2011-11-12(China Military News cited from wsj.com and by Matt Durnin)
China launched two satellites Wednesday as part of a decade-long rapid expansion of earth-monitoring capabilities that also buttress the country's growing military prowess.
Yaogan-12, the primary cargo of the launch, is the twelfth model in a series of "remote sensing" satellites that many analysts believe are tasked with gathering military intelligence. China, which has never acknowledged a defense-related launch, claims that the satellite will be used for "scientific experiments, land survey, crop yield assessment, and disaster monitoring."
Piggybacking on the ride was Tianxun-1, a 35-kg micro-satellite with a low-resolution camera. A 2010 paper in China Science and Technology Review described the satellite's design as "low-observable," suggesting it may be a test bed for basic stealth technology that could make small satellites even harder to track from the ground.
Since China's controversial shoot-down of one of its weather satellites in early 2007, the U.S. defense community has churned with speculation about Beijing's military intentions in space.
China has recently shown more concerted focus on military reconnaissance satellites, which are key components of its plans for a more integrated and aware People's Liberation Army. This is a change from the 1990s when Chinese satellites were often dual-use, serving both military and civilian functions.
According to Kevin Pollpeter, deputy director of Defense Group Inc.'s East Asia Program, China's satellite projects have since split into distinctly different groups. "You see on one side China's satellites becoming more solely devoted to national security purposes," he says. "On the other hand, on the civilian side they have been increasingly open with other countries."
Earth-monitoring satellites will contribute to Chinese weather prediction, disaster relief and civil planning, but dedicated military variants will also amplify the effectiveness of PLA weapons.
Roger Cliff, a senior fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, says that such assets provide the PLA with crucial situational awareness.
"Ten years ago, if they had wanted to use their ballistic missiles to attack an airfield, they would have essentially been firing blind," he says. "That's not true anymore."
Today China's better reconnaissance satellites are thought to have ground resolutions under two meters, and perhaps as low as half a meter. Though these specifications pale in comparison to U.S. spy satellite capabilities, they are likely good enough for China's defense needs.
According to Pollpeter, focus on basic yet proven technologies is likely an effective and intentional Chinese strategy. "A lot of time with U.S. defense technology we go for the platinum-plated version, but you don't actually have to do that all the time," he says. "In our own weapon systems we usually demand solutions that work in 100 percent of circumstances, when often the 80 percent solution might suffice."
Though the price tags of Chinese reconnaissance satellites are not publicly known, they are thought to be a fraction of the cost of U.S. spy satellite programs, which frequently reach into the billions of dollars.
The relative low cost of Chinese satellite programs is complimented by a rapid launch tempo. Last year China successfully launched 15 rockets, matching the U.S. total for the first time. This year China may soar past that number.
Yuan Jiajun, deputy general director of China Aerospace and Technology Corp., told the state-run Xinhua news agency last week that China is scheduled to launch 25 satellites on 20 rockets in 2011. Since 13 rockets have carried 14 Chinese satellites into orbit so far this year, and one more has failed, Yuan's comments imply that 10 more satellites could reach space by the end of December.
Yet it is perhaps too easy to be starstruck by China's achievements in space. Cliff warns that although China has passed some impressive milestones, its limitations must be kept in perspective. He points out that China's satellite programs seem to have hit road bumps in several areas, including radar satellites that have failed in orbit or have been repeatedly delayed.
"We shouldn't make Chinese technological capabilities out to be ten feet tall," he says. "The things that they are doing are not cutting edge in the first place and they're not always going smoothly either."
Matt Durnin is a Beijing-based researcher at the World Security Institute’s China Program and associate editor of the policy journal China Security. He specializes in China’s defense modernization and space programs.
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