Space – China the Emerging Power

anil chopra, airb power asia, China, Space Program, Technology, Militarisation of Space

“The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.”

– Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

“We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon and to prepare for new journeys to the worlds beyond our own.”

– George W. Bush

          In June 2019, China became the third country to successfully launch an orbital space mission from a sea-based platform. A Long March 11 rocket carrying seven satellites blasted off from a large semi-submerged barge in the Yellow Sea1. China’s second sea-based space launch places 9 satellites in orbit on 15 September 2020. The flexibility afforded by sea launches will allow China to provide better commercial launch services for countries along the Belt and Road network. Interestingly, all of China’s launch sites are otherwise located inland. Nearly 50 years after China launched its first satellite, the 173 kg Dong Fang Hong  into orbit in April 1970, Beijing is strengthening its foothold in space. China’s was the heaviest first satellite placed into orbit by a nation, exceeding the combined masses of the first satellites of the other four previous countries2. China is already building a space station and is getting all set for its Mars Lander mission3. China has developed the powerful Long March 5 rocket to transport the probe to Mars in 2020.

China launches a Long March 11 solid-propellant carrier rocket from a ship in the Yellow Sea on Tuesday morning, Sept 15, 2020. [Photo by Wang Weitong/Provided to]

          Elon Musk says he’s a big fan of what China is doing in space. Musk is Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of space exploration company SpaceX, which faces growing competition from China which is pumping huge money into space4. The first Chinese manned spaceflight was in 2003. In January 2007 China became the first Asian military-space power to send an anti-satellite missile into orbit, and destroy an aging Chinese weather satellite5. Anti-satellite technologies to destroy or disable space-based assets are a critical part of the Chinese space program. These include land-based missiles, experimental lasers, and signal jammers. China has successfully performed soft landing of a rover on the moon, including on the only ones to land on the dark side6. China has long term ambitions to exploit Earth-Moon space for industrial development. China plans to bring a habitable space station Tiangong2online by 20227 and put Chinese astronauts on the moon in the mid-2020s. They also have Mars Lander mission coming up. Chinese space program is linked to the nation’s efforts at developing advanced military technology. China launched Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE) the most capable dark matter explorer to date in 20158, and world’s first Quantum Experiments at Space Scale ‘QUESS’ satellite in 20169. China is averaging 20 space missions a year10. As per estimates, China has over 500 ballistic missiles including 100 Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), 25 percent of which are submarine based, and some with Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) warheads, with ranges beyond 13,000 kilometers.

Chinese Quantum Experiments at Space Scale ‘QUESS’ satellite “Mozi”. Image

China’s Space Program – Evolution

          China’s space program officially began in 1956 with the creation of the Fifth Academy of the Ministry of National Defense, presently the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, which conducts most of China’s space research and development. During a speech to the Communist Party in 1958, Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China, declared that Beijing should also launch an artificial satellite into space, following successful launches by the Soviet Union and the United States.

          Mao wanted China to gain status among the world’s powers that – as he felt – did not respect him. His goal would be achieved in phases. The construction of China’s first missile test base, code-named Base 20 started in April 1958 and it entered service on October 20 of the same year. The first Chinese missile was built in October 1958 as a reverse-engineered copy of the Soviet R-2 short-range-ballistic missile (SRBM), itself an upgraded version of a German V-2 rocket11. Its range was 590 km, weighing 20.5 tons and propelled with liquid oxygen and alcohol. China’s first ever T-7 sounding rocket was successfully launched from the Nanhui launch site on February 19, 1960. During the cordial Sino-Soviet relations of the 1950s, the USSR engaged in a cooperative technology transfer program with the PRC under which they trained Chinese students and provided the fledgling program support. After the friendly relationship between the two countries turned to confrontation, all Soviet technological assistance was abruptly withdrawn after the 1960 Sino-Soviet split.

          The first successful launch of a Chinese SRBM missile was conducted on November 5, 1960. The missile was now designated DF-1. The first DF-2 MRBM was successfully tested on June 29, 1964. It would enter service by the end of 1966. China started to develop the DF-5 Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) program in August 1965. It was designed to carry a single nuclear warhead and has a maximum range of 12000 km12. In November 1966, it was decided to build a second ballistic missile test site, the Northern Missile test Site in Shanxi Province. On October 27, 1966, a nuclear-tipped DF-2A missile was launched from Jiuquan, and the 20 kilotons yield nuclear warhead exploded at the height of 569 meters over the target in Lap Nor or Base 21, 894 km away13. In March 1967, development started on the JL-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile to be on board the Type 092 ballistic missile submarine which was being developed in parallel.

DF-5B Inter Continental Ballistic Missile. Picture Source: Military Watch Magazine

Space Organisational Structure

          Initially the space program of the PRC was organized under the PLA Second Artillery Corps. In the 1990s, the PRC reorganized the space program as part of a general reorganisation of the defense industry to make it resemble Western defence procurement. The State Council’s State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) is the primary civil organization that coordinates and manages China’s space activities, including allocating space research and development funds. It works closely with the PLA. The China National Space Administration is an agency within the SASTIND. China has a large number universities doing research on Aerospace and Astronautics. Chinese space program has close links with these universities. The PRC operates 4 satellite launch centers14, one each at Jiuquan in Gobi desert, close to Mongolia; Xichang, just south of Chengdu and not too far from Arunachal Pradesh; Taiyuan, midway between Beijing and Xi’an; and Wenchang on the Hainan Island. The main monitoring and control centers are at Beijing and Xi’an. China also has  a new integrated land-based space monitoring and control network stations, forming a large triangle with Kashi in the north-west of China, Jiamusi in the north-east and Sanya in the south. The overseas tracking stations are at Karachi in Pakistan, Malindi in Kenya, Swakopmund in Namibia, and Neuquen province in Argentina. They also share space tracking facilities with France, Brazil, Sweden and Australia.

Chinese space facility at Jiuquan in Gobi desert. Image Source:

Chinese Launch Rockets Program

          It is worth having an overview of Chinese space rockets. A CZ-2F rocket launched the first Chinese astronaut, Yang Liwei, into space in October 200315.  New rockets are being designed to be more environmentally friendly. While previous Chinese launchers often used toxic hypergolic propellants, the new designs use kerosene or hydrogen for the first and second stage engines16. The new rockets CZ-6 small payload launcher first flew in 2015, the CZ-7 medium lift rocket and the CZ-5 heavy lift rocket both maid maiden flights in 2016. Developed from the CZ-2E launcher, the CZ-2F is used to support the Chinese human spaceflight effort. It was also used for rendezvous and docking with Tiangong 1 space laboratory. CZ-2E (A) Intended for launch of Chinese space station modules has a payload capacity up to 14 tons in LEO and 9000 (kN) liftoff thrust developed by 12 rocket engines, with enlarged fairing to accommodate large spacecraft. CZ-3 rockets are a series of three-stage geosynchronous satellite launchers. The CZ-5 is a Chinese heavy lift space launch system. The core stage uses liquid hydrogen (LH) and liquid oxygen (LOX) as propellants. The restart able second stage burns LH and LOX. An optional third stage is available for some missions. The maiden flight of a CZ-5 rocket was successfully flown in November 2016. The second CZ-5, launched in 2017, failed to place its payload into the correct orbit. The CZ-5 is meant for the Chinese space station program and lunar program17. The CZ-7 is a medium lift rocket that first flew in 2016. The rocket is designed to include up to four strap-on boosters. The CZ-7 is expected to replace the CZ-2F/G rockets supporting human spaceflight. CZ-9 will be a super heavy launch vehicle that is currently in study. It is planned for a maximum payload capacity of 140,000 kg to LEO, 50,000 kg to Lunar Transfer Orbit or 44,000 kg to Mars. CZ-11 first launched in 2015 from a canister attached to a mobile transporter/erector in a manner similar to an ICBM. It is meant for a quick-reaction orbital launcher. The 58 tonne launch mass and a 120 tonne liftoff thrust, CZ-11 may be able to lift 700 kg to sun synchronous orbit18

          China is improving its space launch capabilities to ensure it has an independent, reliable means to access space and to compete in the international space launch market. Modular SLVs allow China to tailor an SLV to the specific configuration and overall cost savings for launch campaigns.

China’s Current Space Launch Capabilities19

          The immense technical expertise and financial resources needed to develop rockets powerful enough to successfully deliver payloads into orbit precludes most countries from developing indigenous launch capabilities. This leaves the vast majority of countries reliant on foreign launch vehicles for their missions in space. Even the United States relies on foreign-built rockets for launching some of its payloads. China, however, bucks this trend. Over 96 percent of the Chinese satellites currently in orbit were launched aboard Chinese-made rockets. The Long March series of rockets, which includes several variants with different capabilities, is at the core of China’s space launch capabilities. Long March rockets are designed and developed by the state-owned defense industry giant, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). A CASC subsidiary, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, has produced nearly all 15 variants of the Long March series, including the Long March 1 (CZ-1) that carried China’s first satellite into orbit in 1970. Long March rockets have carried out almost all Chinese space launches. By October 2019, the Long March series had completed 299 successful launches, and faced 7 partial failures and 9 failures. This gives the series a success rate of 94.4 percent, which compares closely with key launch vehicles of other countries. The Delta series, which currently operates as an integral component of US military efforts in space, has a 95.5 percent success rate. Russia’s Soyuz rocket family has completed more launches than any other rocket series in history and enjoys a success rate of 97.2 percent.

Chinese Space Launch Vehicles. Picture Source:

          China’s most successful Long March variants, the CZ-2F, has had all 13 successful launches. The CZ-2F was designed to launch the Shenzhou spacecraft, which has supported all six of China’s manned missions. The US ended its space shuttle program in 2011, leaving it dependent on Russian rockets for manned missions. However, NASA’s new Space Launch System is being developed for a manned US mission to the moon, planned for 2024.

Source: CSIS China Power Projects20

Chinese Crewed Space Program

          As the space race between the two superpowers reached its climax with the conquest of the Moon, Mao decided on July 14, 1967 that the PRC should started China’s own crewed space program. China’s first spacecraft designed for human occupancy was named Shuguang-1. It was decided to construct a new space center in the mountainous region of Xichang in the Sichuan province, far away from the Soviet border. In August 1969, the development of China’s first heavy-lift satellite launch vehicle (SLV), the Feng Bao 1 (FB-1) was the all-liquid two-stage launcher was derived from the DF-5 ICBM21. The first DF-4 liquid-propellant with two-stage, single-warhead IRBM was tested with success on January 30, 1970. The addition of a second-stage allowed the missile to increase its range to over 4750 km. China succeeded in its second satellite launch attempt on April 24, 1970. It was the heaviest first satellite placed into orbit by a nation, exceeding the combined masses of the first satellites of the other four previous countries. The third stage of the CZ-1 was specially equipped with a 40 m2 solar reflector deployed by the centrifugal force developed by the spin up orbital insertion solid propellant stage. The PRC’s second satellite, the 221 kg ShiJian-1 (SJ-1) was launched with the last of the CZ-1 SLVs on March 3, 1971. The first crewed space program known as Project 714, was officially adopted in April 1971 but the program would soon be cancelled due to political turmoil.

          The CZ-2C launcher, successfully launched a recoverable satellite into orbit on November 26, 1975. After Mao died on September 9, 1976, his rival, Deng Xiaoping slowly re-emerged as China’s new leader in 1978. He had a re-look at the entire program. Further development of the Long March rocket series allowed the PRC to initiate a commercial launch program in 1985, which has since launched over 30 foreign satellites, primarily European and Asian. The Ministry of Aerospace Industry was founded on July 5, 1988. On September 15, 1988, a JL-1 SLBM was launched from a submarine. The maximum range of the SLBM was 2150 km22. Along Deng’s policy of capitalist reforms in the Chinese economy, Chinese culture also changed. Therefore, names used in the space program, previously all chosen from the revolutionary history of the PRC, were soon replaced with mystical-religious ones. Thus, the Long March carrier rockets were renamed Divine Arrow, spacecraft as Divine Vessel, land-based high-power laser as Divine Light.

          In 1992, authorization and funding was given for the first phase of Project 921, which was a plan to launch a crewed spacecraft. In June 1993, China Aerospace Industry Corporation (National Space Bureau) was founded in Beijing. The Shenzhou program had four uncrewed test flights and two crewed missions. On the 50th anniversary of the PRC’s founding, China launched the Shenzhou 1 spacecraft on November 20, 1999 and recovered it after a flight of 21 hours. On January 9, 2001 Shenzhou 2 carried test animals. Shenzhou 3 and 4 were launched in 2002, carrying test dummies. Shenzhou 5 was China’s first crewed mission in space on October 15, 2003, which carried Yang Liwei in orbit for 21 hours and made China the third nation to launch a human into orbit23. Shenzhou 6 followed two years later ending the first phase of the Project 921. Missions used Long March 2F rockets from Jiuquin launch Center.

Chinese Space Laboratory

          The second phase of the Project 921 started with Shenzhou 7. China’s first spacewalk mission. Then, two crewed missions were planned to the first Chinese space laboratory. The PRC initially designed the Shenzhou spacecraft with docking technologies imported from Russia, therefore compatible with the International Space Station (ISS). On September 29, 2011, China launched Tiangong 1. Tiangong means ‘Heavenly Palace’ in Chinese. This target module was intended to be the first step to testing the technology required for a planned space station. On October 31, 2011, a Long March 2F rocket lifted the Shenzhou 8  uncrewed spacecraft which docked twice with the Tiangong 1 module24. The Shenzhou 9 craft took off on 16 June 2012 with a crew of 3 ‘taikonauts’. It successfully docked with the Tiangong-1 laboratory on 18 June 2012, marking China’s first crewed spacecraft docking25. Another crewed mission, Shenzhou 10, launched on 11 June 2013 and returned on 26 June 2013. The Tiangong 1 target module served as both a manned laboratory and an experimental test-bed to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities during its two years of active operational life. It de-orbited on 2 April 2018, much longer than originally planned. A second space lab, Tiangong 2 was launched on 15 September 2016. Shenzhou 11 launched and rendezvoused with Tiangong 2 in October 201626, with an unconfirmed further mission Shenzhou 12 in the future. The Tiangong 2 has the POLAR gamma ray burst detector, a space-Earth quantum key distribution and laser communications experiment to be used in conjunction with the Mozi ‘Quantum Science Satellite’, a liquid bridge thermo-capillary convection experiment and a space material experiment27. Also included is a stereoscopic microwave altimeter, a space plant growth experiment, and a multi-angle wide-spectral imager and multi-spectral limb imaging spectrometer. Onboard TG-2 there is also be the world’s first-ever in-space cold atomic fountain clock.

Tiangong 2 Space Lab Picture Source:

          A little over a year after TG-1 crashed down over the Pacific Ocean, China de-orbited the Tiangong-2 in a controlled fashion over the Pacific, where there wasn’t any risk of it hitting people28. China had proposed a third station, the Tiangong-3, but it was never constructed or launched. China was planning to launch in April 2020 the country’s next space station. A Long March 5B rocket is to carry a “trial version” of China’s new spaceship, which is designed to carry crews of up to six people29. Previous Chinese spaceships carried up to three taikonauts. While the April mission will carry neither people nor pieces of the future space station, it is expected to prepare Chinese officials for space station construction, the report added. the same may now get delayed due to the COVID 19 virus spread.

          The permanent future space station called ‘Chinese large modular space station’ is planned to be assembled by 202230. The design of Tianzhou, an automated cargo spacecraft intended to resupply the Chinese large modular space station, is based on Tiangong-1. The Chinese Permanent Space Station with permanent occupation, will have a robotic version of the Shenzhou spacecraft for resupply and return cargo back to Earth. Tianzhou robotic cargo resupply vessel is not meant for reentry, but usable for garbage disposal.

China’s Yutu 2 rover rolls onto the moon’s far side shortly after its Jan. 2, 2019, touchdown. Image Source:

Chinese Lunar Exploration Program31

          The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program is divided into four main operational phases, with each mission serving as a technology demonstrator in preparation for future missions. The first phase of two lunar orbiters is complete. Chang’e 1, launched on 24 October 2007 scanned the entire Moon in unprecedented detail, generating a high definition 3D map that would provide a reference for future soft landings. The probe also mapped the abundance and distribution of various chemical elements on the lunar surface as part of an evaluation of potentially useful resources. Chang’e 2 launched on 01 October 2010, reached the Moon in under 5 days, compared to 12 days for Chang’e 1, and mapped the Moon in even greater detail. It then left lunar orbit and returned. The second phase which is still ongoing, and incorporates spacecraft capable of soft-landing on the Moon and deploying lunar rovers. Chang’e 3 launched on 02 December 2013 landed on the Moon on 14 December 2013. It carried a 140 kg lunar rover ‘Yutu’, which was designed to explore an area of 3 square kilometers for 3-months, and cover many experiments. Chang’e 4 was launched on 07 December 2018. It landed on the South Pole (Aitken Basin), on the far side of the Moon on January 3, 2019, and deployed the Yutu-2 rover. The rover was able to transmit data back to Earth despite the lack of radio frequencies on the far side, via a dedicated satellite sent earlier to orbit the moon. The landing and data transmission is considered a landmark achievement for human space exploration. The third phase was for sample return missions. Chang’e 5T1 (Test) was launched on 23 October 2014, to test lunar return spacecraft.

The Chang’e 5 probe launched on Nov. 23, 2020 from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province atop a Long March 5 rocket. Weighing in at 18,100 lbs. (8,200 kilograms), the spacecraft consists of four modules, two of which remained in lunar orbit. The other two — the sample collector and an ascent vehicle — landed on the moon on Dec. 1 near a massive mountain called Mons Rümker. The mountain is situated in the Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”), a vast volcanic plain that has been explored by a number of other moon missions, including Apollo 12.On Dec. 3, just two days after landing, Chang’e 5 placed its samples in the ascent vehicle, which then launched from the moon’s surface back to lunar orbit. The module docked with an orbiter on Dec. 5, conducting the first fully robotic docking around the moon in history. The lunar samples were passed to a return capsule on the orbiter, which will remain in orbit for about a week before heading back to Earth. It returned to Earth with lunar samples on 16 December 2020,

The Phase Four is for development of a robotic research station near the Moon’s south pole. Chang’e 6, 7, 8 are expected to be launched 2023 onwards, to ultimately look for useable natural resources and may 3D-print a structure using regolith. A small sealed ecosystem experiment is also planned. It will test technology necessary to the construction of a lunar science base.

China’s Chang’e 5 mission: Sampling the lunar surface. Image Source:

China’s Deep Space Exploration Plan

          Chinese researchers proposed deep space exploration roadmap is to explore Mars, an asteroid, Jupiter, and further targets, within the 2020–2030 timeframe. Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover (HX-1) is planned for launch in July–August 2020 with arrival at Mars in February 202132. Mission includes an orbiter, a Lander, and a rover. Asteroid Exploration Mission (ZhengHe) is proposed for launch around 2022–2024. Mission goals include asteroid flyby observations, Mars Sample Return Mission (HX-2), proposed for launch around 2028–2030. Mission goals include in-situ topography and soil composition analysis, deep interior investigations to probe the planet’s origins and geologic evolution, and sample return. Jupiter System Exploration Mission, proposed for launch around 2029–2030, and to arrive at Jupiter around 203633. Mission goals include orbital exploration of Jupiter and its four largest moons, study of the magneto-hydro-dynamics, and investigation of the internal composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere and moons. a mission to Uranus has been proposed for implementation after 2030, with a probe arriving in the 2040s. It is presumed to be part of a future planetary flyby phase of exploration, and would study the solar wind and interplanetary field as well. Mars crewed phase in 2040-206034. Chinese interest in space based solar power began in the 1990s. Once completed, the solar station, with a capacity of 100MW, could span at least one square kilometer, dwarfing the International Space Station and becoming the biggest man-made object in space. China plans to accomplish a 200-tonne megawatt-level space-based solar power station by 2035, according to the China Academy of Space Technology35.

Concept design for the Chinese Mars 2020 rover and lander. Image Source:

BeiDou Navigation Satellite System36

          The Beidou Chinese satellite navigation system has built in phases.  The first, BeiDou-1, consisted of three satellites which since 2000 had offered limited coverage and navigation services, mainly for users in China and neighboring regions. Beidou-1 was decommissioned in 2012. The second system, called the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) and also known as COMPASS or BeiDou-2, became operational in December 2011 with a partial constellation of 10 satellites in orbit. Since December 2012, it has been offering services to customers in the Asia-Pacific region. In 2015, China launched the third generation BeiDou-3 system with global coverage constellation. The first BDS-3 satellite was launched on 30 March 2015. On 27 December 2018, BeiDou Navigation Satellite System started providing global services with around 15 satellites. BeiDou-3 will eventually consist of 35 satellites, and provide an alternative global navigation satellite system to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS), Russian GLONASS, and European Galileo systems. Chinese claim it will be more accurate with millimeter-level accuracy with post-processing. According to China Daily, report of 2015, fifteen years after the satellite system was launched, it was generating a turnover of $31.5 billion per annum for major Chinese companies such as China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, AutoNavi Holdings Ltd, and China North Industries Group Corporation. In March, 2020, China launch one among the last few satellites to take it closer to completing the third phase of the BDS. Project Director Ran Chengqi reported that two more satellite launches will complete the 3rd generation and global BeiDou system by June 2020. China’s navigation system already boasts the largest fleet of satellites. The BeiDou-3 constellation alone will equal the U.S. GPS’s 31 operational satellites. In comparison, GlOSNASS has 26, Galileo system 26 satellites; however, not all are currently operational. Outnumbering the three other satellite providers, China is well on its way to becoming the world leader in technology and in space. The BDS will be used for positioning, timing and wide-area differential and short message communications. It can also be used for public security, forestry, fishing, search and rescue, etc. The satellites were also used to combat the Coronavirus epidemic in China37.

          Creating a rival to GPS, China’s goal is of becoming the world leader in space. “The main advantage of having your own system is security of access, in the sense that you are not relying on another country to provide it. The U.S. could deny users access over certain areas, for example, in times of conflict,” Alexandra Stickings of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies said38. This new “Space Silk Road” has progressed rapidly. The rate at which China has produced this technology reveals the ambition and technical prowess of China. Global coverage of BeiDou was reached two years ahead of schedule. Last 19 BDS-3 satellites were launched, with as little as 17 days between some launches, setting a new record in the history of the development of the world satellite navigation systems.

BeiDou satellite system. Image Source:

Military applications of BDS

          BeiDou has already shipped over 70 million systems to more than 90 countries. These systems include microchips and modules, which could give China easier access39. The BDS will also play an important military role including reconnaissance, short messaging platform, both of which are not in GPS. It is claimed to have greater that the military accuracy and holds the potential to “deny or degrade the signal received by other users of the system,” according to Stickings40. BeiDou satellites, in the event of a conflict, will enable the Chinese military to identify, track and strike U.S. ships, increasing their tracking ability by 100 to 1,000 times. It will also support precision-guided missiles, smart bombs, navigation and operation of ships, other vehicles and troops. China’s actions are continuing to fuel a space race. Meanwhile Russia and China have signed “the Agreement on Peaceful Use of BeiDou and GLONASS,” and large-scale cooperation in the satellite navigation field.

Image Source:

Space Program PLA Linkages

          It can be seen that China has devoted significant economic and political resources to growing all aspects of its space program, from improving military space applications to developing human spaceflight and lunar exploration programs. China’s space program is moving with sense of purpose. Beijing is working to building China into a space power in all respects. Its rapidly growing space program is second only to the United States. It is a  part of President Xi Jinping’s to establish a powerful and prosperous China. The space program supports the military modernisation efforts. China officially advocates for peaceful use of space, and it is pursuing agreements at the United Nations on the non-weaponisation of space. Yet, China continues to improve its counter-space weapons capabilities and has enacted military reforms to better integrate cyberspace, space, and EW into joint military operations.

          The PLA routinely incorporates jamming and anti-jamming techniques against multiple communication, radar systems, and GPS satellite systems in exercises. China continues to develop jammers dedicated to targeting SAR aboard military reconnaissance platforms, including LEO satellites41. Additionally, China is developing jammers to target SATCOM over a range of frequency bands, including military protected extremely high frequency communications.

Even the PLA Cavalry: Use the Beidou satellite system  says China. Image Source:

          The PLA views space superiority, the ability to control the information sphere, and denying adversaries the same as key components of conducting modern information-centric wars. Space and counter-space operations are now integral part of PLA campaigns. China has been trying to replicate the US model, and to beat them at it.   PLA feels “destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors” would make it difficult for enemy to use precision guided weapons. Reconnaissance, communications, navigation, and early warning satellites could be among the targets of attacks. The fact that PLA has historically managed China’s space program, the program has significant military angle. As part of the military reforms announced in 2015, China established the Strategic Support Force (SSF) to integrate cyberspace, space, and EW capabilities into joint military operations. The SSF is the core of China’s information warfare force42. Chinese military strategy documents also emphasize the growing importance of offensive air, long-distance mobility, and space and cyberspace operations.

PLA Strategic Support Force Structure Image Source:

Militarisation of Space Program

          China likely is pursuing laser weapons to disrupt, degrade, or damage satellites and their sensors and possibly already has a limited capability to employ laser systems against satellite sensors. China is likely to field ground-based laser weapons that can counter low-orbit space-based sensors by 2020, and by the mid-to-late 2020s, it may field higher power systems that extend the threat to the structures of non-optical satellites43.

          China is developing sophisticated on-orbit capabilities, such as satellite inspection and repair, at least some of which could also function as a weapon. The PLA has an operational ground-based ASAT missile intended to target LEO satellites. China has also formed military units that have begun training with ASAT missiles. China probably intends to pursue additional ASAT weapons capable of destroying satellites up to GEO. In 2013, China launched an object into space on a ballistic trajectory with a peak altitude above 30,000 km.

Chinese ASAT Test 2007. Image Source:

          Militarization of China’s space program is without doubt. It has serious implications for its adversaries, including for India. The high investment is difficult to match. India would need to keep pushing its space program to not let the gap grow too large.

Chinese C4ISR capability

          China’s evolving command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) military paradigm, and interface the cyber, space, and electronic warfare asymmetric challenges posed fresh threat on the future network-centric battlefield. This greatly enhances China’s war-fighting capabilities. The technologically advanced offensive weapons fused by C4ISR systems, make them much more formidable. This also means great incentive to strike the C4ISR systems first. In 2015, the PLA created the centralised space, cyber, electronic warfare and psychological warfare missions under a single organization. The Chinese clearly have taken the view, that information dominance is key to winning conflicts. This could be done by denying or disrupting the use of communications equipment of its competitors.

         The U.S. DoD released its annual assessment of China’s military capabilities in May 2019. It outlines the Chinese Network Systems Department, one of two deputy theater command level departments within the Strategic Support Force responsible for information operations. “The SSF Network Systems Department is responsible for information warfare with a mission set that includes cyber-warfare, technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and psychological warfare,” the report read. “By placing these missions under the same organizational umbrella, China seeks to remedy the operational coordination challenges that hindered information sharing under the pre-reform organizational structure.” “In addition to strike, air and missile defense, anti-surface, and anti-submarine capabilities improvements, China is focusing on information, cyber, and space and counter-space operations,” the report said of China’s anti-access/area denial efforts. This concept aims to keep enemies at bay by extending defenses through long range missiles and advanced detection measures, which in turn make it difficult for enemies to penetrate territorial zones.

The Chinese AWACS aircraft designated KJ-2000 made its first flight in November 2003. Image Source:

         China continues to target U.S. defense industrial base sector to support intelligence collection. The cyber-enabled campaigns threatened to erode military advantages. From recent developments in China’s C4ISR infrastructure, it is clear that PLA is well on its way to becoming a sophisticated global military possessing many of the same C4ISR capabilities.

         China is giving emphasis to airborne C4ISR like the USA through platforms like the AEWC&C aircraft as central to waging war against intervening naval and air forces. The PLAAF is already fielding advanced systems of this type, like the KJ-2000. The technologically less sophisticated, PLAN’s Y-8J AEW system affords China’s naval air forces a similar upgrade in situational awareness. China has also replicated the American unmanned C4ISR capabilities.

Shaanxi Y-8/ZDK-03 – Pakistan – Air Force. Image Source:

          China has made even greater strides in space-based C4ISR as part of the PLA’s integrated civil-military space program, counter-space technologies and systems. The Beidou satellite system with state-of-the-art navigation and targeting support. PLA benefit from vastly improved geo-location and precision strike capabilities, persistent global satellite surveillance, and a survivable military communications and data-link architecture. Concurrent improvements in counter-space capabilities will also put the adversary assets in space, air, and sea-based at risk. A 2019 DoD report on China’s military and security developments found that country has prioritized military capabilities with disruptive potential, including hypersonic weapons, counter-space capabilities, artificial intelligence and C4ISR advanced robotics. To strengthen its systems, the report recommended, the U.S. military should develop space capabilities resistant to kinetic attacks, synthetic training environments for U.S. forces to practice C4ISR operations, systems that can transmit data via multiple pathways and surveillance systems that can avoid being detected.

China’s Satellite Surveillance Ability

          China is investing heavily on spy satellites, dozens of which are snooping around the world at any given time. China’s 2015 Defense White Paper described space as a military domain, and China currently has 75+ military satellites operated by the Strategic Support Force of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). China uses a multitude of sensors – such as satellites soaring above, over-the-horizon radars, surface warships and submarines, maritime patrol aircraft and underwater sensors – to keep track of adversaries.

Yaogan-30 triplet. Image Source:

          The most recent satellite in this series, the fifth batch of Yaogan-30, was successfully launched by a Long March-2C rocket from Xichang on 26 July 2019. The first Yaogan-30 triplet was lofted into space on 29 September 2017. These satellites operate in groups of three by gathering information derived from ship/aircraft radar and electromagnetic signatures. This particular Yaogan-30 Group-05 launch placed the satellites in a 35° orbit 600km above Earth. They can accurately pinpoint signal emissions. A sixth triplet of the Yaogan-30 series was launched in March 2020. The addition of successive triplets to the same orbital plane improves the family’s revisit rate, with an eventual constellation of 18 satellites to be created. This will allow the PLA to pass over an area 19 times per day in vertical-imaging mode, or 54 times a day in off-vertical SIGINT mode. There will be almost continuous coverage of key areas of the globe. Yaogan-30 is just one ELINT part of the extensive Yaogan network that includes SAR and optical-imaging satellites. Other than the Yaogan series of triplets, the JianBing-8 constellation that are orbiting at an inclined 63° plane.  SAR satellites are very useful in maritime surveillance, thanks to their wide swath, which can reach several hundred kilometers. This enables them to find ships, but have a low resolution, measured in the tens of meters. This makes ship identification difficult. Consequently, a higher-resolution system, or another pass of the same satellite but in high-resolution mode, is needed.      

Other Futuristic Space Initiatives

          Some of the other Chinese space related initiatives are a Space-based ASAT system comprising small and nano-satellites developed by the Small satellites research Institute. The Double Star mission comprised two satellites launched in 2003 and 2004, jointly with European Space Agency (ESA) to study the Earth’s magnetosphere. China has a large number of earth observation, remote sensing, or reconnaissance satellites. Tianlian 2 will be the next generation data relay satellites system, based on the DFH-4 satellite bus, with two satellites providing up to 85% coverage44. More advances in China’s Beidou navigation system with 60-70 satellites. Astrophysics research with the world’s largest Solar Space Telescope launched in 2008, and a project of Space Hard X-Ray Modulation telescope. Kuafu mission satellites for space weather forecasts with Canada and ESA is currently held back. China has the deep space tracking network using the world’s largest single dish radio antenna of 500 m in Guizhou45, and a 3000 km VLB radio antenna. There is a plan for Deep-impact style mission to test process of re-directing the direction of an asteroid or comet.       

China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in Guizhou. Image Source:

Space Services – Exports

          China also exports its satellite technology globally, including its indigenously-developed communications satellites. China intends to provide SATCOM support to users worldwide and has plans to develop at least three new communications constellations. China also intends to use its BeiDou constellation to offer additional services and incentives to countries taking part in the “Belt and Road Initiative.” China has provided 15 cm telescopes to Peru, Pakistan, and Iran that are capable of tracking objects in LEO and GEO46. All tasking information and subsequent observation data collected is funneled through the Chinese Academy of Science’s National Astronomical Observatory of China.

Security and Proprietary Concerns

          The PRC is a member of the united Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and a signatory to all other UN treaties and conventions on space, with the exception of the unpopular 1979 Moon Treaty. The United States government has long been resistant to the use of PRC launch services by American industry due to concerns over alleged civilian technology transfer that could have dual-use military applications to countries such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria, and announced an official embargo against the PRC in 2000. Financial retaliatory measures have been taken on many occasions against several Chinese space companies. Due to security concerns, all researchers from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are prohibited from working with Chinese citizens affiliated with a Chinese state enterprise or entity. In April 2011, NASA was banned from using its funds to host Chinese visitors at NASA facilities47. In March 2013, the U.S. Congress passed legislation barring Chinese nationals from entering NASA facilities without a waiver from NASA. The Chinese response to the exclusion policy involved its own space policy of opening up its space station to the outside world, welcoming scientists coming from all countries. 

China’s Space Program – Military Implications

         There’s every chance that China, as the ultimate disruptor48, will do to the commercial space industry what it has already managed with manufacturing: cut costs, boost efficiency and storm into a lead. Launching miniature satellites, which typically weigh less than 220 lbs., will become a $15 billion industry by 2027, according to Euroconsult, a space industry consulting firm. One firm looking to capitalize is Beijing-based startup i-Space, which is preparing for its third launch in coming weeks. Like most of the $500 million-valued firm’s employees, CEO Jingqi Cai came from China’s state space industry. She sees no limit to what the Chinese commercial space industry can achieve. “I don’t know any country in the world which can do things as fast as in China,” says Cai.

China’s Secret Co-orbital Satellites. Image: Notional Chinese satellite rendezvous Source: Wired

          As of May 2018, the Chinese reconnaissance and remote sensing fleet consisted of more than 120 satellites designed to collect data for civil, commercial, or military owners and operators. Reportedly, the PLA owns and operates about half of these systems, most of which could support monitoring, tracking, and targeting49. These satellites also allow the PLA to maintain situational awareness of China’s regional rivals including India and Japan and potential regional flashpoints like Korea, Taiwan, and the East and South China Seas. China light, quick response space launch vehicles are capable of expedited launches, and have military implications. These require little launch infrastructure, can relocate by road or rail, can be stored launch-ready for longer periods.

China unveils its Mars explorer set to land on the Red Planet in 2021. Image Source:

          China is already developing super heavy-lift space launch vehicles, for crewed lunar and Mars exploration missions. China is building capability to jam global navigation and communications satellites used for command and control of naval, ground, and air forces, to include manned and unmanned vehicles. Weapons designed to target ISR capabilities would deny the adversary ability to locate, monitor, track, and target the enemy. Lasers can temporarily or permanently blind imagery satellites and other strategic sensors. China has anti-satellite missiles to shoot down satellites in low Earth orbit. China is believed to be testing on-orbit, space-based anti-satellite technologies and concepts. Physical attacks against ground sites and infrastructure that support space operations can also threaten satellite services. China’s cyber capabilities could target space systems and supporting infrastructure, including communications and GPS. China considers both offensive cyber capabilities and electronic warfare as key assets for maintaining military advantage. China intends to field counter-space directed-energy weapons. 3D printing in space could allow China to nearly eliminate the cost of space launch by servicing, repairing, or manufacturing new systems entirely on orbit. China’s space program requires a close watch.

Header Image Source:


  1. Hanneke Weitering, China Aces Its 1st Rocket Launch at Sea, Puts 7 Satellites in Orbit,, June 05, 2019
  2. Mathew S. Williams, All You Need to Know About The Chinese Space Program, Interesting Engineering, March 16, 2019
  3. Martin Pollard, China completes crucial landing test for first Mars mission in 2020, Reuters, November 14, 2019
  4. Isobel Asher Hamilton, Elon Musk says he’s a big fan of what China is doing in space, Business Insider, July 19,2019
  5. Carin Zissis, China’s Anti-Satellite Test, Council on Foreign Relations,
  6. Sarah Pruitt, China Makes Historic Landing on ‘Dark Side’ of the Moon, January 09, 2019,
  7. Elizabeth Howell, China wants to build a new space station. February 22, 2020,
  8. Charles Q. Choi, China’s Cosmic ‘Monkey King’ Satellite Looks for Dark Matter, November 29, 2017
  9. China launches world’s first quantum science satellite, August 16, 2016
  10. How is China advancing its space launch capabilities? China power,
  11. Edited by Air Cmde Jasjit Singh, China’s India War, 1962: Looking Back to See the Future, Chapter 11,  KW Publishers Pvt Ltd, March 15, 2013
  12. Ibid.
  13. Matteo Damiani, Chinese Space Program: a Photographic History,  June 07, 2017
  14. Chinese Space Facilities,
  15. Emma Young and David Chandler, First Chinese astronaut blasts off, New Scientist, October 15, 2003,
  16. Chinese Rockets Overview, Historic Spacecraft, Chinese Launch Vehicles
  17. How is China advancing its space launch capabilities? China power,
  18. Space Launch Report, July-September, 2015
  19. How is China advancing its space launch capabilities? China power,
  20. Ibid.
  21. Chinese Space Program, July 05, 2019,
  22. Edited by Air Cmde Jasjit Singh, China’s India War, 1962: Looking Back to See the Future, Chapter 11,  KW Publishers Pvt Ltd, March 15, 2013
  23. Erik Gregersen, Shenzhou Chinese Spacecraft, Encyclopedia Britannica, January 30, 2020
  24. Mike Wall, China Succeeds in First Space Docking by 2 Spaceships,, November 02, 2011
  25. Jonathan Amos, Science correspondent, Shenzhou-9 docks with Tiangong-1, BBC News, June 18, 2012
  26. Tariq Malik, China’s Tiangong-2 Space Lab Mission in Pictures,, September 15, 2016
  27. Rui C. Barbosa, China launches Tiangong-2 orbital module,  September 14, 2016,
  28. Andrew Liptak, China has deorbited its experimental space station, The Verge, July 20, 2019,
  29. Elizabeth Howell, China wants to build a new space station. A planned launch in April will set the stage,, February 22, 2020
  30. Ibid
  31. Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, Wikipedia
  32. Mike Wall, Mars Missions Are One Year Away from Launching to the Red Planet in July 2020,, July 25, 2019
  33. Khor Eng Lee, Aaron Khor, Book: China’s long march of modernisation : blueprint & road map for the nation’s Full Development 2016-2049. Publisher: Xlibris AU (11 December 2019) Chapter New China A(6) Ascending High Ground. 
  34. Ajay Lele, Book: Asian Space Race: Rhetoric or Reality? Springer, IDSA, Page 89
  35. Xinhua, China to build space-based solar power station by 2035,, December 02, 2019
  36. BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, Chinese Government Beidou Website
  37. Tech2 News Staff, China successfully launches Beidou satellite, comes closer to completing third-gen global satellite navigation system, First Post, March 11, 2020,
  38. Yao Jianing, China’s BeiDou Navigation System Goes Global,, Source ‘The Trumpet’,  March 01, 2019
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Andrew S. Erikson, China Analysis from Original Reports, New DIA Report – Challenges to Security in Space, February 11, 2019
  42. John Costello and Joe McReynolds, China’s Strategic Support Force: A Force for a New Era, Executive Summary,  Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs Institute for National Strategic Studies National Defense University, October 2018.
  43. Michael Davis, Laser Guns in Xinjiang—China’s Futuristic Anti-satellite Weapons, The Trumpet, April 05, 2019.
  44. PTI, China successfully launches second generation data relay satellite, Economic Times, April 01,2019
  45. China launches world’s largest single-dish radio telescope,, January 13, 2020
  46. DIA Document, CHALLENGES TO SECURITY IN SPACE, January 2019. Page 20.
  47. Dan Leone, NASA Spending Panel Chairman Keeps Focus on China,, February 25, 2015
  48. Charlie Campell, From Satellites to the Moon and Mars, China Is Quickly Becoming a Space Superpower,, July 17, 2019
  49. COMPETING IN SPACE, US National Air and Space Intelligence Center,  Publication Date: December 2018

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

One thought on “Space – China the Emerging Power

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