PLA Expands Network of Military Reconnaissance Satellites

On August 9, China launched the remote sensing satellite Yaogan-10
(military designation: Jianbing) into orbit from the Taiyuan Satellite
Launch Center. Situated in the northwest of Shanxi Province, the site
is a space and defense launch facility reportedly used for testing the
Chinese military’s intercontinental ballistic missiles and overland
submarine-launched ballistic missiles (Globalsecurity.org). This event
marks the sixth Chinese launch this year via the CZ-4C Chang Zheng-4C
(Long March) launch vehicle and follows a surge in satellite launches
that appear to reflect the Chinese determination to beef up its
reconnaissance satellite network and end its dependence upon foreign
satellite systems. While China’s exact intentions are unknown, given
the dual use-nature of remote sensing satellites, China is rapidly
improving its diverse network of space-based Intelligence, Surveillance
and Reconnaissance (ISR) sensors, which can bolster the Chinese
military’s expanding land, sea and air operations (Nasaspaceflight.com,
August 9; Xinhua News Agency, August 10).

The state-run Xinhua
News Agency reported that Yaogan-10 will conduct “scientific
experiments, carry out land surveys, estimate crop yields and help
respond to natural disasters” (Xinhua News Agency, August 10), yet
there is evidence to suggest that the Yaogan satellite is also a
military asset, with some models equipped with the synthetic aperture
radar (SAR) system designed to observe locations in all weather and
lighting conditions.

The Yaogan series is a new fleet of
high-resolution optical and radar reconnaissance satellites in China’s
growing space-based sensor network. With alternating take offs from the
Taiyuan and the Jiuquan site, China has been launching this series of
radar and electro-optical spy satellites into orbit since 2006. The
launch of Yaogan-9, purportedly for ocean surveillance and targeting
from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia, on March 5
included three spacecraft (i.e. Yaogan-9A, Yaogan-9B, and Yaogan-9C),
which are believed to be naval observation satellites. According to
observers, three such satellites flying in formation in orbit form what
appear akin to a type of Naval Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS)—and may
be used for gathering intelligence derived from ships and aircraft by
their radar and other electromagnetic radiation.

The development
of a space-based SAR system has been a priority for the People’s
Liberation Army (PLA). Such a system is considered a critical component
to the PLA’s effort in achieving information dominance in future
warfare. According to Andrew Erickson, associate professor at the China
Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College, “Synthetic
Aperture Radar [SAR] in particular offers wide coverage at sufficient
resolution. Maritime surveillance, prioritized at the national level
under China’s 863 State High-Technology Development Plan, is receiving
significant funding” (Asia Times, April 22).

“Of particular
note are the five Yaogan satellites that China has launched in the past
five months. Yaogan-7 and 8 were launched in December. Yaogan-7 is
optical and Yaogan-8 appears to be equipped with SAR,” said Erickson.
“Yaogan 9A, 9B, and 9C, launched in March, share the same orbit,
suggesting that they have a special mission to perform” (Asia Times,
April 22).

According to the website Nasaspaceflight.com, the
Chinese schedule for the rest of the year may include the launch of at
least another remote sensing satellite, the Chinasat-6A communications
satellite, the ST-1B Shen Tong-1B / ZX-20 (2) ZhongXing-20 (2) military
communications satellite and two more Beidou (COMPASS) navigation
satellites (Nasaspaceflight.com, August 9).

The main contractors
for the SAR satellite system include China Academy of Science’s
Institute of Electronics, Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology,
501 and 504 Institutes of China Academy of Space Technology, Nanjing
Research Institute of Electronic Technology, Southwest Institute of
Electronic Equipment and Beijing University of Aeronautics &
Astronautics (BUAA).

To be sure, the launch of Yaogan-10
foreshadows the coming of age of China’s second-generation SAR
satellite system. According to a BUAA report, the development of a
second-generation SAR Satellite program had been listed in China’s 11th
Five-Year Development Plan (2006-2010) (Sinodefence.com). The new
system is expected to strengthen the PLA’s all-weather-targeting
applications for locating enemy assets in China’s periphery. The
space-based SAR system can penetrate multiple layers to detect targets
on the ground or underground, and in the ocean. In addition, SAR
satellites can be used for tracking moving targets (e.g. aircraft
carrier) and military mapping requirements.

Whether the launch
of Yaogan-10 represents a leap in China’s space program remains to be
seen. At the very least it is a continuation of China’s concerted push
to strengthen its space-based infrastructure. As China’s missile
program grows in number and sophistication, these developments suggest
that the PLA is rapidly developing an employable capability that will
assist it in achieving its operational and strategic objectives.

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