DOD Tempers Language about China's Space Program, Warns it Faces Challenges

DOD Tempers Language about China's Space Program, Warns it Faces Challenges

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) told Congress last month that while China’s space program overall continues to expand, individual programs “are facing some challenges in systems reliability.”  The increasing pace of launches “also may be taking its toll,” it adds.

DOD is required by Congress to report every year on military and security developments in China.  The report is commonly referred to as the “China military power” report, but the official title of the 2012 edition is Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.  The report is submitted in both classified and unclassified forms; the public version upon which this article is based is the unclassified one (obviously).

This year’s report is noticeably shorter than last year’s, 52 pages compared to 94, with commensurately less detail about China’s space activities.  China’s 2011 launch of an experimental space station, Tiangong-1, is only briefly mentioned.   At a May 18 press conference, David Helvey, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (East Asia), said DOD “streamlined and consolidated the report, in keeping with DOD-wide guidance for how we’re handling reports to Congress.”

Apart from the lack of detail, the two biggest changes are the cautionary statement DOD makes about challenges China’s space program is facing and the fewer types of counterspace capabilities DOD says China is developing.

The 2011 and 2012 reports are similar in that they both say China is expanding “its space-based surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation, meteorological, and communication satellite constellations,”  and “continues to develop the Long March V  rocket,” which “will more than double the size” of payloads China can launch.

China hopes to launch its first Long March V (or Long March 5), a Delta IV-class rocket, in 2014 from a new launch site on Hainan Island.   It is designed to launch 25 tons to low Earth orbit or 14 tons to geosynchronous orbit.   

Like last year, DOD describes China’s development of counterspace capabilities as “multidimensional,” but the list of those capabilities is shorter this year.   Both reports list the direct-ascent antisatellite (ASAT) weapon China tested in 2007 that created more than 3,000 pieces of space debris, engendering international condemnation.  The 2012 edition succinctly adds “jamming, laser, microwave, and cyber weapons.”  In the 2011 version, DOD said China was “developing other kinetic and directed-energy (e.g. lasers, high-powered microwave, and particle beam weapons) technologies for ASAT weapons. Foreign and indigenous systems give China the capability to jam common satellite communications bands and GPS receivers.  China’s nuclear arsenal has long provided Beijing with an inherent ASAT capability, although a nuclear explosion in space would also damage China’s own space assets, along with whomever it was trying to target.”

This year’s report states that over the past two years China has conducted “increasingly complex close proximity operations between satellites while offering little in the way of transparency or explanation,” but does not mention the rendezvous and docking operations the automated Shenzhou 8 spacecraft conducted with Tiangong-1 last November in that context.   While the 2011 report did not discuss proximity operations, it drew a connection between China’s “manned and lunar” programs and counterspace capabilities.   It asserted that China cited requirements of its “manned and lunar space programs” as reasons for improving its abilities to “track and identify” satellites, capabilities that also are “a prerequisite for effective, precise counterspace operations.”   Also, DOD’s statement in the 2011 report that China plans a permanent space station by 2020 and landing a human on the Moon by 2030 is not repeated.

As for the challenges DOD says China is facing, the report reveals that communications satellites using China’s DFH-4 platform “have experienced failures leading to reduced lifespan or loss of the satellite.”  It also mentions the failure of a Chinese Long March 2C in August 2011.  That was the third satellite launch in seven days for China, and DOD comments that “The recent surge in the number of China’s space launches also may be taking its toll.”  

China conducted 18 successful space launches in 2011, a new record for China, and more than any other country except Russia.

At the May 18 press conference, Helvey said that DOD sees areas where the United States and China can work together on common threats, such as piracy, and wants to have a conversation with China about that, but is also concerned about Chinese activities that would make cooperation difficult, such as its investments in counterspace capabilities.  He cited the Strategic Security Dialogue as a “platform” for such discussions.

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