China’s State of Space

Posted: November 3, 2010 in Uncategorized
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I’m commenting on an e-mail interview posted to World Politics Review.

What animates China’s space-aims?  Military necessity and prestige, and in that order.

As with all space-faring nations, China’s space programs have several goals. The most frequently discussed in the Chinese press are the presumed benefits to the Chinese economy.

Presumed benefits.  Well said, as there’s little economic benefit to China to build their own GPS-like constellation when they can use the U.S. taxpayer-provided global utility (GPS), Russia’s Glonass (when it gets better built out), or the EU’s Galileo (someday).  Ok, how about China’s space work force?

The human space flight and robotic lunar exploration programs are also intended to attract, motivate, retain and train a cadre of young aerospace engineers as well as to increase the interest of Chinese youth in studying science and math. In this regard both programs have been very successful.

Yes, due in no small part to their huge population and their largely directed economy, China is cranking out a startling number of engineers and scientists.  But what about the military apps?

The militarily significant advances in Chinese space capabilities can be found in their positioning and timing, communication and earth-observation satellite programs, as well as in dedicated military programs, such as the anti-satellite interceptor that destroyed an aging Chinese weather satellite in January of 2007. The latter event created a huge cloud of debris that increased the debris-hazard for all other spacecraft operating in the orbital plane where the Chinese satellite was destroyed.

Agreed.  The military significance of China’s space capabilities is that they: reduce or eliminate dependence on GPS; they enhance China’s command and control; they support anti-access/area denial efforts that would be useful in holding U.S. sea power at arm’s length (or further).  The ASAT demonstration was an ill-advised PR and space debris blunder, but is revealing none-the-less with a demonstrated anti-satellite capability, and also having significant Chinese missile and missile defense implications.  Unlike the U.S. and Russia, China is not a party to the INF treaty and has been able to build many shorter and medium range missiles, with an estimated 1600 or so threatening Taiwan.

And back to the national ego, where space is also a potential source of national prestige:

China is more or less on schedule with their plans to complete a permanently occupied space station by 2020…China is also on schedule to complete their robotic lunar exploration program, which aims to survey the lunar surface with orbiters, land a rover on the surface to collect and analyze samples, and eventually send a lander to collect lunar samples and return them to earth…

China has done a startlingly good job in meeting space schedule and performance goals.  When you pay your experienced aerospace engineers four bucks an hour and the rest of your aerospace work force something less than that, you can afford prestige/stunt space programs.   But enough of the Chinese space ego, how about their GPS-like system and their overall state of space health?

…China is building their own national positioning and timing satellite constellation, known as Compass, and is making steady improvements in their communications and earth-observation satellite constellations. According to the UCS satellite database, available online here, China now has 60 functioning satellites in orbit. Chinese press reports indicate that number could rise to 100 in the next several years.

Cooperation with China…last time we did this, Hughes and Loral ended up in court and China ended up learning how to MIRV their ICBMs.  So is cooperating with China worth the risk?  Kinda depends on your point-of-world view.

China and the United States could and should engage in cooperation in space science and exploration. Cooperative projects in these two areas would limit Chinese access to sensitive proprietary American space technology — an area of increasing competition with military implications — while at the same time creating better-informed constituencies within the space communities of both nations that could minimize mutual hostility and suspicion. Cooperation in space science and exploration between China and the United States would open the door to cooperation between China and other space-faring nations, ending China’s international isolation in space and increasing the possibility that China’s leaders will be more concerned with becoming a responsible space-faring nation.

A reasonable recommendation.  Why not cooperate on those things you can cooperate on and leave the sensitive stuff for another day (never, actually)?

Unless things change in a way I can’t really imagine, we’re going to have to deal with China as a near-space peer.  Why?  1)  Too many educated and capable people, 2) working at extremely competitive labor rates with a 3) favorable exchange rate and 4) minimal governmental and bureaucratic obstacles.


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