Thursday, July 14, 2011
Gee, Why Waste Money in Space?
China’s rapidly expanding satellite programme could alter power dynamics in Asia and reduce the US military’s scope for operations in the region, according to new research.
Chinese reconnaissance satellites can now monitor targets for up to six hours a day, the World Security Institute, a Washington think-tank, has concluded in a new report. The People’s Liberation Army, which could only manage three hours of daily coverage just 18 months ago, is now nearly on a par with the US military in its ability to monitor fixed targets, according to the findings.
“Starting from almost no live surveillance capability 10 years ago, today the PLA has likely equalled the US’s ability to observe targets from space for some real-time operations,” two of the institute’s China researchers, Eric Hagt and Matthew Durnin, write in the Journal of Strategic Studies.
China’s rapidly growing military might has unnerved its neighbours, many of whom are US allies, while a series of disputes this year with Vietnam and the Philippines have added to the concerns.
China’s military build-up has accelerated in recent years, as it has developed an anti-ship ballistic missile, tested a stealth fighter and is poised to launch its first aircraft carrier. The fast-growing network of reconnaissance satellites provides China with the vision to harness this hardware.
Admiral Mike Mullen, America’s top military official, said at the weekend in Beijing that it was clear that the PLA is focused on “access denial” – a term that describes a strategy of pushing the US out of the western Pacific.
“The US is not going away,” Adm Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said. “Our enduring presence in this region has been important to our allies for decades and will continue to be so.”
China warned the US last month not to become involved in its dispute with Vietnam over the South China Sea. “[China’s] strategic priority is to keep the US out of its backyard,” Mr Durnin told the Financial Times, adding that the satellite technology needed for achieving that goal is now in place.
When China tested missiles near Taiwan in 1996, the US deployed two aircraft carriers to nearby waters. The PLA’s inability to locate the ships was a source of great embarrassment that helped spur China’s satellite programme.
“The United States has always felt that if there was a crisis in Taiwan, we could get our naval forces there before China could act and before they would know we were there. This basically takes that off the table,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island.
China cut-off military relations with the US early last year, after Washington announced an arms sale to Taiwan. The two militaries have been working to repair ties this year, with PLA Chief of the General Staff Chen Bingde visiting Washington in May and Adm Mullen in China until July 13.