China Space Capabilities Growing as Reliability Issues Surface

The Defense Department’s annual report to Congress, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2012,” includes an interesting section on that nation’s rapidly growing space program. The report finds progress across a broad range of areas from human spaceflight to global positioning systems and capabilities for disable foreign military satellites. It also cautions that the Chinese are facing issues with reliability due to a surging launch rate.

The relevant section is reproduced below.

Space and Counterspace Capabilities. In the space domain, China is expanding its space-based surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation, meteorological, and communications satellite constellations.

China continues to build the Bei-Dou (Compass) navigation satellite constellation with the goal of establishing a regional network by the end of 2012 and a global network by 2020.

China launched the Tiangong space station module in September 2011 and a second communications relay satellite (the Tianlian 1B), which will enable near real-time transfer of data to ground stations from manned space capsules or orbiting satellites.

China continues to develop the Long March V rocket, which will more than double the size of the low Earth and geosynchronous orbit payloads that China will be capable of placing into orbit.

In parallel, the PRC is developing a multidimensional program to limit or deny the use of space-based assets by adversaries during times of crisis or conflict. In addition to the direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon tested in 2007, these counterspace capabilities also include jamming, laser, microwave, and cyber weapons. Over the past two years, China has also conducted increasingly complex close proximity operations between satellites while offering little in the way of transparency or explanation.

China’s space and counterspace programs are facing some challenges in systems reliability. Communications satellites using China’s standard satellite launch platform, the DFH-4, have experienced failures leading to reduced lifespan or loss of the satellite. The recent surge in the number of China’s space launches also may be taking its toll. In August 2011, in the third satellite launch in seven days for China, a Long March 2C rocket (carrying an experimental Shijian 11 satellite), malfunctioned after liftoff.