A look inside China’s defense payloads: Payload research

China’s secret military reusable space plane, launched late last year, put an unidentified object into orbit last week. While details about the object’s purpose and usefulness (if any) remain scarce, the spacecraft’s activities add to a growing list of operations being closely watched by U.S. military officials.

Over the past decade, China has expanded its military presence in space with advanced spaceplanes, reconnaissance birds, secure communications, SSA and ASAT capabilities. According to data compiled by astronomer Jonathan McDowell, China has deployed more defense payloads (excluding dual-use technology) than the US on average over the past four years.

The US pre-empted China’s defense charge last year, driven by the Space Development Agency’s deployment of its first 23 Tranche 0 satellites. The US plans to further increase the launch of military satellites this year.

After the US and China, the rest of the world lags far behind. It is striking that the whole of Europe launched only three defense shipments last year. Over the past decade, the Europeans have deployed no more than six defense payloads per year.

Zoom in on China: China has doubled its space activities in the past decade and considers the domain crucial to national security.

The deployment of Chinese defense cargoes has increased from 15 in 2014 to 42 in 2023.

“The PLA views space superiority, the ability to control the space-enabled information sphere and deny adversaries their own space-based information gathering and communications capabilities, as a critical component of waging modern ‘informatized warfare’” , the Pentagon wrote in its report. 2023 DoD report to Congress on military developments in China.

But what is China launching?

The short answer includes just about everything: spaceplanes, birds for remote reconnaissance, satellite communications, and counterspace capabilities.

  • Shenlong space plane: As mentioned at the beginning of the article, one of China’s most mysterious payloads is the Shenlong reusable spaceplane.
    • The spacecraft was launched just weeks before the US military spaceplane X-37B and appears to have many similarities.
    • The only concrete information we have been able to gather since the spaceplane was deployed is that it has managed to increase its orbit.
  • Yaogan Remote Sensing Satellites: The majority of Chinese defense satellites fall into the Yaogan satellite series, which includes optical, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and electronic intelligence (ELINT).
    • Maj. Gen. Gregory Gagnon, deputy chief of space operations for intelligence, said this month that of the more than 400 satellites China has launched in the past two years, more than half were designed to monitor Earth, Defense One reported .
    • China has deployed dozens of electronic intelligence satellites, which can be used for maritime tracking by detecting ship radar and other electromagnetic signals. The country also launched the world’s first GEO SAR payload last year, called Ludi Tance-4. The country
  • Satellite communications: Last year, the Pentagon reported that the People’s Republic of China was operating more than 60 communications satellites, at least four of which were intended for military use. China is in the early days of developing large LEO satellite constellations, similar to Starlink, which will have a dual-use utility in support of government and national security applications. The planned constellations include:
    • Guowang: 12,992 sats
    • G60: 1,296 sats planned / 12,000 sats total
    • Honghu-3: 10,000 satellites
  • Counterspace capabilities: In its 2023 Chinese Military Development Report to Congress, the DoD wrote that China is developing capabilities to disrupt or deny adversaries’ space operations, including:
    • Co-orbital satellites
    • Electronic warfare systems
    • Targeted energy systems
    • Direct-lift anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles.

“In addition to developing directed energy weapons and satellite jammers, the PLA has an operational ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) missile intended to target satellites in low Earth orbit,” the DoD wrote in the report. “The PRC likely plans to pursue additional ASAT weapons capable of destroying satellites as far away as geosynchronous orbit.”

In 2007, China conducted an ASAT test on one of its weather satellites, leading to the largest space debris event in history.

Final thoughts: Over the past decade, the space defense landscape has grown to include various constellations of reconnaissance, surveillance, and communications capabilities. The US and China have emerged as main competitors, but other countries remain active.

Although Russian payload launches have fluctuated over the years, the Kremlin continues to focus on strategic capabilities, including the development of space-based anti-satellite nuclear weapons, emphasizing impact over quantity. North Korea is also aggressively pursuing a presence in space. The hermit kingdom, which deployed its first spy satellite last year, suffered a launch failure a few days ago as it also seeks to boost its defense efforts.

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