In January 2019, Shang Zhi, director of the Department of Space at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), announced that China would launch the solid propellant Long March 11 from a sea-based platform in June 2019. On June 5, China met its stated space goal on time when it successfully launched the Long March 11 from a mobile launch platform in the Yellow Sea off east China’s Shandong Province. Among the 306 Long March missions, this latest marked China’s first-ever launch from a flexible sea-based platform, thereby enhancing its capability to launch from a low inclination. More importantly, it maintains the pattern of China meeting its stated space timelines as it steadily moves toward its twin goals of establishing a permanent presence in space by 2036 and becoming the pre-eminent space power by 2045.
To meet its first goal of permanent space presence, reducing launch costs is of priority. Consequently, China is developing abilities like vertical takeoff and landing, as well as reusability. Long Lehao, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a chief designer at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALVT), which builds the Long March rockets, specified what China’s launch goals by 2030: “The capacity of Chinese rockets would reach 140 tonnes for low-Earth orbit, 44 tonnes for Earth-Mars transfer orbit, 50 tonnes for Earth-Moon transfer orbit, and 66 tonnes for geosynchronous transfer orbit in 2030.”
Consequently, the launch of the Long March 11 has direct implications for China’s first goal of permanent space presence, as it incrementally develops its space launch capacities as stated by Long. Some of the long-term strategic implications of the successful June 5 sea launch are as follows.
First, the Long March 11 will bring down launch costs, as launches close to the equator require less energy (fuel) to achieve speed boost to attain orbit.
Second, sea-based mobile launch platforms offer China a portable and flexible launch capability that enables rapid responses, especially in times of conflict. This will provide a boost for the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLA SSF). Such sea-based launches are not tied to the geographic fixation of land launches and connected environmental hazards.
Third, and more specifically, it enables “stealthy launches,” boosting China’s space-based military capability, as it is more difficult to locate a launch platform in the sea than it is to find a fixed launch site on land. Sea-based launch systems would require adversary navies to survey the vast seas constantly, making it difficult to track.
Fourth, the sea-launched Long March 11 could also enhance China’s stealthy anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons capability. Moreover, unlike say the Falcon 9, which depends on liquid oxygen, taking hours to load and months of preparation, the Long March 11 is a solid propellant rocket, and therefore can launch anytime and quickly, with very little advance warning. This solid propellant capability is similar to the DF-21 Medium Range Ballistic Missile and DF-26 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile.
Fifth, it enhances China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well. Right after the launch, China asserted that the Long March 11, which reduces the cost of launch as an ocean-based platform, will significantly boost China’s capacity to launch satellites for countries along the BRI. This is in line with China’s stated goals in its 2016 white paper on space, in which the BRI Space Information Corridor and its BeiDou navigation system are of priority.
The Long March 11 has significantly boosted China’s launch capabilities and added significantly to its military space power projection goals. More importantly, China met another of its stated timelines with this launch, a pattern noticed with the launch of earlier missions like its unmanned Shenzhou 1 (1999) and the Shenzhou 5 manned mission (2003), the Tiangong 1 (2011) and Tiangong 2 (2016), the Tianzhou indigenous cargo spacecraft (2017), and the Chang’e 4 (2018).
The next launch to watch will be the Long March 5 heavy lifter, planned for July this year. The earlier two attempts at launch had failed. The success of the Long March 5 is critical as it is the rocket that will lift the Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission, scheduled for the end of this year. To be launched is also the Long March 5B (22 tonnes), which will be utilized to lift China’s permanent space station by 2022.
Under development is the Long March 9 heavy lifter, designed to lift 140 tonnes to low-Earth orbit (LEO). A successful Long March 9 launch will enable China to meet its goals of deep space exploration, manned missions, as well as construction of a space-based solar power station. Director of the Department of System Engineering at the China National Space Administration Li Guoping specified that China aims to launch the Long March 9 by 2028.
China also aims to launch its first reusable rocket, the Long March 8, by 2021. The Long March 8 will be equipped with two stages and two boosters, and the first stage and boosters will be retrieved by vertical landing. The aim is to develop “two stage” reusability by 2030 and complete reusability by 2035. Completely reusable rockets will be a game changer, enabling low cost launches. Space X’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, which are both “first stage” reusable, have established that pattern of cutting costs.
Given China’s history of successfully meeting important announced space timelines, to include the Long March 11 launch, we need to watch carefully China’s future stated space goal timelines. This year, alone, China has planned for 30 launches, bolstering President Xi Jinping’s dream to establish a Chinese-led space order by 2045.
Dr. Namrata Goswami is a senior analyst and author. Her work on “Outer Space and Great Powers” was supported by the MINERVA Initiative Grant for Social Science Research. Currently, she is working on a book on “Great Powers and Resource Nationalism in Space” to be published by Lexington Press, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield. All views expressed here are her own.