- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

As China becomes only the third country, after the Soviet Union and the U.S., to put a human in space, it is important to consider the military and strategic implications of such an achievement. And it is a very significant achievement by any measure.

China’s current man in space program began in 1992. Over the next 11 years, the technology was developed and tested, including four unmanned flight tests of the Shenzhou spacecraft. The Shenzhou is similar in design to the Russian Soyuz, which was developed in the 1960s. It is a larger re-design that Beijing claims was done entirely by Chinese engineers, although with considerable technology transfer from Russia.

The re-entry capsule, which looks like the Russian Soyuz capsule, can bring three astronauts back to Earth by parachute, although only one is expected to fly the first manned mission.

The first flight test took place in November 1999 and flew 14 Earth orbits before coming down to a soft landing only eight miles from the planned touchdown spot. All systems reportedly worked as planned. The second flight, in January 2001, carried live animals to test the life-support system and 64 science payloads. No photos were released when Shenzhou 2 landed, suggesting it was not fully successful.

The third and fourth flights in March and December 2002 carried dummy astronauts and more science payloads. Their successful return paved the way for the first manned flight this month, which for Chinese space officials is just the beginning. They hope to launch a second manned flight, with two or three astronauts, within the next six months, and a spacecraft to orbit the moon by 2006. Next would be an unmanned moon landing.

Then there is talk of a Chinese space station (Shenzhou has a docking port), a Chinese man on the moon, and eventually a moon base. This may all sound like a pipe dream, but don’t bet on it. The leadership in Beijing has shown a steely determination to make their country into an economic and military powerhouse, and space power is an important part of the plan.

As China uses its cheap labor to become the world’s manufacturing center, it generates huge amounts of foreign exchange that enable it to finance both military modernization and space adventures. Chinese officials claim the Shenzhou program is “purely for peaceful purposes,” but the orbital module already is being used to gather electronic intelligence (ELINT).

The first manned flight is expected to be in space for only 90 minutes. But after separation, the orbital module — with its own propulsion system for autonomous flight — will stay in space for up to eight months. The orbital modules of Shenzhou 3 and 4 had an ELINT capability that included three antennas aimed at Earth to determine the source of ultra-high frequency emissions, plus other antennas designed to detect and locate radar transmissions. The Soviets used similar transmissions to monitor movements of U.S. Navy ships.

It may be true that China’s astronauts will not engage in military activities, at least initially, but the orbital module they leave behind is loaded with equipment that will autonomously conduct surveillance from space. Data are downloaded electronically when the spacecraft is over China. The Shenzhou 3 and 4 orbital modules were China’s first ELINT satellites. They have enabled Beijing to track U.S. naval movements since March 2002.

Shenzhou 4 must have given Beijing a front row seat during the fighting in Iraq. Shenzhou 5, going up today, has another military payload, a space-based reconnaissance capability consisting of two cameras that provide images with a ground resolution estimated at five feet. This is militarily useful imagery that can be updated on demand.

Beijing’s ability to put satellites with electronic, signals and photo reconnaissance capabilities in orbit on a continuing basis gives it a global reach in intelligence-gathering that puts U.S. forces, especially carrier task forces in the Pacific, at greater risk. In the longer term, China’s ambitious space program, its research in lasers and anti-satellites, and its new ballistic and cruise missiles, could lead to a new global strategic balance.

Some are calling this the “Chinese century.” That remains to be seen, but this country must have a space program, including military space, that is second to none.

James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times who is based in San Diego.

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