The emergence of space as a strategic frontier in the Asia-Pacific has raised concerns that Chinaâ€™s nascent space capabilities could be employed in future military operations. Beijingâ€™s rapid progress in space has been marked by milestones such as manned space flights, anti-satellite (ASAT) missile tests, and a significant increase in its co-orbital satellite activities. The latter involves small satellites that orbit in constellations and is a crucial component of Chinaâ€™s dual-use satellite program and military modernization.
The first (and perhaps most strategically significant) of the co-orbital satellite constellations to form this year was launched in March. Unlike previous electro-optical and radar imagery satellites deployed in the series, the Yaogan-9 launch positioned three satellites orbiting in a highly choreographed triangular formation, suggesting that China had deployed a dedicatedÂ Naval Ocean Surveillance SatelliteÂ system to bolster its burgeoningÂ anti-ship ballistic missileÂ (ASBM) program. Space-based surveillance and cueing capabilities represent an essential (and previously underdeveloped) element of the ASBM program.
The next (and by far the most controversial) co-orbital development came in August, when Chinaâ€™s Shijian-12 (SJ-12) satellite conducted a series of sophisticated maneuvers to rendezvous with a suspectedÂ electronic intelligence (ELINT) satellite, theÂ Shijian-6F. The reported bumping of the SJ-12 and the SJ-6F satellites (and the continuing Chinese silence on the mission) fueled speculations that Beijing was engaged in yet anotherÂ anti-satellite weapons test.
More recently, the September launch of the three-satelliteÂ Yaogan-11Â constellation and the October launch of the two-satellite Shi Jian-6 Group-04 constellation have expanded Chinaâ€™s co-orbital portfolio. According toÂ reports, the Yaogan-11 is a radar imagery satellite, with all-weather, day/night capability, that can play a role in tracking carrier strike groups. Likewise, the Shi Jian-6 Group-04 satellites were reported to be intended for anÂ electronic intelligence role, also perhaps as part of the Chinaâ€™sÂ ASBM program.
Despite the shroud of secrecy surrounding Chinaâ€™s military space missions, the personnel crossover in its satellite development program is a key indicator of intentions. It is known that elements of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporationâ€™s Fifth Academy (China Academy of Space Technology) and Eighth Academy (Shanghai Academy of Space Technology) took theÂ leadÂ in building all four satellite constellations. Furthermore, the director and chief designer of the Yaogan-9 satellites,Â Li YandongÂ [æŽå»¶ä¸œ], was deeply involved in the Shi Jian-06 Group-04 mission, and hasÂ experienceÂ with ocean monitoring satellite programs.
Ultimately, it appears that these co-orbital programs, when viewed in the context of their underlying military missions, haveÂ worrisome security implicationsÂ for both the space and theÂ maritimeÂ segments of the global commons in the coming years.