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Closing the Tech Gap: China’s Spaceplane

by John Reed on May 14, 2012

That’s right, the rumors appear to be true. Beijing is joining the United States as the only nations with reusable spaceplane designs that are actually conducting test flights. Beijing reportedly sent its Divine Dragon — or Shenlong — space plane aloft for a successful atmospheric test flight in January, 2011.

The U.S. uses its two X-37B spaceplanes for incredibly long missions doing super classified work in place, one can only guess that China’s Divine Dragon will be used for similar purposes.

Now, what’s the real news in this year and a half old story? Well, according to DT’s go-to China expert Andrew Erickson, its the speed at which China is closing the gap between the fielding of advanced technology compared to the U.S. Remember when then-defense secretary Robert Gates last year dismissed China’s new J-20 stealth fighter by saying that the PLA is about 20 years behind the Pentagon in terms of technology? The launch of the Divine Dragon less than a after the X-37B made its first space flight may be an indicator that China is closing that double decade technology gap, according to Erickson. (Notice how the Divine Dragon shown above looks remarkably similar to the X-37B? I would bet that plenty of useful info on the American program ended up in China as a result of cyber attacks — a key enabler to China’s ability to close the tech gap quickly.)

Here’s an excerpt from one of his latest analysis pieces on China’s military rise, titled Shenlong ‘Divine Dragon’ Takes Flight: Is China developing its first spaceplane?

Beijing may be entering the spaceplane era faster than many would have predicted. A similarly-militarily-relevant system appears to be emerging with the development of China’s own vehicle. Multiple Chinese-language media outlets state that on 8 January 2011, China completed a test flight of the Shenlong (神龙/Divine Dragon) spaceplane.

The test flight announcement from a Sha’anxi TV station came within a month of the U.S. X-37B orbital vehicle’s return to earth after its first test flight and come almost simultaneously with China’s test flight of its J-20 fighter prototype. This reflects China’s growing technical proficiency in the aerospace sector. It hints at China’s pursuit of space systems that can potentially switch quickly between civilian and military missions.

Shenlong’s test also reflects a shrinking time gap between when the U.S. first reveals a prototype military system and when China publicly shows a system comparable in type (if not equivalent in capabilities or immediately operational). For previous aerospace developments, China typically revealed its systems’ existence at least 15 years after the U.S. first showed its analogous platforms (Exhibit 1).

The immediate implication is that in some areas of space operations, China may be attempting to emulate the U.S. and develop advanced capabilities that could give it strategic advantages; as well as to reveal selected development efforts in order to further patriotism at home and deterrence abroad. Given the high U.S. reliance on space-based C4ISR capabilities, Chinese space platform developments such as Shenlong warrant close attention.

Exhibit 1: Gap in years between first unveiling of select U.S. and Chinese weapons systems

Now, what are the strategic implications of China fielding its own spaceplanes? Here’s what Erickson has to say.

At a minimum, Shenlong appears to be a technological development/validation program. A successful Chinese spaceplane program would have two key strategic implications. First, on the broad level, it would signify that the Chinese space program has come one step closer to being able to build a Space Shuttle-type capability. On a related note, further test flights, particularly if they involve X-37B-style maneuvering by a larger derivative of Shenlong, would also strongly suggest that China’s command and control system for space assets has become much more capable, with commensurate implications for both military and civil space operations. Which service would control Shenlong remains uncertain, as GAD, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and even the Second Artillery contend for control of operational space assets—and some Chinese thinkers argue for the formation of a separate Space Force (天军). Not surprisingly, as Kevin Pollpeter informs us, PLAAF-connected writers are already citing spaceplane development as yet another reason why their service should handle space operations.

Second, spaceplanes confer a number of capabilities that conventional launchers cannot offer. First of all, they are reusable and their payloads can be changed between missions. These features offer versatility and may even offer some cost savings, especially for reconnaissance missions. Rocket boosters for putting a spaceplane in orbit might cost ~US$150–200 million.

Spaceplane costs also include the spaceplane itself (with robust structure and shielding), extensive post-flight refurbishment, integration costs, possible manpower costs for flying the spaceplane, payload costs, and recovery costs. Launching a relatively small satellite with a spaceplane as opposed to on a single-use rocket may not realize large costs savings, but it is an option that Chinese planners would likely want to have available eventually.

Larger future iterations of Shenlong could materially enhance China’s space-based C4ISR capabilities through both on-board sensor systems and the ability to deploy microsatellites and other sensor systems that boost space situational awareness. Spaceplanes can also rapidly change orbits to hinder tracking, survey different areas, or potentially avoid an opponent’s anti-satellite (ASAT) systems. During its maiden flight, the X-37B was said to have changed orbits, confounding amateur spotters for several days until one located the craft in its new orbital path.

Finally, a spaceplane’s ground-based status could allow it to sidestep international agreements restricting the deployment of weapons in space and add to its appeal as a potential ASAT platform. Many Chinese writers see the X-37 program as evidence of American determination to develop anti-satellite (ASAT) capability and engage in a space arms race. At the same time, according to Stokes and Cheng, “China’s counterspace program appears to parallel interest in countermeasures [e.g., kinetic kill vehicles, as demonstrated in China’s 11 January 2007 ASAT test and 11 January 2010 missile defense test] against advanced U.S. long-range precision strike capabilities that would transit space, and are expected to be in place by 2025,” which might include the FALCON HTV, the X-37B, and the X-51A.

Read the full report over at China Sign Post.




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