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New Satellites Build Out China's Reconnaissance Strike Network

Last week, China launched another surveillance satellite, the Yaogan Weixing-10, the third of its kind and the sixth Chinese satellite launch this year. Chinese media says the satellite is intended for scientific experiments and crop surveys. According to this story, the three Yaogan Weixing-10 synthetic aperture radar and high resolution optical equipped satellites are flying in a formation akin to a maritime surveillance system.

The Chinese launch schedule for the rest of the year includes another remote sensing bird, at least two more military communications satellites and two more Beidou navigation satellites. The Beidou, or Compass, constellation is the Chinese counterpart to our own GPS constellation, the Russian Glonass navigation satellites and the European Galileo system; China plans to have 35 Beidou satellites in orbit by 2020.

Building out its space based surveillance and navigation is a key component of China’s military modernization, part of its push to better integrate its sensors and its many shooters. China’s ocean surveillance satellites, the Yaogan, form an important part of its burgeoning reconnaissance strike network and anti-access strategy.

China’s approach to attacking a U.S. carrier battle group, or other capital ships, in the Western Pacific is probably similar to that developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The most likely Soviet approach would have been a combined over-under attack with anti-ship missile carrying T-22M Backfire bombers and Oscar II attack submarines. Ocean surveillance satellites would provide the initial bearing and distance to the bombers and subs, and then active-radar on the missiles would handle the rest. If China is able to successfully develop the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, it would obviously form a key component of the over-under approach.

As for the command and control part of China’s reconnaissance strike network, China is moving to a more distributed network to try and eliminate any single points of failure, said Andrew Erickson, of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College, at a recent conference I attended. The Chinese are investing heavily in “informatization” warfare, a concept that combines our own notions of networked, network-centric, cyber warfare and space.

Erickson said Chinese development of the Compass network could be a potential “game changer.” Although, some of the major challenges the Chinese face will be more organizational than technical. While the Chinese pay lip service to decentralization of command and control, the trend is actually towards greater centralization, he said.

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