PLA Expands Network of Military Reconnaissance Satellites

On August 9, China launched the remote sensing satellite Yaogan-10(military designation: Jianbing) into orbit from the Taiyuan SatelliteLaunch Center. Situated in the northwest of Shanxi Province, the siteis a space and defense launch facility reportedly used for testing theChinese military’s intercontinental ballistic missiles and overlandsubmarine-launched ballistic missiles ( This eventmarks the sixth Chinese launch this year via the CZ-4C Chang Zheng-4C(Long March) launch vehicle and follows a surge in satellite launchesthat appear to reflect the Chinese determination to beef up itsreconnaissance satellite network and end its dependence upon foreignsatellite systems. While China’s exact intentions are unknown, giventhe dual use-nature of remote sensing satellites, China is rapidlyimproving its diverse network of space-based Intelligence, Surveillanceand Reconnaissance (ISR) sensors, which can bolster the Chinesemilitary's expanding land, sea and air operations (,August 9; Xinhua News Agency, August 10).

The state-run XinhuaNews Agency reported that Yaogan-10 will conduct “scientificexperiments, carry out land surveys, estimate crop yields and helprespond to natural disasters” (Xinhua News Agency, August 10), yetthere is evidence to suggest that the Yaogan satellite is also amilitary asset, with some models equipped with the synthetic apertureradar (SAR) system designed to observe locations in all weather andlighting conditions.

The Yaogan series is a new fleet ofhigh-resolution optical and radar reconnaissance satellites in China’sgrowing space-based sensor network. With alternating take offs from theTaiyuan and the Jiuquan site, China has been launching this series ofradar and electro-optical spy satellites into orbit since 2006. Thelaunch of Yaogan-9, purportedly for ocean surveillance and targetingfrom the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia, on March 5included three spacecraft (i.e. Yaogan-9A, Yaogan-9B, and Yaogan-9C),which are believed to be naval observation satellites. According toobservers, three such satellites flying in formation in orbit form whatappear akin to a type of Naval Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS)—and maybe used for gathering intelligence derived from ships and aircraft bytheir radar and other electromagnetic radiation.

The developmentof a space-based SAR system has been a priority for the People'sLiberation Army (PLA). Such a system is considered a critical componentto the PLA's effort in achieving information dominance in futurewarfare. According to Andrew Erickson, associate professor at the ChinaMaritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College, "SyntheticAperture Radar [SAR] in particular offers wide coverage at sufficientresolution. Maritime surveillance, prioritized at the national levelunder China's 863 State High-Technology Development Plan, is receivingsignificant funding" (Asia Times, April 22).

"Of particularnote are the five Yaogan satellites that China has launched in the pastfive months. Yaogan-7 and 8 were launched in December. Yaogan-7 isoptical and Yaogan-8 appears to be equipped with SAR," said Erickson."Yaogan 9A, 9B, and 9C, launched in March, share the same orbit,suggesting that they have a special mission to perform" (Asia Times,April 22).

According to the website, theChinese schedule for the rest of the year may include the launch of atleast another remote sensing satellite, the Chinasat-6A communicationssatellite, the ST-1B Shen Tong-1B / ZX-20 (2) ZhongXing-20 (2) militarycommunications satellite and two more Beidou (COMPASS) navigationsatellites (, August 9).

The main contractorsfor the SAR satellite system include China Academy of Science’sInstitute of Electronics, Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology,501 and 504 Institutes of China Academy of Space Technology, NanjingResearch Institute of Electronic Technology, Southwest Institute ofElectronic Equipment and Beijing University of Aeronautics &Astronautics (BUAA).

To be sure, the launch of Yaogan-10foreshadows the coming of age of China’s second-generation SARsatellite system. According to a BUAA report, the development of asecond-generation SAR Satellite program had been listed in China’s 11thFive-Year Development Plan (2006-2010) ( The newsystem is expected to strengthen the PLA’s all-weather-targetingapplications for locating enemy assets in China’s periphery. Thespace-based SAR system can penetrate multiple layers to detect targetson the ground or underground, and in the ocean. In addition, SARsatellites can be used for tracking moving targets (e.g. aircraftcarrier) and military mapping requirements.

Whether the launchof Yaogan-10 represents a leap in China’s space program remains to beseen. At the very least it is a continuation of China’s concerted pushto strengthen its space-based infrastructure. As China’s missileprogram grows in number and sophistication, these developments suggestthat the PLA is rapidly developing an employable capability that willassist it in achieving its operational and strategic objectives.

Posted in , . Bookmark the permalink. RSS feed for this post.

Leave a Reply

Powered by Blogger.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


Swedish Greys - a WordPress theme from Nordic Themepark. Converted by