Chinese Rocket Launches Point to Robust, Expanding Capabilities

A Long March 6 rocket preps for launch at the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center (Source: Chinese internet)

In late September, China conducted the first launch of two new types of rocket, the Long March 6, and the Long March 11 (China Military Online, September 20; People’s Daily Overseas Edition, September 26). While much of the media attention in September focused on the intercontinental and intermediate range missiles on display during the September 9 parade, the almost mundane regularity of space launches from Chinese satellite launch centers such as Taiyuan, Jiuquan and Xichang, herald China’s rapid expansion as a space power. The ability to launch a wide variety of satellites and spacecraft is important to China’s continued economic growth and national defense.

Chinese military analysts recognize space as an “information center of gravity” (China Brief, April 16). Strategically, it is a capability that they simply cannot live without and where they cannot afford to rely on another for launch capability. The United States, by contrast, remains reliant on Russian rockets for manned missions and many of the resupply missions to the International Space Station, including a launch on October 1 (NASA, August 25; ROSCOSMOS, October 1). Satellite technology is a vital component in the Chinese military’s ability to “win informatized local wars.” China will continue to focus on improving the ability of its military forces to communicate with each other over long distances and to detect threats and provide targeting data to missile systems.

While China’s manned space and lunar exploration national prestige programs have received official support, the priority for launches is clearly commercial and military-use satellites. These launches are steadily building not only China’s civilian communications infrastructure, but also the number of military surveillance satellites vital to Chinese intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. China has a growing number of remote sensing satellites, with launches in July, August and September of this year (Xinhua, August 27; Ministry of Science and Technology, July 27). These satellites, part of the Yaogan (remote sensing, 遥感) series, are commonly described in official reports as being for agricultural or disaster relief use only, though they are widely understood as having additional roles as an important part in China’s space ISR capabilities (Reference News, September 9; China Brief, February 10, 2011).

China clearly sees the economic benefits of satellite technology. China’s most recent white paper on the subject, China’s Space Activities in 2011, highlighted the commercial and scientific benefits of space assets, though it failed to mention Chinese military tests, such as the anti-satellite tests conducted in 2007 and 2010 (State Council Information Office, December 29, 2011; China Brief, January 3, 2012). China’s desire to have a more accurate and reliable commercial alternative to the U.S.-controlled Global Positioning Satellite system (GPS) has made launching additional, upgraded satellites a priority. In July, China launched two next-generation Beidou (北斗) satellites, marking “a substantial step toward a system with global coverage” (People’s Daily Overseas Edition, July 27). This newer generation marks a significant improvement over the first Beidou system, whose geo-stationary satellites limited coverage to an area mostly near China’s borders. The new system, with satellites in a lower orbit, now cover a significantly larger space stretching from the Western Indian Ocean to the middle of the Pacific—appropriately accompanying China’s increasingly active “far seas” maritime operations. However, the system remains limited in its coverage and is far from a truly global positioning system. Continued Chinese commitment to finishing the system and an aggressive launch schedule could see that soon change.

Chinese improvements do not just extend to rockets and the satellites they carry. China has made a number of investments in infrastructure to support its expanding satellite network, including an agreement with the Argentine government to share a satellite monitoring base located outside of Neuquén, Argentina (Penghai News Online, March 9). This base will give China better satellite tracking and communications ability in the Southern Hemisphere and is part of China’s longer–term space ambitions, including plans to land astronauts on the moon by 2020 (China Brief, January 24, 2014).

This latter ambition also took a step forward in September as the first Long March 5 left the factory in Tianjin, where it was produced, and was loaded on a ship to be sent to a launch site for further testing, likely the Wenchang Launch Center in Hainan Province (China Military Online, September 23). The Long March 5, a heavy lift rocket, is scheduled to carry an unmanned mission to return lunar samples to earth in 2017. National prestige projects may have been largely left behind by the developed world, but for China they remain an important image of its “national revival.” China is advancing both in terms of its ability to carry out complex space missions and build a reliable communication and navigation networks.

While western media attention has been focusing on Chinese land-reclamation works in the South China Sea, China’s advances in rocketry and satellite technology, such as the recent launches of the Long March 5 and Long March 11 rockets, underscore a continued and growing robust expansion into space that has gone largely unnoticed in the West.