With the U.S. and Australia declaring the initial operational capability for their Space Surveillance Telescope, China is finding itself lagging far behind in having reliable global partners to set up its ground-based satellite surveillance network.
According to a report in the South China Morning Post, the successful relocation of the U.S. surveillance telescope from its U.S. base to Australia demonstrates the strong network of partners Washington has in the Asia-Pacific region. Beijing, on the other hand, is forced to depend on less stable partnerships with nations in Latin America, Africa and the Pacific region by offering them economic incentives in return for their cooperation.
Developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Space Surveillance Telescope of the U.S. is part of the group of satellites and ground-based radars and telescopes that make up the Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network, and is used to locate and track thousands of objects, including debris and active satellites.
Given its coverage gaps, the U.S. Department of Defense in a 2013 agreement with Australia decided to move the telescope to the Southern Hemisphere. Although the U.S. continues to own the surveillance telescope, the agreement provides for the Royal Australian Air Force and the Space Force’s 21st Space Wing to jointly operate it with Australia responsible for its operators, training, facilities and infrastructure.
The SCMP report points out that the capability of the U.S. Space Surveillance Telescope to image objects in geosynchronous orbit, approximately 22,000 miles above the earth, is significant because it is also an orbit in which the Chinese satellites in the Fenghua, Shentong and Tongxin Jishu Shiyan series operate.
Given that little is known about the mission of these Chinese satellites, it is widely believed that they may have military use. China, meanwhile, lacks the global network of bases and facilities that the U.S. has access to.
Although China and Russia have agreed to build satellite ground stations on each other’s soil, Beijing’s efforts to cover the Southern Hemisphere with ground stations and telescopes located in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Namibia and Venezuela have faced dual-use concerns — that these stations may be used for military purposes also — an allegation that China has denied. Like in satellites, the technology in ground stations can be used for both civilian and military purposes, making them hard to regulate.
Despite Beijing’s claim that its space technology is meant for peaceful purposes, the far-reaching influence of the Chinese military in the space program makes the space industry closely aligned with the country’s overall national strategy.
Meanwhile, China is also seeking to build its ground stations under the Spatial Information Corridor as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Although Beijing does not mention the use of these stations for military purposes, there have been concerns raised about China’s intentions.
While China may face challenges in establishing ground stations, it may well make up with an array of space tracking and surveillance ships that can perform many of the same tracking and command functions as ground stations but with the added benefit of mobility.
Apart from tracking satellites, the need for space surveillance is rising given that the U.S. Russia and China are all developing hypersonic weapons technology that uses glide vehicles when launched into space on a rocket, orbit the earth on lower trajectories and can maneuver in flight, making it hard to track and destroy.
Russia had in November 2021 conducted an anti-satellite weapon test in which it successfully destroyed a defunct Soviet-era satellite, creating more than 1,500 pieces of space debris. Earlier in August 2021, China carried out a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile test that circled the globe before speeding toward its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise.
China had earlier this month rejected a U.S. proposal to ban anti-satellite missile tests, saying it “conceals evil intention” and aims to “weaken others.” Meanwhile, the U.S. is also pursuing its own hypersonic weapon programs like the ARRW and the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile.