Last month, China launched new experimental military satellites. According to a report by IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly, on September 8, the Chinese military launched a Long March-4B rocket which carried the Yaogan-21 remote sensing satellite and a second experimental satellite known as the Tiantuo-2. The launch was carried out at the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center, a Chinese space and defense launch facility in Shanxi Provice. The Tiantuo-2, which was built by the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), according to Xinhua, is intended for “scientific experiments, natural resource survey, estimation of crop yields, and disaster relief.”
According to Jane’s, analysts believe that the Yaogan satellite constellation will ultimately have applications for oceanic surveillance: “It is speculated that the system will be capable of tracking objects on the earth’s surface using real-time ground-controlled directional alignment of the cameras. An NUDT statement reported that the satellite will be used to test technologies for more advanced video imaging satellites.” The first in the Yaogan series, Yaogan-1, was launched in 2006 and “is believed to have deployed China’s first space-based synthetic aperture radar.”
Recently, a Xinhua report boasted of the Chinese Gaofen-2 satellite’s ability to take high-definition, full-color images of relatively small objects on the earth’s surface. In that report, Xinhua notes that the Gaofen took “clearly visible” images of a pedestrian crossing in downtown Beijing. The Gaofen-2 images have applications in “land use surveillance, mineral resource survey and disaster relief” according to the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense — there is no mention of possible defense and military surveillance applications.
The idea that these satellites could be used for military applications is not far-fetched. Along with its naval modernization program, China is looking to improve its maritime surveillance capabilities for its near seas. While satellites aren’t the most cost effective method for attaining robust surveillance capabilities, they often come with the advantage of dual-use for scientific and research purposes. Western analysts suspect that China would turn to an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy in the event of a broader conflict with the United States, for example. In such circumstances, having sweeping real-time intelligence via satellite would prove invaluable in interdicting surface ships.
For now, Beijing remains insistent that the sole applications of its satellites are in the realm of science and research, and for economic ends. Officials and academics in China have also pointed out that an indigenous satellite program is in the Chinese national interest considering that it will lessen China’s reliance on foreign satellites.