The Pentagon released its 2016 China Military Report to Congress on May 16th. To the extent I am focused on the space capabilities section, this is one of the more comprehensive space capabilities sections of the Report I have seen. An short overview and comments follow:
- The Report discusses two new launchers: the Long March (LM)-6 and the LM-11 (page 36).
- The Report discusses the launch of 20 cubesats on a LM-6 on September 19, 2015 (page 36). This has significance to the extent DoD has been studying the use of cubesats and as part of a bill proposed by Rep. Jim Bridenstine called the American Space Renaissance Act seeks to create a Venture Class Launch capability, which is a dedicated cubesat launch system. It appears the PLA is investigating the use of cubesats and may be looking to employ them as ASATs in addition other activities. In essence, cubesats represent a potential dual-use technology (technology that has both a military and civilian application.
- The Report discusses the Beidou global positioning system, in particular the Beidou Phase-One, which resides in geosynchronous orbit. According to the Report, China launched an additional geosynchronous satellite to either augment or replace the current two satellites in GEO that make up Phase-One. See p. 36. This is significant as China is not neglecting the advantages of its Phase-One GEO system while expanding the coverage of its Phase-Two in medium-earth-orbit (MEO) globally. This offers China the advantage of having an accurate GPS system in GEO to cover operations in the Asia-Pacific region should Beidou satellites in sMEO become disabled via a theoretical U.S. ASAT capability or MEO becomes unusable after a Chinese ASAT attack on U.S./Indian/European GPS assets likewise located in MEO.
- The Report discusses in general terms China’s potential ASAT capabilities. (Page 37). It’s encouraging to see the Report discuss this because for several years the Report avoided the term “ASAT” and “antisatellite” in favor of less provocative terms like “information blockade”. Apparently, the relevant personnel decided it was acceptable to include the term “antisatellite” in this Report and in fact looks to be playing catch-up by noting a 2013 ASAT test that was similar in profile to the 2007 kinetic-kill of FY-1C, but which did not actually impact a target. The Report also mentions a test of a missile that had the attributes of an ASAT test that reached 18,641 miles (30,000 km), which is the higher end of medium-earth-orbit where the GPS satellites reside in sun-synchronous orbit. That this particular test reached just shy of GEO suggests China might have the capability to reach assets in GEO, including missile warning satellites (DSP satellites & SBIRS), AEHF comm satellites, NASA’s TDRS (telecommunication data-relay satellites), as well as intelligence-related and civilian communications and weather satellites. Again, it is good to see ASATs discussed openly in the report; however, given the existence of tests was made known to journalists like Bill Gertz, it stands to reason policy-makers deduced discussing ASATs in the report would not provoke China any more than the media reports already made.
- The Report also discusses “dual-use” technologies or technologies that have both a military and civilian use. This is not surprising considering most space faring nations employ technology that can serve a military function or a civilian function (GPS is a good example).
Overall, the Space Capabilities section is better than I have seen in a few years and looks to be willing to publicly discuss potential threats. Bear in mind this is an unclassified report and it would be my hope members of Congress would follow-up on some of the topics discussed here in a classified briefing.