Project 921: China's Quest to Conquer Space

The steppe grasslands of the People’s Republic of China’s Inner Mongolian autonomous region have borne witness to some momentous events in China’s space programme over the last two years. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) space recovery crews have blanketed the region in secrecy in anticipation of the arrival of two most special ‘sacred vessels’ from the heavens. On 17 October, amidst rampant speculation and tight-lipped silence of the state-run Xinhua news agency, the Siziwang banner region was once again a flurry of activity. PLA forces were sealing off vast expanses of steppe, distributing warning leaflets to hapless nomads ordering them to keep well away from the landing zone for Shenzhou-6, China’s second manned space mission in as many years.

Almost exactly two years before, Chinese ‘taikonaut’ PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Lt. Col. Yang Liwei was immortalized in the annals of Chinese history as the first Chinese citizen to successfully complete a manned space mission. As Yang orbited around the earth for twenty-one hours, he must have relished what was probably to be his one and only trip in space and must have carefully considered his role in the coming months as one of the most powerful national prestige symbols for China. In almost Gagarin-esque fashion, Yang had hardly any time to accustom himself to earth’s gravity before he was swept away by the recovery crew ready to meet members of the Chinese politburo and to prepare himself for his national and world tour, strutting China’s stuff for international onlookers. However, the Chinese space programme, or Project 921 as it is fondly known to the PLA, has far more significant implications beyond simply propaganda value and national prestige for the People’s Republic, and has long-reaching consequences for the global space industry and international security.

Chinese PLAAF taikonauts, Commander Fei Junlong and Flight Engineer Nie Haishen blasted off on 12 October from China’s Jiuquan satellite launch centre on Inner Mongolia’s border with Gansu province at 9am local time atop their Long March CZ-2F rocket. The launch was broadcast live across China and was briefly witnessed in loco by a throng of specially selected PLA officers, soldiers and senior Communist party officials before it disappeared into low cloud cover. Foreign correspondents were barred from the launch. Only five hours beforehand, when the taikonauts identities had finally been revealed, Commander Fei stated in a pre-launch press briefing: ‘We have confidence and capability to fulfil the glorious task of the motherland and the people.’ Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao wished the pair a safe mission confident that they would ‘accomplish the glorious and sacred mission’.

China’s first two-man space mission and the 88th launch of the Long March series of rocket boosters, Shenzhou-6, orbited the earth for five days and achieved some significant steps forward for the Chinese space programme. Unlike Yang Liwei who never left his seat, let alone his space suit during the flight of Shenzhou-5, one of Fei and Nie’s tasks were to remove their space suits and to move around freely between their command module and the adjoining orbital module. The ability for freedom of movement within the spacecraft is a precursor to planned docking procedures to be accomplished by the Shenzhou programme with a view to the eventual construction of a manned space station by 2010. Amongst tightly controlled media coverage of the event, the Xinhua news agency announced that the pair would conduct a series of ‘scientific experiments’.

There were three significant developments during the Shenzhou-6 flight with potential military applications. First, the spacecraft was able to successfully complete orbital manoeuvres: this might have counter-interception implications for US Ballistic Missile Defence. Second, the Shenzhou capsule landed within 1km of its intended target, a significant improvement on the 4.8km accuracy of the 2003 Shenzhou flight. Third, during the launch Shenzhou-6 successfully transmitted interference-free voice and video streams in real time – a fundamental requirement for real-time intelligence.

The Shenzhou-6 is based partly on the Russian Soyuz design, with three component parts: the orbital module, the crew compartment and the service module containing the life-support and propulsion systems. While the larger Shenzhou kernel of the spacecraft is heavily reliant on Russian design, the guts of the Shenzhou boast some impressive technological advances. Apart from the creature comforts of a food heater, space toilet and sleeping bags, the computer systems on board were state of the art and linked up to an in-flight data recorder which, at only half the size of its predecessor on board Shenzhou-5, was ten times faster in processing capability and contained about one gigabyte of storage capacity.

On the fourth day of their flight, the taikonauts received an important long distance telephone call from Chinese President Hu Jintao himself from the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Centre who called to tell them that the motherland was proud and that he hoped that ‘you will successfully complete your task by carrying out the mission calmly and carefully and have a triumphant return.’ Hu also addressed mission scientists and flight controllers there, encouraging them to return Fei and Nie safely back to Earth. On day five the Shenzhou-6 initiated its re-entry procedure under the command of the ground control, and at 03:18 Beijing time on Monday 17 October the re-entry capsule separated from the orbital and service modules. At 04:33 local time the re-entry capsule touched down in the landing site located in Inner Mongolia.

Project 921, like all current Chinese military projects shares three significant characteristics: first, it is cloaked in secrecy; second, its stated aims appear to be rather opaque; and third, it aims to play catch-up in some very ambitious and far reaching planned phases.

Very little was given away as to the nature of the experiments that the taikonauts were performing during their five days in space. It has been suggested that the crew tested and installed some high-tech surveillance equipment in the orbital module, perhaps using a high definition CCD camera for ground reconnaissance with a resolution of 1.6 metres, which could explain why the public were banned from being anywhere near the landing site when the Shenzhou capsule disgorged its contents on the Inner Mongolian steppe. Notably, unlike the Soyuz vehicles, the orbital module remains in space after detachment from the crew re-entry module, which might suggest that the PLA has left some ‘stay behind’ sensor technology orbiting around the earth for the foreseeable future, as with Shenzhou-5.

Perhaps Wu Bangguo, Chairman of China’s National People’s Congress, who watched the return of Shenzhou-6 from the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center has given observers the best clue to the greater aspirations of project 921: ‘It is of great significance in elevating China’s prestige in the world and promoting China’s economic, scientific and national defence capabilities, and its national cohesiveness’, Wu was quoted as saying.

Despite the potential advances made by the Shenzhou programme in Chinese ballistic missile technology it is also important to concentrate on the significance of future Chinese space lift capabilities, not just in the commercial field but in the military arena. For some time now, the PLA has understood that to reach parity in capabilities with ‘major military powers in the region’ it has had to pursue leapfrog technologies in planned phases. Increasingly focused on gaining superiority over a network-reliant modern enemy in the mid-90s, and having observed US and allied military campaigns more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, the PLA knows it must reach for the stars.

To this extent, the end of the last phase of project 921 is designed to mark the birth of what PLA strategists have dubbed their ‘space force’ or tianjun. This should not conjure up scenarios of space soldiers battling it out in outer space with laser guns, rather the concept of critical combat infrastructure, both logical and physical, residing within the space domain. Like its air, land and sea components of the PLA, the Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC) plans by 2020 to put in place an overarching space command perhaps to be known to Western observers as the PLA Space Force (PLASF). The PLASF will be placed above and in control of any components of the current PLA that require C4ISR as their backbone and will bring China’s strategic ballistic missile forces, the PLA Second Artillery, C4ISR and navigational satellite constellations under one networked umbrella. The PLA’s Space Force will be a direct reaction to the revolution in military affairs (RMA) in the last two decades which precipitated Deng Xiaoping to guide the PLA towards reform in the late eighties. Lending urgency to the PLA’s task is Washington’s solid conviction in its National Missile Defence programme and its surrogate Ballistic Missile Defence programmes currently deployed in the Asia Pacific region by the ‘littoral states’ allies of the US. The latest Washington proposals have recommended a reversal of Clinton’s policy of avoiding taking an arms race to space: the Department of Defense is arguing that if the US is to rely on Bush’s Ballistic Missile Defence programme then they must be able to defend their current and future infrastructure in the space domain. This would imply that the Pentagon has well advanced plans for deploying offensive capabilities in space.

Leading analysts of the murky world of Chinese ‘magic weapons’ and assassin’s mace shashoujian systems are growing suspicious that the PLASF will aim to counter its perceived enemies with weaponry such as anti-satellite (ASAT) and directed energy systems, micro-satellite configurations and jamming weaponry. Worrisome too is the potential to detonate nuclear devices in space, releasing an electro-magnetic pulse which could cripple space assets in the targeted vicinity.

Intriguingly, these moves come at a time when both Russia and China have made international calls to restrain those who are attempting to take warfare into the space domain. A Sino-Russian United Nations working paper, proposed in May 2002, called for a ban on weapons in orbit and on any use of force against outer space objects. This could be a traditional case of biantan bianda, or ‘attacking while negotiating’, and much in the same way as Russia and China united to launch war games of an unprecedented scale in the Yellow Sea in September, joint calls by Russia and China to mitigate an arms race in space may well be part of the same formula. China knows that if it is to face off against the United States in the Taiwan straits, gaining domination over US C4ISR by damaging its space assets would critically wound US forces, rendering them deaf, dumb and blind.

Dr Zhang Yanting of Taiwan’s National Defence University’s Strategic Studies College has painted a clearer picture of how he sees the Space force’s role: ‘Whoever gains space will have secured the commanding height over the globe, whoever secures this commanding height will be able to win the initiative in war’.

If the PLA is pitching its future battles in space, how likely is it to achieve domination? The obvious answer is to vastly increase its space lift capability both in the commercial and military spheres in conjunction to secretly developing asymmetric space warfare weapons systems of a type that last saw the light during the Reagan star-wars years. In November 2000, China’s State Council issued a White Paper entitled ‘China’s space activities’ announcing that it would establish an independently operated space-based network for earth observation, broadcasting, telecommunications, navigation, positioning and remote sensing by 2010. All one needs to do is add the word ‘military’ to this statement, and the picture begins to form. China has already made significant progress in enhancing its ballistic missile targeting capabilities by buying into the European Galileo project and by collaborating with Brazil and Russia. The PLA now stands to develop a much more accurate GPS system than that of the US and will integrate its three existing Beidou navigational satellites into a much more powerful system, all under the auspices of economic collaboration with other space powers.

China’s latest plans for satellite launches are impressive indeed and come at a time when the ailing US space shuttle programme is reaching the end of its viable lifespan and after the latest launch was once again dogged by unforeseen problems, grounding the shuttle programme for over a year. Europe’s reaction too was best summed up in its congratulatory message by astronaut Frank de Winne, who wished the Chinese crew a safe journey but took the opportunity to point out the fact that the European Space Agency has yet to create its own independent manned spacecraft.

The Chinese Long March rocket family which has shot the recent Shenzhou missions into orbit boasts payload capacities of up to 12 tonnes for low Earth orbit insertions and about 5.2 tons into geosynchronous transfer orbits. New moves are afoot, however, to add a fourth space launch centre in Southernmost China near the city of Wenchang on the island of Hainan, which would significantly augment China’s launch capability. This could eventually place Wenchang in competition with the likes of Cape Canaveral or the Ariane launch centre in French Guiana. China is currently developing an entirely new and a much more powerful rocket booster, the Long March CZ-5, similar in lift capability to the European Ariane-5 booster, the Russian Proton-M and the US Titan 3/4. This rocket will be used to launch much larger satellites into orbits and, apart from transforming China into a major competitor in the commercial launch market, will eventually support the fourth phase of Project 921 aimed at establishing a manned long-term space station. In June this year a preliminary report was submitted by provincial authorities for the establishment of a satellite launch centre near Wenchang on Hainan Island. This location would be ideally suited since it is much closer to the equator than China’s other space launch centres and would result in cheaper launch costs in placing satellites in geosynchronous orbits. The Hainan launch facility could become fully operational in the first half of 2007 in time for the first tests of the Long March CZ-5. Hainan Island is an important strategic location for the PLA; it is within close proximity to major sea lanes of control and provides a staging post for operations in the South China Sea. Transport costs for rocket parts will be reduced due to sea access via Hainan’s ports and there are inherent safety benefits of launching over the sea.

Shenzhou-6 has demonstrated China’s prowess in space capabilities in a truly remarkable feat of engineering. China has also proved that it has been able to achieve these landmarks independently, on schedule and with relatively few glitches at an extraordinary pace of development. When considered in the context of commercial opportunities and in the interests of mankind in the fields of space exploration, science and technology, China is to be lauded for its achievements. However, many facets of the Chinese space programme and its military objectives still remain obscure, and China’s quest to conquer space should probably be considered somewhat literally.

Alexander Neill
Head, Asia Security Programme, RUSI

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