Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

When the Chinese look at the US X-37B, they see the future of space-based attack

Number three in Best Defense's countdown of 2014's most popular articles.


This item, Best Defense’s third most popular of 2014, was originally published on Oct. 23.

By Dean Cheng

Best Defense bureau of Sino-space affairs

The return of the unmanned X-37B space plane last week after nearly two years in space has aroused some curiosity from space observers. It marks the completion of the third mission for the orbital test vehicle (OTV) system, the longest mission, with nearly 22 months of orbital time, and the first reuse of one of the two OTVs. Resembling a miniature space shuttle, the X-37B program has been publicly described by the U.S. Air Force as testing a variety of technologies, including “advanced guidance, navigation, and control; thermal protection systems; avionics; high temperature structures and seals; conformal reusable insulation; lightweight electromechanical flight systems; and autonomous orbital flight, reentry, and landing.”

For the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the maturation of the OTV is seen as part of the inevitable evolution of space systems towards military ends. As the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been modernizing, its approach to warfare has steadily evolved, exploiting lessons derived from foreign wars. Of particular note to Chinese military thinkers has been the steadily advancing importance of space.

Read more on the future of high-tech, space-borne weapons and their consequences for U.S.-China relations: Check out James Acton’s feature story “Target: ?”.

Just as aircraft initially provided reconnaissance and artillery observation, space systems are seen by Chinese military thinkers as a crucial part of modern warfare. From the Chinese perspective, space has played an essential role in fighting and winning “local wars under informationized conditions,” from the first Gulf War through the Balkan conflicts to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Space is essential, because one cannot fight the “non-contact, non-linear, non-symmetric” wars that are the hallmark of the Information Age without incorporating space systems, whether for forecasting meteorological conditions; for positioning, navigation, and timing in weapons guidance and troop movements; or for imaging and identifying enemy formations and undertaking battle damage assessment. Information Age wars, in the Chinese estimation, depend on space systems to gather, transmit, or otherwise exploit information.

But just as reconnaissance aircraft led to fighter planes to shoot down those reconnaissance planes, and there then developed bombers for both battlefield support and strategic bombing campaigns, Chinese thinkers have generally expected an eventual move towards “space-to-ground” operations to complement space information support, space offense, and space defense missions. An article from the Chinese military journal China Military Science in 2003, by a professor at the Chinese National Defense University, talked about the prospect of future space-ground conflict complementing traditional land, sea, and air conflict. The 2005 PLA textbook Military Astronautics notes the inevitability of space-ground operations as part of the development of military space systems. And a 2013 publication of PLA teaching materials similarly discusses space combat as divided into operations against space systems, and space-ground operations.

The Chinese appear to be concerned that the X-37B is the first stage towards developing that space-to-ground attack capability. It is unlikely that the Chinese, with their own robust space development effort, sees the X-37B itself as a space-bomber. The craft itself weighs about 11,000 pounds, while its payload bay is typically compared to that of a van or a pickup truck. Nonetheless, one Chinese article opined that, while the X-37B’s payload was limited, it could nonetheless carry smaller munitions, or even nuclear weapons.

Interestingly, while the craft’s reusability has been mentioned in both American and Chinese discussions, the fact that it is unmanned has not been raised as often. The fact that the craft has remained in orbit for nearly two years, however, and in that time (presumably) conducted a number of activities argues that the most important function of the X-37B program is not as a space-to-ground bomber or even a space interceptor, but as a testbed exploring the possibilities of unmanned space activities. If the X-37B had a sufficiently versatile set of sensors, and sufficient fuel to allow it to change orbital parameters repeatedly, it would combine the flexibility of the SR-71 aircraft (which was not limited to orbital periods) and the persistent nature of an unmanned platform.

via Wikimedia

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1