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Chinese Spaceplane: Chimera Or Object Lesson In Threat Analysis?

Posted by Joan Johnson-Freese on

China unveils a new “stealth” jet, but we don’t know how stealthy it is or when it might fly actual missions. China unveils a new aircraft carrier. Its leaders boast about extending China’s reach, but the carrier doesn’t have any planes and we aren’t sure when they might build them. Monitoring a rapidly developing China, whose language is unknown to most Americans and whose government is obsessed with secrecy, requires a degree of speculation. Perhaps by design, China makes it hard to separate fact from fiction and intent from aspiration.

Estimations of Chinese capabilities and interpretations of Chinese intent based on single-source or dated information will not yield useful analysis. Distinctions must be made between official Chinese policy and the opinions of individual Chinese researchers. This is especially true when discussing China’s space programs. Given the dual-use nature of the overwhelming amount of space technology, as well as the competitive character of U.S.-China relations, technical information can easily be misinterpreted through a prism of assumed ill intent. While the military must consider worst-case scenarios, recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have clearly demonstrated the dangers of basing policy decisions and consequent military strategies on poor technical assessments.

The current U.S. debate over hypersonic space vehicles is a case in point.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) program captured the imagination of the civil and military aerospace communities alike, for the potential of follow-on vehicles to both fly passengers from Tokyo to New York in less than three hours and as a flexible and capable military asset. The program was canceled in the early 1990’s due to both costs and required technologies being far from mature. No one, however, doubted the utility of the winged spaceplane, and research has continued at varying levels of intensity and funding since, in both the United States and other countries, including China.

NASP, or the X-30, evolved from the 1982-85 Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Copper Canyon program. The theoretical premises, however, reached back to work from German aerospace engineer Dr. Eugene Sanger in the 1930’s, and reached into the US Space Shuttle program. After Apollo, NASA originally intended the derivative Shuttle as an evolutionary, completely reusable transportation vehicle to a hoped-for space station, and it ended up as a partially reusable, expensive trucking service to orbit carrying payloads back and forth to orbit only when the space station was put on indefinite hold and costs became politically prohibitive. Reusable space plane technology is difficult and expensive.

The need for close consideration and analysis of spaceplane research largely stems from the perceived military advantages it could afford, although what specifically those advantages would be has yet to be identified. Hence the world has been watching the test flights of the US X-37B test flights very carefully, interested in US “intents” and new capabilities, including whether it can or will be used in some capacity as an ASAT. That interest, however, stems as much from the secrecy of that technology test-bed program as from any real new capabilities analysts have been able to discern.

Similarly, in the 1970s the Soviet Union watched the development of the Space Shuttle. At that time the Carter Administration approach to ASATs was two-track: 1) start an advanced air-launched ASAT program with 2) the clear intention of being willing to bargain it away in arms negotiations. But at the US-Soviet Union ASAT treaty negotiations initiated in 1978, and broke off in 1979 due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it was the Space Shuttle at the top of the Soviet list of concerns, because of its potential ability to pluck assets out of orbit with its robotic arm.

Chinese interest in space planes is long-standing and well documented, but recent claims of a successful test flight require careful scrutiny. Ambitious Chinese engineers working on the early Shenzhou program in the 1980’s wanted to develop a space shuttle instead of a capsule for the human space flight program, but were over-ruled by senior planners who argued, correctly, that the U.S. shuttle would fail to achieve promised reductions in launch costs. Images of the original Chinese space plane prototypes for the human program circulated in the mid-1980s are now appearing in contemporary Chinese sources cited by U.S. analysts in support of assertions that China is currently developing a military space plane. Those Chinese sources, however, are unreliable.

Claims that a Shanxi television station announced a “successful flight test” are poorly documented. The broadcast is not from Shanxi TV but from Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV. Moreover, the Phoenix TV reporter specifically states there was no announcement from Shanxi TV of a successful flight test. The reporter explains these reports are based on a single line at the top of a cardboard poster displayed at what looks to be a public event, and that the speculation the poster is referring to the successful test of a Chinese space plane comes from “interest on the Internet.”

Evaluating Chinese sources is essential to developing reliable U.S. assessments of Chinese progress in key areas of advanced military technology. Analysts and authors owe their readers a full and accurate description of these sources and their contents. This includes essential caveats and background information on the reliability and authoritativeness of the Chinese sources behind any given claim or suggestion. Unfortunately, in this case, the evidence supporting the claim that China successfully tested a space plane came from highly unreliable sources and was presented in an inaccurate manner that obscured this fact.

The unproductive or counterproductive nature of inaccurate or overstated assessment of Chinese spaceplane development falls into two categories: political and force planning.

The dual use nature of space technology, and the reliance on technology in the space environment, inherently creates security dilemma issues for the U.S. and China — a constant ratcheting up of technical capabilities based on feelings of technical vulnerability. Prudence can give way to profligacy, and exacerbate political threat perceptions. Whether there can ever be “enough” technical response then becomes an issue as well, and potentially a very costly one.

In an era of severe fiscal constraint, the U.S. military is faced with difficult force planning choices in accordance with the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, and the Pentagon’s AirSea Battle Concept, much of which relies on transformational technology. Fiscal constraint exacerbates the always-difficult choices of monetary investment for the near, medium and long-term technology development. Having accurate information on which to assess threats is critical in making those prioritizations. That makes careful assessment of Chinese technology development plans even more imperative.

Joan Johnson-Freese, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is an expert on US military space, Chinese space and the PLA. She is a professor at the Naval War College and a lecturer at Harvard University.

Gregory Kulacki is China project manager for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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