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The Year of the Tiger: China’s Spy Satellite Surge in 2010

Image: Notional Chinese Co-orbital Satellites. Source: Wired

From late 2009 to late 2010, as attention on East Asia was consumed by high tensions on the Korean Peninsula and at the edges of the East China Sea, China’s powerful military space establishment quietly deployed a record number of spy satellites into lower earth orbit.

These included the launching of seven classified Yaogan series satellites for collecting military intelligence. Two of these satellites, the Yaogan 7 and the Yaogan 11, are believed to be electro-optical (EO) imaging satellites, capable of electronically capturing high resolution digital images of the earth and transmitting them in near real-time to ground stations via China’s Tianlian satellite data relay network. These satellites evolved from the older generation photo reconnaissance satellites that periodically returned film canisters to earth for processing. While EO satellites greatly improved monitoring capabilities, they are also limited by their reliance on the visible and near infrared spectrum, which means that their transmissions can be considerably reduced – sometimes altogether – by cloud cover, weather events such as sand storms, and the dark of night.

For this reason China also launched two synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites, the Yaogan 8 and the Yaogan 10, which bounce active radar signals off the earth’s surface to paint images of objects and plot terrain. Unlike EO satellites, SAR satellites can operate through cloud cover, the dark of night, and can even image a short distance underground and underwater. However, the trade-off is that they tend to produce images of lower resolution. Supporting the imaging satellite network are constellations of small electronic reconnaissance satellites that orbit together in carefully choreographed formations.

China made a key breakthrough in 2010 with the launch of the three-satellite Yaogan 9 constellation, reported to be a Naval Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS), capable of using time difference of arrival techniques to triangulate and target radar emitting carrier strike groups and other warships of interest with long-range missiles. These satellites appear particularly well-placed to fill a gap in China’s “carrier killer” anti-ship missile programs, which include both ballistic and cruise missiles designed to evade (or destroy) the air defenses surrounding U.S. aircraft carriers.

Chinese sources indicate that operational tests have been successfully conducted to link these spy satellites to anti-ship missiles for targeting mobile targets on land and at sea. Falling within the range of these missiles are assets belonging to the United States as well as allied and friendly nations in the Western Pacific. China’s surging military satellite deployments has created the ability to monitor contentious territorial claims, and potentially enforce them vis-à-vis coercive missile diplomacy. With Chinese satellite launches set upon an upward trajectory in the next two years, countries around the world may be hard pressed to hide from China’s unblinking digital eyes in space.