China’s military space program is getting a boost from a recent reorganization within the People’s Liberation Army.

A Chinese military expert disclosed earlier this month that a Chinese space plane known as the Shenlong will likely be deployed with the newly formed Strategic Support Force, the PLA’s new high-technology warfare unit.

Illustration of China's Shenlong 'Divine Dragon' space plane
Illustration of China’s Shenlong ‘Divine Dragon’ space plane

China announced in late December the launching of a significant reorganization within the PLA that includes the renaming of its missile forces as the Rocket Forces, and creating the Strategic Support Force that is designed for high-technology warfare, including space, cyber and electronic warfare.

A Jan. 8 report in Hong Kong’s Tung Fang Jih Pao quotes official military commentator Song Zhongping as saying the Strategic Support Force will be made up of an Internet Army, an Aerospace Army and Electronic Warfare Troops.

Song went on to say that the new force would be equipped in the future with the Shenlong space plane that is capable of traveling in both space and air. The plane is said to be China’s version of the Pentagon’s experimental X-37B space plane.

The Shenlong – Divine Dragon – employs high speed with maneuverability and radar-evading stealth features. It will be capable of long-range flight.

Space weapons platform

According to Song, the unmanned Shenlong is being developed as space weapons launch platform, as well as for surveillance, intelligence and early-warning missions.

It was the first time an official Chinese military representative linked the Shenlong to China’s growing space warfare capabilities.

Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the US Strategic Command, said last week that China is developing a range of space warfare arms.

“The ability of adversaries to conduct hostile operations in space presents a multifaceted space challenge, and potentially threatens national sovereignty and survival,” Haney said in a speech to the Center for New American Security.

“This is a particular concern to me as the combatant commander responsible for space, to include how critical our space capabilities are to my foundational nuclear deterrent mission, in addition to my other assigned missions,” the four-star admiral said.

Haney said China’s military is equipped with advanced directed energy weapons that can blind satellites, and in September launched a rocket carrying 20 micro-satellites — a record number for China – that could be use for space warfare.

China also conducted the sixth successful test of a new hypersonic strike vehicle capable of traveling up to 10 times the speed of sound.

US X-37B Space Plane
US X-37B Space Plane

The congressional US-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned in its most recent annual report that “China is pursuing a broad and robust array of counter-space capabilities, which includes direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles, co-orbital anti-satellite systems, computer network operations, ground-based satellite jammers and directed energy weapons.”

Military analysts said the disclosure that the PLA plans to use the Shenlong for its Strategic Support Force highlights the buildup of PLA space warfare capabilities.

The PLA also is working on rapid global strike weapons, including hypersonic glide vehicles to deliver nuclear or conventional weapons, anti-satellite missiles and other weapons, and missile defenses.

“This confirms my longstanding assessment that Shenlong was always a military program and that space warfare is a principle mission of the new Strategic Support Force,” Rick Fisher, a China military affairs analyst with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said of Song’s comments on the Shenlong.

The Shenlong has been under development since 2007 and at least one test of the plane, launched beneath the wing of an H-6 bomber, took place five or six years ago.

“One reason China did not perform a full orbital test [of the Shenlong] may have been fear of losing their spacecraft if it landed in another country,” Fisher said.

Fisher believes it is very likely the PLA will launch an operational Shenlong for both civilian and military missions. The plane is a key test bed for China’s plans to develop larger space planes that could be built in the early 2020s.

Capturing enemy satellites

“Space planes are attractive militarily because they are reusable, can be configured to perform passive or active military missions, such as capturing and returning an enemy satellite,” he added.

David M. Finkelstein, a China analyst with Center for Naval Analysis, says China’s government has been vague about the new Strategic Support Force.

However, the force appears to be the center of key high-technology capabilities the PLA needs to wage modern warfare. They include cyber, space, electromagnetic, precision strike and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The force may also include China’s growing special operations warfare forces, and its unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles and electronic counter measures forces.

“These capabilities and units reside at the heart of what the PLA refers to as ‘informationized local wars’ which the PLA’s new military strategy has identified as the type of modern warfare that the Chinese armed forces must be able to prosecute, and which, from an operational perspective, this entire reorganization is meant to facilitate,” Finkelstein wrote in a recent CNA report.

China’s military, widely criticized for its secrecy, has set off alarms in western and Asian governments with its development of space and other high-technology arms and concerns about the weapons likely will persist until Beijing is more open about its new weaponry.

Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books, including iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age (Threshold Editions).

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