Dragon’s Space Arsenal: Dominating the Strategic High Ground


(China has made spectacular progress in the domain of space, with particular reference to the utilisation of space for enhancing its military capabilities. China’s space developments are an integral component of its military transformation effort. China is rapidly improving its space-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation and communication capabilities allowing for greater military support from space. Concurrently, China is developing counter-space capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space based assets by adversaries during times of crisis or conflict. It is evident that the militarisation of space by China has a profound bearing on the security of India.)


The launch of mankind’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, by Soviet Union in 1957, spurred China to develop its own space capabilities. Mao adopted ‘Project 581’ in 1958 with the intention of placing a satellite in space by 1959 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the founding of People’s Republic of China (PRC). Thereafter, Zhou En Lai emerged as a major supporter of Chinese ventures in space and in 1967 he re-mustered Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) under the control of People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This very step was a landmark in Chinese Space history as all its space missions now had a military flavour. China launched its first satellite Dong Fang Hong (The East is Red) on 24 April 1970 and became the fifth nation to attain this capability.

In the PLA’s strategic thought reflected in their pamphlet ‘Science of Military Strategy’, the ability to control and exploit space, serves for both force enhancement and as a deterrent factor1. Therefore, establishing space dominance (zhitianquan) is an essential enabler for information dominance (zhixinxiquan) – a key pre-requisite for fighting wars under informationised conditions2. This alludes to China’s intentions of using Space as a new war fighting domain3.

China’s Space Architecture

China’s space architecture comprises launch centers, Telemetry, Tracking and Control (TT&C) centers and launch vehicles. These have been discussed in the succeeding paragraphs.

Launch Centres

China has four launch centres as under:-.

  1. Jiuquan Launch Centre: Situated at the southern edge of Gobi desert in Kansu province, the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre is also known as Base 20. The facility has three launch pads and can place satellites in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO)4. From Jiuquan, China launches most of its Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) satellites and spacecraft involved in human space flight missions. It has also been developed for testing of surface to air and surface to surface ballistic missiles.
  2. Taiyuan Launch Centre: Also known as Base 25, this site is in Shanxi Province, Kelan County. From Taiyuan, China primarily launches meteorological, resource sensing and scientific satellites in LEO. The site has one launch pad. It has also been developed as a missile testing site5.
  3. Xichang Launch Centre: Also known as Base 27, the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre is located in Sichuan province of southern territory of China. Used primarily for launching satellites in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO)6, the centre has to its credit launch of some of the most prestigious missions like lunar orbiting probe and the DF-21 Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test conducted in 2007. From Xichang, China primarily launches commercial and communication satellites.
  4. Wenchang Launch Centre: It is located on Hainan Island. It is used to launch heavy satellites and modules for the manned space programme. The launch centre’s closer proximity to the equator can increase launch payloads by 10-15 percent.
Telemetry, Tracking and Control (TT&C) Centres

The TT&C Centres not only control and monitor China’s satellites, but also enable China to track and target adversary’s satellites. Such a capability can greatly augment China’s ASAT operations in a conflict. TT&C operations are conducted primarily by two TT&C centers. These are Xian Satellite Monitoring and Control Centre (XSCC) and the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Centre (BACC). Details are as under:-

  1. XSCC, also known as Base 26 is a satellite control facility located at Weinan near Xian7. It exercises command over geographically distributed stations which carry out TT&C tasks for satellites in LEO, GEO and experimental orbits. It also controls three land based mobile TT&C stations.
  2. BACC acts as the nerve centre for space flight testing and manned space flight missions. It is also responsible for TT&C of Shenzou missions8. It exercises control over various TT&C stations located inland and abroad. It also controls the four Yuanwang TT&C ships in the Sea of Japan (YW-1), southern tip of South America (YW-2), Atlantic Ocean (YW-3) and Indian Ocean off Australia (YW-4).
Launch Vehicles

China has developed a wide array of launch vehicles to launch satellites in various orbits like LEO and GEO. Based on Dong Feng9 intercontinental ballistic missile are the Long March (LM)-2C and LM-2D10 rockets, which remain China’s most commonly used launch vehicles for launches in LEO. The LM-2D and LM-2F are used to place light and medium satellites in GTO11. The LM-2F is also used to launch heavy satellites in LEO. It has been used to launch the Shenzhou spacecrafts. The LM-2G has been used to launch unmanned modules of Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 space laboratories. The LM-3 series12 is used to launch medium and heavy satellites in Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). The LM-4B and 4C provide for medium lift capability to China in LEO. In the LEO, China can lift 25 tons13 of payload with LM-5B and 13 tons with LM-7. In the GTO, the LM-5 can carry a payload of 14 tons. The LM-11, which made its maiden flight on 25 September 201514 is expected to be China’s largest solid-fuelled rocket and will enhance China’s Launch on Demand (LoD) capability during conflicts. China has also been developing ‘Kuaizhou’ (Quick Vessel) series of launch vehicles, based on DF-2115 missile. Similar to LM-11, the Kuaizhou also provides China the LoD capability. To this effect, China launched Kuaizhou-1 (KZ-1) in September 2013.16 China currently can launch a maximum payload of 25 tons in LEO and 14 tons in GTO. All launch vehicles of China are designated as ‘Long March’ and prefixed with the letters LM / CZ (in Mandarin). China’s operational and developmental launch vehicles have been tabulated below.

China’s Military Space Capabilities

China realises that space dominance will be a vital factor in securing air, maritime and electromagnetic dominance and it will directly affect the course and outcome of future wars17. As per US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) report released in 2019, China is building space capabilities in a way to deter others from intervening in military conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region18. China’s Military Space capabilities can be discussed under ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), PNT (Position, Navigation and Timing), SATCOM (Satellite Communication) and counter space capabilities.

Space Based Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR)

China employs a robust space-based ISR capability designed to enhance its worldwide situational awareness. It is used for civil and military remote sensing and mapping as well as terrestrial and maritime surveillance. Space-based ISR figures prominently in Chinese writings and is often considered a critical component in extending China’s power projection capabilities. As China’s military is increasingly employed to conduct operations farther from its mainland, the utility of space becomes all the more important. China has been working persistently towards gaining a strong foothold in the space arena in order to use it as a strategic outpost. String of advanced satellites with wide spectrum of ISR capabilities serves PLA as “eyes and ears” to keep a tab on the adversaries and complements its strategy of informationised warfare.

China began working on Space imagery in the mid 1960s, launching its first ISR satellite in 1975. Presently, China operates an extensive network of military satellites. Prominent satellite constellations for ISR applications are discussed in succeeding paragraphs.

Yaogan ISR Constellation

The Yaogan satellites, launched by China from 2006 onwards, provide it global surveillance capability. These satellites are completely owned and controlled by PLA and form an important component of its Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) strategy. The Yaogan constellation comprises 31 satellites, which are a mix of Electro Optical (EO), Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) satellites19. Details of Yaogan constellation are given below:-

  1. Triplet Clusters of ELINT Satellites: There are six triplet clusters of ELINT satellites that enable coarse tracking of targets such as an Aircraft Carrier Group (ACG). These satellites pick up electronic transmissions and are able to locate the position of targets by triangulation method. Considering the mission life of these satellites to be 5-7 years, at least four such clusters are likely to be currently operational viz Yaogan 17 (A,B,C), Yaogan 20 (A,B,C), Yaogan 25 (A,B,C), Yaogan 31 (A,B,C) and a pair of Yaogan 32 satellites.
  2. Broad Area Coverage EO Satellite Cluster: This cluster comprises EO satellites at an altitude of 1200 Km. They have a broad swath and a medium resolution of 3 to 10 meters. Four such satellites are likely to be currently operational viz Yaogan 15, 19, 22 and 2720.
  3. High Resolution EO Satellite Cluster: This cluster comprises satellites at an altitude of 500-600 Km and with a resolution of 1 to 3 meters. Five satellites are likely to be currently operational in this cluster viz Yaogan 21, 24, 26, 28 and 30.
  4. SAR Cluster: These satellites are at an altitude of 500-600 Km and they utilise high resolution radar to capture images both during day and night. Three such satellites are likely to be currently operational viz Yaogan 18, 23 and 29.
Ludikancha Weixing (LKW) Satellites

The LKW series of satellites comprises four military satellites launched by China between 2017 and 2018. These satellites have been placed at an altitude of 500 Km and are very similar to the Yaogan high resolution EO satellites.

New Yaogan Theatre ELINT Constellation

China has launched six triplets of this ELINT constellation known as Yaogan-30 in the years 2017 to 2020. These triplets have been placed at an altitude of 600 Km and an inclination of 35 degrees. This constellation provides constant electronic surveillance to China over land and sea covering Taiwan, Korean peninsula, Japan’s southern waters, Guam, ASEAN countries and Indian Ocean21.

Gaofen Satellites

The Gaofen series comprises both EO and SAR high resolution satellites, capable of providing imagery with sub-meter resolution. The Gaofen family of high resolution Earth Observation satellites is part of the China High-definition Earth Observation System (CHEOS) meant for civilian purposes, with the first satellite launched in 2013. While these were developed for non-military usage but their payload and resolution render them dual applicability. Sixteen Gaofen satellites (EO-14, SAR-02) are currently operational.

Jilin Satellites

Jilin satellites are designed to be light weight commercial remote sensing satellites with HD video and EO sensors of approximately metric resolution and are being fabricated by Chang Guang Satellite Technology Company. Nineteen Jilin satellites are currently operational. The company had planned to launch 60 satellites by 2020 giving a revisit of 30 minutes and 138 by 2030 with a revisit of 10 minutes, but the project is running behind schedule. These satellites also have dual applicability, for both civil and military usage.

Shijian Satellites

Owned and operated by China’s Academy of Space Technology (under CASC)22, these satellites have a variety of configurations and missions. Although some have been used for civilian purposes, many appear to be having military ISR payloads due to their orbital characteristics and the secrecy surrounding their launches. Some Shijian satellites are also utilised to experiment contemporary technologies like ion and electric propulsion, Signal Intelligence (SIGINT), missile tracking payloads and counter space applications like Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO). Based on mission life, seven Shijian satellites are currently operational.

Tongxin Jishu Shiyan (TJS) Early Warning Satellites

From 2016 onwards, China has launched five satellites of the TJS series in the Geo-Stationary Orbit. These satellites provide early warning of the launch of ballistic missiles. Thus, bridging the gap in China’s early warning capability for their BMD programme23.

Space Based Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT)

The 1991 Gulf War and subsequent US military operations illustrated the value of the Global Positioning System (GPS) for troop movements, force tracking and precision guidance. This prompted other countries to develop their own satellite navigation systems. Today, satellite navigation services are critical to military and civilian users worldwide, with applications in land, air and sea navigation, munition guidance, surveying and mapping, search and rescue, tracking and numerous other applications.

In 1994, Chinese government gave the go-ahead for the development and deployment of an experimental satellite navigation system called ‘Beidou-1’. The first pair of satellites, known as Beidou-1A and Beidou-1B, was launched in 2000 and a third backup satellite Beidou-1C in 2003, making the system fully operational. The Beidou-1 services became available to civilian users in 2004. Thus, China became the third country in the world after USA and Russia to have deployed an operational Space-based navigation and positioning network. Subsequently, Beidou-2 was planned with ten satellites. By 2012, Beidou-2 started providing regional positioning services covering China and Asia Pacific region. It has two kinds of services, a civilian service with positional accuracy of 10 meters, velocity accuracy of 0.2m/s and timing accuracy of 50 nanoseconds. Strategic users are provided better accuracies.

The Beidou-3, China’s next generation worldwide satellite navigation project was commenced in 2017. Beidou-3 was conceptualised as a constellation of 35 satellites with the projected date of completion by end 202024. China was successful in meeting this timeline with the launch of the last satellite of this constellation on 23 June 2020. The Beidou constellation also offers text messaging and user tracking through its Short Message Service (SMS), to enable mass communications for specific Beidou users and provide additional command and control capabilities for PLA25. Director of China Satellite Navigation Office had stated that they are aiming for positional accuracy of 2.5m, which will further be improved to centimeter level with additional ground stations26.

Beidou was originally designed exclusively for military purpose in order to reduce reliance on foreign PNT services. However, it has now turned into a commercial opportunity with its expanding reach. Chinese government has enunciated policy measures to ensure Beidou integration with current PNT based applications in civilian domain. It has coverage along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries, thereby incurring massive income for China by providing Beidou services to participating nations.

Satellite Communication (SATCOM)

China’s initial Command, Control and Communication (C3) modernisation efforts were focussed on developing a robust and secure terrestrial network of fiber optic cables, mobile radios and data-links. However, after realising the importance of space during the Gulf War of 1991, China enhanced the scope of modernisation by including space applications in its modernisation plans. China has been investing in advanced space based communication capabilities, as nearly all of China’s strategic goals and military plans rely on information dominance. The prosecution of Anti-Access Area-Denial (A2AD) strategy is impossible without an advanced space based and terrestrial C3 network. The development of China’s communication satellites started at the beginning of 1970s and their first geostationary communication satellite was launched successfully in 1984. Initially, the technical threshold of Chinese communication satellite payloads was much lower than that of advanced countries however, they have gradually developed critical payload technologies like high power transponders, on-board processing, multi-beam antennas, controllable spot-beams, shaped-beam antennas and inter-satellite relay capabilities.

China is currently using a large number of communication satellites for both its civilian and military requirements. Civilian Chinese operators providing SATCOM services are Asia Broadcast Satellites (ABS), Asia Satellite Telecommunication Company (Asia Sat), China Telecommunication Broadcast Satellite Corporation (China Sat) and also from Hong Kong based Asia Pacific Satellite Company (AP Star series). Fabrication of satellites is being done by Chinese agencies like China Great Wall Industrial Corporation (CGWIC), China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and by foreign vendors like Hughes, Lockheed Martin etc. Altogether, China utilises hundreds of transponders in C, Ku and Ka band for servicing its enormous civil and military SATCOM requirements.

China’s specific defence SATCOM requirements are also being met by PLA operated satellites27. CASC has developed the Fenghuo (FH) and Shentong (ST) series of military communication GEO satellites to provide secure voice and data communications for military users. Fenghuo is a family of tactical communications satellites. These satellites are used to support a theatre-level C3 network called ‘Qudian’28. Fenghuo satellites provide C and UHF band communications. Shentong is a family of strategic communication satellites, providing secure voice and data communications in the C and Ku band.

The mission life of a GEO satellite is normally planned for ten years. Accordingly, replacement satellites are launched. Going by the date of launch, it is evident that presently China has five dedicated satellites to meet its military communication requirements apart from utilising transponders from a vast array of civil communication satellites.

China launched its first data relay satellite, Tianlian (TL)-1, in April 2008. It was followed by TL-1A in 2008, TL-1B in 2011, TL-1C in 2012 and TL-1D in 2016, to complete global coverage for its data relay system. In March 2019, China launched its first satellite of the TL-2 series, a new family of bigger, more capable data relay satellites to link ground controllers with Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft capsule and China’s planned space station29.

China has been making a focussed effort to develop niche capabilities in the SATCOM domain in order to fill its present capability voids and further gain a technological edge in space over its adversaries. China’s state-owned satellite operator ‘China Satcom’ currently operates a fleet of 10 GEO communication satellites. It has been making huge investments in the development of high-throughput satellites (HTS) and LEO satellite constellation for communications. It had launched SJ-13 (Shijian-13) also known as ChinaSat-16 to test electric propulsion for future satellite buses. China faced a setback in the launch of ChinaSat-18, as this HTS encountered solar panel problems soon after its launch in August 2019. China Satcom is also part of a joint venture for development of the ‘Hongyan’ constellation of 320 small satellites to provide LEO communication services. The first prototype satellite of the Hongyan constellation was launched in December 2018. With the present and future planned array of sophisticated satellites, China Satcom is gearing up to support the country’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), thereby highlighting the strategic nature of the entire programme30.

The importance of secure communication for the armed forces cannot be over emphasised. The recent developments in Quantum communications could potentially prove to be of immense significance for ultra-secure communication network and the Chinese have been researching in this field extensively. Quantum Cryptography can be used to transmit secret messages between two points by ‘Quantum Key Distribution’ method in which photons are used to transfer the data31. Chinese have adopted the twin approach of attempting quantum communications using both optical fibers (terrestrial) and outer space. They established a 712 Km Quantum communication link in November 2016 between Hefei and Shanghai32 and to enhance the ranges, launched a ‘Quantum Experiment at Space Scale’ (QUESS) or ‘Micius’, a 500 Kg satellite into LEO on 16 Aug 201633. Micius satellite is a technological demonstrator for hack-proof communication and China’s National Science Center has announced the launch of additional quantum satellites to realise a secure network for both civilian and defence applications.

China is pursuing parallel programmes for military and civil communication satellites. China continues to launch new satellites to replace its aging satellites and increase its overall satellite communications bandwidth, capacity, availability and reliability. Adequate, robust and reliable satellite communication will enhance PLA’s C3 capabilities especially while operating in remote and inaccessible areas where terrestrial communications are difficult. Dedicated military communication satellites will also enhance the reach and footprint of PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean region.

China’s Counter Space Capabilities

China’s counter space developments are coherently and asymmetrically designed to mainly counter a far more technologically advanced adversary’s capability. China is pursuing an array of counter space projects, which include direct ascent anti-satellite missiles, co-orbital anti-satellite systems, directed energy weapons (DEW), cyber attack capabilities and ground based satellite jammers34. During a conflict, China would employ a combination of “hard attacks”, which use kinetic methods to cause permanent and irreversible destruction of a satellite or ground support infrastructure and “soft attacks”, which use non-kinetic methods to temporarily affect the functionality of a satellite or ground systems. These have been discussed in the succeeding paragraphs.

Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Missiles

In January 2007, China tested a direct ascent kinetic-kill missile (SC-19) against a defunct FY-1C weather satellite35. The test demonstrated China’s ability to strike satellites in LEO. Since then, China has conducted four anti-satellite tests for engaging targets in LEO (160-2000 Km altitude) in between 2010 to 2014. On May 13, 2013, China is reported to have tested a direct ascent ASAT weapon at an altitude of 10,000 Km. It was a cold test with no impact or debris. It is expected that this rocket could be made to reach 30,000 Km to threaten GEO satellites.

Co-orbital Anti-Satellite Systems

These systems consist of a satellite armed with a weapon such as an explosive charge, fragmentation device, kinetic energy weapon, laser, radio frequency weapon, jammer or robotic arm. Once a co-orbital satellite is close enough to a target satellite, the co-orbital satellite can deploy its weapon to interfere with, disable or destroy the target satellite. Co-orbital satellites also may intentionally crash into the target. These systems provide several advantages over direct ascent anti-satellite weapons, including their ability to be used to target satellites in every orbital regime, generate less debris, conduct attacks without geographic limitations and limit escalation, as many co-orbital attack options are reversible and offer plausible deniability. Chinese satellites have conducted co-orbital manoeuvres in 2008, 2010 and 2013. On July 20, 2013, China launched three satellites: the Shiyan-7 (SY-7), Chuangxin (CX-3) and Shijian-15 (SJ-15). SY-7 initially flew close to SJ-15, then it changed orbit, coming closer to CX-3. SY-7 also carried a robotic arm which the Chinese claimed was for proving in space manipulation technologies. However, in anti-satellite role, it could also be utilised to alter the orbit of target satellites or cause damage to them36.

Directed Energy Weapons (DEW)

China has been committing substantial resources to research and development (R&D) for directed energy weapons, including those that could be used for anti-satellite missions, since the 1990s. DEWs can deliver concentrated energy along a line of sight trajectory at or near the speed of light to damage or destroy equipment, facilities and personnel. In 2006, China is suspected to have fired a laser at a US satellite, resulting in a temporary degradation of its functionality.

Cyber Attack

The Chinese are also developing systems to degrade or damage data links that connect satellites to ground stations37. Space dominance can be achieved if a key satellite is shut down, its mission payload is pointed in the wrong direction or it is unable to communicate at critical moments. Indeed, this may be a preferable option, since attribution may be difficult and such approaches are unlikely to generate space debris. PLA during a conflict would attempt to conduct cyber attacks against satellites and ground-based facilities that interact with satellites. These, cyber attack capabilities are an integral part of China’s counter space capabilities.

Ground Based Satellite Jammers

Since the mid-2000s, China has acquired a number of foreign and indigenous ground based satellite jammers, which are designed to disrupt an adversary’s communications with a satellite by overpowering the signals being sent to or from it. PLA may employ jammers to degrade or deny an adversary’s satellite link during operations.


China’s journey towards becoming a space power has been a constant struggle since its inception. But its rapid success is attributable to political patronage and national vision. From a modest beginning to its current pedestal, China has moved through the most awe-inspiring journey in the domain of space. The Chinese strategic thought envisions that the commanding height of strategic competition would be in space. Chinese believe that as important as it is to possess advanced space based ISR capabilities, it is equally important to deny these capabilities to their opponents in a combat situation. This is of paramount importance for gaining information superiority. Thus, China is developing systems and technologies that can interfere with or disable vital space-based navigation, communication and intelligence satellites of an adversary. Therefore, PLA is moving steadily to meet the essential elements of ‘winning informationised wars’.The strides made by China in its space and counter-space capabilities pose a potential threat to India’s space assets and national security.


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Written by PS Bath is a Senior Fellow with Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), New Delhi and published originally in www.vifindia.org and being reproduced with due permission from Vivekananda International Foundation, Delhi duly acknowledging their copy rights.

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