China Aims for Global Space Leadership
Radhakrishna Rao

For China, which joined the global space league in a modest way with a launch of a lightweight satellite in 1970, the year 2011 is all set to stand out as both “eventful and exciting”. Indeed, for this Asian communist giant, which has set its eye on emerging as a space and military power on par with USA and Russia, the launch of eight tone box car sized space module Tiangong-1 by means of March-2F rocket from Jiuquan space centre in Gobi desert in late September was a veritable space spectacular. Launched amidst a blaze of national pride and publicity blitz, Tiangong-1 will be the precursor of China’s ambitious plan for a 60-tonne orbital complex to be realized by 2020. In the aftermath of this launch, western space commentators were quick to point out that that “Tiangong-1 is primarily a technology test bed. It is not going to immediately provide China any military capabilities.” Even so, there is no denying the fact that this space accomplishment has all the potentials to bring Beijing closer to Moscow and Washington with a long term manned outpost in space.

The launch of Tiangong-1 was complemented by the successful orbiting of Shenzhour-8 unmanned spacecraft on November 1. Shenzhou-8, which is now heading for rendezvous with the target orbiter Tiangong-1, will pave way for carrying out docking experiments which holds the key to the building and operationalization of a full fledged space station. As things stand now, Chinese and German scientists will conduct 17 research programmes on-board Shenzhour-8 spacecraft. To sharpen its expertise in docking and associated techniques, China will launch of Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 spaceships during 2012 and one of these will be a manned mission. “The most important point is that this is developing docking techniques and technology, which, in turn means precision controls for thrusters and the like which has obvious military/anti satellite implications,” says Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Centre in Washington D.C. In political terms, hurling Tiangong-1 into earth orbit, Cheng said, is another reminder that China intends to be a space player for the foreseeable future, including the realm of human space flight. Undertaking the Tinagong-1 mission at about the same time as the US space shuttle programme ends “is a powerful political signal that China is ascendant and the US is descendent,” observed Cheng. Indeed, after the US Space Shuttle Atlantis made its final touch down at Kennedy Space Centre for the last time in July this year, US has been left without a manned space vehicle for the first time in five decades. ”Over the past decade, China has arguably gone further, faster than any other space faring nations,” says an analysis by the technology management consulting firm Futron Corp.

More importantly, the Chinese orbital complex will become operational at about the same time as the International Space Station(ISS) is slated to shut its operations. Though the Chinese orbital station will be much smaller than ISS , it would nonetheless provide China with the necessary level of expertise to place into orbit larger space stations with a longer life span. An autonomous orbital complex could also help China, besides furthering space science research, bolster its space war efforts by serving as a strategic outpost in outer space. The successful accomplishment of China’s first manned mission in 2003 followed by the second human flight in 2005 along with the “space walk” performed in 2008 have all gone to give a quickening impetus to the Tiangong-1 project. As space commentators put it, in the event of US and its partners in the ISS project failing to come up with a follow on project, China would have permanent human presence in space. ”Space leadership is a highly symbolic of national capabilities and international influence and a decline in space leadership will be seen as a symbolic of relative decline in the US power and influence,” says Scott Pace, a former functionary of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration(NASA) of USA. Joining Pace are other US experts who hold the view that USA could indeed slip behind China in human spaceflight programme especially in the context of Obama administration’s failure to support the much touted Constellation programme. What’s more, US space activities have ended up as a victim of budgetary constraints compounded by the “changing perception and shifting priorities” of the White House. On the other hand, funding on time is not a problem for the Chinese space programme. ”One of the biggest advantages of the Chinese systems is that they have five years plan so they can develop well ahead. They are taking a step by step approach, taking their time and gradually improving their capabilities. They are putting all the pieces together for a very capable advanced space industry,” noted Peter Bond, Consultant Editor for Jane’s Space Systems. On the other hand, Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace drives home the point that space has come to acquire a privileged position in China’s military thinking. According to Tellis, China sees space as a vital platform to effectively use its armed forces against adversaries. There is also a speculation that PLA(Peoples Liberation Army) would use Tiangong series missions to test dual use technology to perform military missions. Strategic advantages apart, Tiangong project will help China expand its soft power along with its political and diplomatic clout. Indeed, space stands out as a centrepiece of China’s long term geo strategic ambitions.

While Chinese space programme is gathering momentum, the Indian Government is yet to give its final go ahead and budgetary approval for India’s manned space flight programme which was mooted by ISRO around five years back. Indeed, budgetary approval for the entire programme involving the launch of two or three crew members to low earth orbit and their safe return to earth without further loss of time is quite vital for realizing this nationally significant space mission by 2016. While the Indian space programme has to make do with a single operational launch vehicle in the form of the four stage space workhorse PSLV(Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle), China has a range of launch vehicles under its Long March family. The Long March series of vehicles are designed to insert satellites of different weight class into a variety of orbital slots. Unlike China, India has only a solitary space port , Satish Dhawan Space Centre(SDSC) in Sriharikota island on India’s eastern coast. Meanwhile, ISRO is preparing a feasibility report for developing India’s second launch complex. For SDSC is vulnerable to cyclonic storms originating in the Bay of Bengal. Moreover, a second/alternative launch pad could lend a strategic edge to country’s space programme.

Right from the outset, the Chinese space venture enjoyed many distinctive advantage over the Indian space programme. To begin with, during its formative days it was guided by Hsue Shen Tsein, a US trained aerospace engineer with a sound background in rocketry. On the top of this, Russians made available vital elements of missile technology to China which was imaginatively exploited to build civilian space vehicles. For a strategic missile and a satellite launch vehicle have many common technological elements. And with the Chinese defence set up being closely involved with the space activities, the expertise available at various institutions under PLA were utilized to support the Chinese space enterprise to the hilt.

On the other hand, India’s peace oriented space programme had to start virtually from scratch without any outside assistance. Moreover, id did not get the kind of funding and autonomy that was available to the Chinese space programme. Being a fully civilian venture operating in a democratic set up, the Indian space programme is invariably subject to parliamentary scrutiny and public criticism. On the other hand, far from transparent Chinese space programme with its pronounced militaristic ambitions is free to pursue its goals without being subject to public scrutiny and criticism.

China, which has launched two lunar orbiters for a detailed scientific study of moon’s environment and resources, is now preparing for the robotic landing mission to moon in 2013. Incidentally, India ‘s second lunar spacecraft Chandrayaan-II planned for launch in 2014 will release a robotic rover on the lunar surface for studying the geological and mineralogical features. In keeping with its grand strategy of staying ahead in the race for space, China has already hinted at putting a man on the moon by 2020.”The moon is an obvious target for China and they would be there by 2020,”says Ken Pounds, Professor of Space Science at Liecester University. Clearly, neither the Europeans nor the Russians have evinced interest in sending a manned mission to the moon. Sometime before the end of this decade, China has also plan up its sleeve to realize a sample return mission to the moon.

Not be left behind, China has also hinted at setting up a base on the lunar surface as part of its long term vision of staying ahead in the “space industrialization race”. One of the key objectives of the proposed Chinese lunar base would be the extraction of Helium-3, considered a clean and abundant energy source and its transportation back to the earth. To realize this challenging mission, China has started concentrating on developing rockets capable of generating “massive thrust”. As stated by Wu Weiren, chief designer of China’s lunar exploration programme,” The lunar probe is the starting point for the deep space exploration. We first need to do a good job for exploring the moon and work out the rocket transportation technology that can be used for a future exploration of Mars and Venus”. Of course, ISRO too has lined up an ambitious programme for planetary exploration. Meanwhile, China’s much awaited launch of its first Mars probe mission is planned to be accomplished in November this year. It would represent China’s one more attempt at making a deeper foray into outer space. The Chinese Martian probe Yinghuo-1,a micro satellite weighing 110-kg. will be sent into space with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The probe is expected to enter a pre set orbit around the Mars between August and September 2012.

China expects to accomplish the launch of 25 satellites during 2011, making it the second country after Russia to log such a large number of orbital missions. According to Yun Jiajun of China Aerospace and Technology Corporation, China’s space projects have entered a stage of high intensity development and launching. Interestingly, Futron Corporation’s Space Competitive Index reveals that China matched America’s number of launches during 2010 for the first time. Meanwhile, with a view to boost its launch frequency , China is working on building its fourth advanced space launching complex near the city of Wenchang on the north eastern coast of the Hainan island .Incidentally, Hainan island happens to be the epicentre of a massive Chinese naval build up. The well equipped ultra modern orbital complex at Wenchang which is expected to go stream by 2013 will be designed to launch modules of large space stations, deep space probes as well as heavier class satellites into the geostationary transfer orbit. Moreover, it will be China’s first coastal launch pad that could help China grab an increasing share of the global market for launching satellites on commercial terms. According to Chinese space experts, the strategic location of this new launch pad close to the equator would help increase the payload mass of the launch vehicles taking off from here by a substantial extent. All the currently operational three Chinese space launch complexes are landlocked without any access to the sea.

The defence oriented thrust of the Chinese space programme was clearly demonstrated by the anti satellite test it carried out in early 2007.In a brazen move to build up the capability for a full fledged space war of the future, China deployed a ground based medium range ballistic missile to hit and destroy an aging weather satellite located in the medium earth orbit. It is also an open secret that China is concentrating on developing beam weapons based on laser devices which can serve as an anti satellite weapon while acting as a substitute for missiles. Against this backdrop, China’s rapidly expanding space programme has the potential to alter the power dynamics in much of Asia and adversely affect US defence forces untrammelled hold on the region.

According to a study by the Washington based World Security Institute, Chinese reconnaissance satellites can now monitor targets for upto six hours a day. Till eighteen months back, PLA could just manage doing three hours of daily coverage from the vantage position in space. ”Starting from almost no live surveillance capability ten years ago, today the PLA has likely equalled the US ability to observe targets from space for real time operations,” say researchers at World Security Institute. Clearly, the rapidly expanding network of reconnaissance satellites provides China with the ability to harness its defence assets. Not surprisingly then USA is concerned that it would have difficult times moving its naval forces close to Taiwan without coming under the prying eyes of Chinese space birds.

Of course, not long back V.K.Saraswat, chief of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisaton(DRDO) had projected the need for India to protect its space assets from “rogue satellites”. He had also hinted at DRDO initiating program to build killer satellite devices, laser beam weapons and a range of military satellites for boosting India’s defence preparedness. But India’s weak political leadership lacking in vision could prove to be a major stumbling block in preparing India for a space war. Of course, there is a growing consensus in India over the need to seamlessly integrate the elements of its civilian space programme into the space weaponization plan being envisaged by DRDO. The need of the hour is to exploit the resources and expertise available in India to launch a comprehensive space weaponization programme without any loss of time.

Published Date : 25th November 2011

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