, and the balance earmarked for military space. Launcher development and human spaceflight account for close to 50% of current government space spending.
Last year, China conducted 18 launches, the bulk of which were aimed at expanding Beijing's space-based remote-sensing, navigation, meteorological and communications satellite constellations.
In 2012, China launched six Beidou navigation satellites to complete its regional network, as well as the in-orbit validation phase for a global network expected to be completed by 2020.
China also launched 11 new Earth observation spacecraft last year, adding to what is already a large constellation of imaging and remote-sensing satellites that can support military objectives by providing situational awareness of foreign military force deployments, critical infrastructure and political targets.
Since 2006, China has sent 16 Yaogan remote-sensing satellites into orbit to carry out land-resource surveys, estimate crop yields and monitor natural disasters. Two Tianhui satellites equipped with a stereoscopic imaging payload have also been launched to conduct scientific experiments and territory mapping, as well as three Huanjing disasters monitoring satellites currently on orbit, the third of which was launched in November 2012.
In addition, China's Ziyuan series of satellites is used for land-monitoring, cartography and surveying, while its Haiyang constellation monitors the ocean and its Fengyun weather satellites track meteorological and climate phenomena in low Earth and geosynchronous orbits.
Over the next two years, the Defense Department expects China to grow these constellations with the planned launch of 100 satellites through 2015, including imaging, remote-sensing, navigation, communication and scientific satellites, in addition to manned spacecraft.
At the same time, China continues to develop capabilities that could be used to limit or defeat an adversary's space-based assets during conflict. The nation's military space ambitions moved beyond the theoretical to actual threats in 2007, when a successful test of a ground-launched kinetic-kill anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) shattered China's defunct FY-1C weather satellite into the largest single cloud of space debris ever created at one time. The Jan. 11 test added more than 900 objects to the trackable debris in orbit—an instantaneous 10% increase in the 50-year figure that doesn't count the thousands of objects too small to track which threaten all spacecraft flying below about 2,000 km. (1,243 mi.) (AW&ST Feb. 12, 2007, p. 20).
That includes the International Space Station, which has had to brace for “conjunction” with tracked debris from the Chinese test, and the Hubble Space Telescope. On the last servicing mission to the Hubble in May 2009,safety experts placed the risk from space debris at the telescope's 300-nm orbit as more serious than the risk from falling insulation on ascent of the type that destroyed the shuttle Columbia. The added risk, attributed in part to the Chinese test, required higher-than-usual authorization before the mission could launch.
In the wake of the Chinese test, then-President George W. Bush ordered the Defense and State departments to improve space situational awareness (SSA). Maj. Gen. William Shelton, then the commander of the strategic 14th Air Force and now the four-star head of the, said the test had made open discussion of SSA and the politically sensitive areas of offensive and defensive space operations “more palatable.” In 2011, Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, revealed the existence—but few details—of a classified mission to test a Self-Awareness Space Situational Awareness payload in orbit.
The ASAT test came as Chinese diplomats were preparing to meet their international counterparts in Vienna to draft rules of the road in spaceflight operations to minimize debris. The apparent disconnect within the Chinese government continues to raise questions among China-watchers who rely primarily on open-source literature to do their jobs. China had been working on an ASAT weapon for about a decade, and had reached the point when it needed to flight-test its hardware.
“It had to be briefed to the Central Military Commission for approval, so most likely it was briefed,” says Andrew Erickson, a China specialist at the U.S. Naval War College and Harvard University. “But here's the disconnect: It was probably briefed by technical people who didn't understand diplomatic implications to senior civilian leaders who understood to some extend international diplomatic implications, but didn't understand technical aspects. That's probably where something was lost in translation.”
While no additional anti-satellite programs have been publicly acknowledged in China, the Pentagon says Beijing continues to emphasize the need for capabilities that could be used in “destroying, damaging, and interfering with the enemy's reconnaissance . . . and communications satellites,” according to a May 2012 Defense Department report to Congress on China's military activities. The report says China suggests such systems, as well as navigation and early warning satellites, could be among the targets of attacks designed to “blind and deafen the enemy.”
The same analysis states that “destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors . . . will deprive an opponent of initiative on the battlefield and [make it difficult] for them to bring their precision-guided weapons into full play.”
Over the summer, Western analysts said China conducted a series of in-orbit maneuvers involving old and new satellites that could be interpreted as a test of ASAT capabilities. The maneuvers reportedly involved one of three Chinese satellites launched in July, one of which is said to be equipped with a robotic arm that offers the potential for a range of space-based functions, everything from grappling orbital debris to disabling an enemy satellite.
More recently, China outlined a proposal for a swarm of small robotic spacecraft that could be used for in-orbit satellite servicing, among other applications. Initially the project calls for a series of ground tests to validate key technologies, culminating in a demonstration of in-orbit satellite servicing. However, the technology has a broad range of applications beyond this, says Xueqian Wang of the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).
Dubbed the “Micro-swarm On-orbit Servicing System,” the constellation would have the ability to “track, approximate, capture and control a non-cooperative target,” Wang told the 64th International Astronautical Congress in Beijing in September. The system includes two monitoring satellites, a communications satellite and two maintenance satellites, each based on a micro-satellite platform. The latter spacecraft are to be equipped with a pair of servicing arms.
“All the robots in the system are designed based on the micro-satellite platform, and collaborated to execute monitoring and measuring, capture, maintenance, repair and other tasks,” Wang said. “This new program can address the disadvantage of a single large robot satellite, and the micro-satellite-based platform can reduce costs and speed development.”
In the area of launch vehicles, China continues to develop the Long March 5 (LM-5) rocket, which is intended to lift heavy payloads into space. LM-5 will more than double China's mass-to-orbit capacity for sending payloads to low Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit. To support these rockets, China began constructing the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in 2008. Located on Hainan Island, this launch facility is expected to be complete this year or in early 2014, with the first LM-5 launch planned next year (see photo, page 52).