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Chinese spaceplane
China's Shenlong experimental spaceplane. This vehicle was not mentioned in the Pentagon's annual report on Chinese military power. (credit:

Paper dragon: the Pentagon’s unreliable statements on the Chinese space program

Every year the Pentagon produces a report on Chinese military capabilities called Military Power of the People’s Republic of China. Every year the media covers the release of the report with the same amount of surprise as the sheep that is startled to discover the sun rising in the East each morning—alarmed at data that has appeared for years, or failing to recognize what has actually changed. The Pentagon report is sloppy, inconsistent, and of limited utility, and as an indicator of what China is planning with its military space program, it should be taken with more than a few grains of salt.

The origins of this report on China’s military can be traced back two and a half decades. In the 1980s, every two years the Department of Defense published a glossy book titled Soviet Military Power, or SMP for short. SMP was in many ways a brilliant and fascinating piece of propaganda. Averaging about 160 pages and featuring photographs and full color artist illustrations of Soviet weapons systems, and numerous charts and graphs depicting their numbers, SMP represented an unprecedented release of US intelligence information. It was also one of the first times that commercial satellite imagery was published, showing weapons and facilities that the CIA had obviously imaged in much higher resolution.

The Pentagon report is sloppy, inconsistent, and of limited utility, and as an indicator of what China is planning with its military space program, it should be taken with more than a few grains of salt.

The Reagan administration published SMP to justify its defense buildup. The administration argued that the Soviets were a threat, and SMP provided the proof. But Reagan’s Secretary of Defense and Director of Central Intelligence fought numerous heated battles over what information to include. Naturally the Pentagon wanted as much information as possible in order to demonstrate the power and breadth of Soviet weaponry, whereas the CIA and others in the intelligence community feared giving away the sources and methods used to collect that information. Soviet Military Power was not without its flaws—some of the data was inaccurate or misleading—but it was an effective propaganda instrument and at the time it revealed more information about Soviet military plans and capabilities than independent experts could otherwise obtain. Very little has been written about these battles and the genesis of Soviet Military Power, but an enterprising researcher could produce a fascinating case study of the clash between the goals of intelligence collectors and those of policy makers.

The Soviet Union is long gone, but today every spring the Department of Defense produces Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, which many people have nicknamed “Chinese Military Power” (hereafter referred to as CMP). The Defense Department produces CMP not because Pentagon officials want to buy more ships, planes and tanks to counter the Chinese threat, but because they have to: for many years Congress has mandated an annual report on the Chinese military. Unlike during the Cold War and Reagan’s defense buildup, current American relations with China are more complex and less heated. China is a major trading power, not to mention a major creditor to the US government. The Bush administration has also sought to maintain amicable ties with the Chinese government and has moderated its rhetoric toward China, even while warning of improved Chinese military capabilities. Because of this profoundly different political environment, CMP is significantly different in tone and content than SMP. CMP is not a glossy, high-profile publication like its predecessor and is not produced with much enthusiasm by the Department of Defense. It is not really a propaganda document. But more importantly, it does not benefit from the same high level of information input and attention as Soviet Military Power once did.

Nevertheless, many people in both the press and Washington policy circles tend to treat CMP as a major source of information on the Chinese military, or at least what the United States military believes about the Chinese military. This is particularly true about the Chinese space program despite some obvious flaws in the way that CMP has been produced.

Chinese Military Power unmasked

Locating CMP on the web is a little less straightforward than one would expect. Type the proper title into Google and the top hit is not the most current version. Although the Pentagon has apparently produced the report since 1997, the earliest one I found on the web was from 2000. The 2003–2006 versions are in pdf format on a DoD website. The site itself contains mistakes. The 2002 link actually goes to the 2003 report and the 2002 report is missing. (The 2003 report does not contain a cover page or page numbers, making it very confusing.) The 2003 link erroneously connects to a 2003 Congressional Research Service report on the Chinese space program. More current versions are a little harder to find. The 2007 report is here. Rather bizarrely, the top hit for the location of the 2008 report is a website operated by the US Consulate in Hong Kong—not the Department of Defense itself. The fact that the Department of Defense has treated its own report with less than professional care, making it difficult to locate current and past versions, could be an indication of how important the Pentagon considers this report to be.

But the issue of the website location of current and former versions of the report is actually less important than what has been in the reports. Over the years, CMP has promoted or demoted the threats of various Chinese weapons capabilities without any explanation. It has used dubious sources. And it has entirely missed reporting on actual Chinese space systems in development. A close analysis of one aspect of the report—space and counterspace (i.e. antisatellite weapons, or ASATs)—reveals that it is an unreliable source of information on the Chinese military space program.

The vanishing parasitic ASATs

The most notable and infamous example of problems with CMP concerns what has been perhaps the most provocative charge contained in any of the CMP reports issued by the Pentagon in the past decade, the so-called “parasitic microsatellite” threat. In the 2003 report the Pentagon stated that China had an interest in various ASAT weaponry:

“For example, a Hong Kong newspaper article in January 2001 reported that China had developed and tested an ASAT system described as a ‘parasitic microsatellite.’ This claim is being evaluated. Nonetheless, a number of countries, including China, are developing and proliferating microsatellite (10- to 100-kg mass) and nanosatellite (1- to 10-kg mass) technologies.”

Although the weapon was not explained, the concept was that the Chinese could launch a small satellite into orbit where it would rendezvous with and attach itself to an American satellite, possibly lying in wait until it was needed. It would then blow itself up or otherwise damage its target. It was a nifty idea straight out of a technothriller. It was also a claim too good to check.

This statement was repeated in the 2004 report along with the comment that “This claim is being evaluated.” This ultimately proved too much for Gregory Kulacki and David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who decided to do what the Pentagon had not in three years—attempt to actually evaluate the claim. In a report that they placed online in August 2004, they addressed the January 2001 Hong Kong newspaper story that the Pentagon cited as possible evidence for the existence of a Chinese parasitic microsatellite program. They traced the story to an October 2000 Internet posting in China by a self-described “military enthusiast” who claimed that he had originally developed the idea in the 1990s and suggested it to the Chinese government. The enthusiast provided no evidence that he actually had any training in spacecraft engineering, nor that he had any influence on the Chinese military. The Pentagon also receives these kinds of suggestions from enthusiastic members of the public—usually written in crayon.

In response to the charges, the Pentagon sent out a spokesman named (really) Lieutenant Commander Flex Plexico. Plexico told the Washington Post that “The facts themselves contained within the Pentagon’s report on China’s military power are accurate and based on a number of sources, not just one press report.”

But this “fact” apparently had no other substantiation. Notably, it disappeared from the 2005 and subsequent versions of the report, with no explanation in the report of why this supposed threat vanished.

The disappearing laser ASATs

In 2004 arms control expert Dr. Jeffrey Lewis noted differences between the 2003 and 2004 reports. Lewis wrote: “Last year, DOD claimed that ‘specific Chinese programs for a laser ASAT system have not been identified.’ This year [2004], DOD asserts that ‘China clearly is working on, and plans to field, ASATs’ citing ‘additional press reports and activities at several laser institutes.’ DOD makes no effort to reconcile those statements.” In other words, between 2003 and 2004 the Pentagon determined—without providing proof—that the evidence of Chinese work on laser ASATs was now sufficient to conclude that they actually were developing them.

The enthusiast provided no evidence that he actually had any training in spacecraft engineering, nor that he had any influence on the Chinese military. The Pentagon also receives these kinds of suggestions from enthusiastic members of the public—usually written in crayon.

But if you look in the current version of CMP, laser ASATs are mentioned only briefly, without any supporting evidence. Thus, over the past several years, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China has gone from extensive discussion about Chinese interest in laser ASATs, to the conclusion that they were actually in development, to dramatically downplaying the entire subject.

Now there could be a number of reasons for this. Intelligence reports only represent points in time and they are inherently incomplete and inaccurate. Perhaps the U.S. intelligence community gathered better information indicating that the possibility of Chinese laser ASAT weapons is now less likely than they thought five years ago. Or perhaps the Chinese abandoned laser research that proved too costly or unproductive. Or perhaps the authors of CMP took a closer look at their earlier data and determined that it was unreliable. We do not know. Like the parasitic microsatellite case, the DoD has not bothered to explain why it changed its conclusions.

However, this is important in part because it does not appear as if the American press actually noticed the change. When the 2008 version of CMP was released, several press accounts noted that the report indicated that the Pentagon believes that China is now developing laser ASATs—ignoring the fact that a) such a claim has appeared in numerous previous versions of CMP, and b) the Pentagon statements about Chinese laser ASATs have actually decreased over time.

The intermittent direct ascent ASAT

The 2003 edition contains the statement that “China is believed to be conducting research and development on a direct-ascent ASAT system that could be fielded in the 2005–2010 timeframe.” But like the parasitic microsatellite claim, the report provided no evidence to support this assertion. Furthermore, the Pentagon did not repeat this claim in the 2004, 2005, 2006, or 2007 editions of the report, an apparent indication that they had investigated the subject and determined that there was no evidence to support the 2003 conclusion that China was developing such a weapon.

However… it turns out that this claim was actually true. In January 2007 the Chinese tested a direct-ascent ASAT weapon against one of their own satellites, creating a tremendous amount of debris in low Earth orbit, and a lot of international criticism.

According to several media accounts, the US intelligence community had monitored a number of tests of the Chinese weapon up to a year before the full test. If this was the case, then why was there no mention in the CMP report? One possible explanation is that the intelligence community did not want the Chinese to know about its capability to detect the tests and therefore wanted the information omitted from CMP. But there is currently no way to know this. All we know is that a real Chinese weapons system vanished from the report, and only reappeared after the Chinese actually tested the weapon.

The emerging spaceplane

In the past year there has been another development calling into question the utility of the CMP. In December 2007 a Chinese website posted pictures of a reported unmanned spaceplane carried underneath a Chinese H-6K bomber. The craft appears to be covered with heat resistant tiles on its nose and underside, indicating high-speed flight and reentry. But it is too small to contain any kind of useful payload—or much fuel—and is apparently simply a test vehicle. The name of the craft is reportedly “Shenlong Space Plane,” meaning “Divine Dragon” in Mandarin.

According to several media accounts, the US intelligence community had monitored a number of tests of the Chinese direct ascent ASAT up to a year before the full test. If this was the case, then why was there no mention in the CMP report?

Conservative media sources in the United States have speculated that this could be a hypersonic research vehicle, or even the prototype for a “prompt global strike” weapon intended to attack targets around the world. The United States has long evaluated the possibility of “prompt global strike” without making a decision to actively develop weapons systems that could accomplish it, so it is reasonable that the Chinese may also be studying this concept. But to date the information on the Shenlong is extremely limited and also somewhat confusing.

None of the editions of Military Power of the People’s Republic of China have any mention of a Chinese spaceplane or development program. Either the US intelligence community was unaware of this project, or somebody decided it should not be mentioned in the report. Considering the past sloppiness of the reports, we have no way of knowing if it was deliberately omitted, accidentally overlooked, or not included for some other reason.

Bring the salt

The problems identified above only scratch the surface of the issue. The CMP report covers a broad range of topics including force structure, strategic weapons, naval forces, aviation, and doctrine. Space and counterspace (i.e. ASATs) occupy only a small portion of the document and many subjects are left out. For instance, the report contains very little information on the Chinese human spaceflight program, despite the fact that it is managed by the Peoples’ Liberation Army and the first manned spacecraft, Shenzhou 1, carried a photo-reconnaissance payload. Claims that Shenzhou is a military spacecraft are exaggerated, but considering its cost and propaganda role, it certainly deserves more attention in the report than it currently receives.

Similarly, the report also contains an unsubstantiated and erroneous claim. The 2008 report states that “China’s goal is to have a manned space station and conduct a lunar landing, both by 2020.” This 2020 Chinese lunar landing goal has been repeated in the American and foreign press and has also been stated by NASA officials. The problem is that there is no evidence to support it. Chinese officials have declared that their initial human spaceflight goal is to develop an Earth orbital space station by 2015. But they have also stated that they have no current plans for a human lunar mission and furthermore, that any decision about a future human lunar program will not be made until after they have conducted a successful lunar sample return mission in 2017. If the Pentagon—or NASA, for that matter—has evidence to the contrary indicating that the Chinese are lying, they have not made it public. An attempt by Congress several years ago to get NASA to produce a report on the Chinese space program failed miserably when NASA reportedly only delivered a stack of media reports on Chinese space to Capitol Hill, not an actual assessment based upon non-public sources.

Although we have no way of knowing, it seems highly likely that the US intelligence community produces much better internal reports on these subjects that—one would hope—are carefully reviewed and checked internally.

One of the many unknown facts of Washington politics is that every year Congress requires various government agencies—from the DoD to NASA to the Department of Health and Human Services—to produce reports on various subjects, and every year these agencies ignore a large number of these requests. The reality is that many of these requests are soon forgotten by Congress, or were not urgent or even feasible when they were made. Executive branch agencies produce the reports that they know that Congress really wants, and obviously Congress really wants an annual report on China’s military capabilities. But because Military Power of the People’s Republic of China is not a document that the Pentagon leadership actually wants to produce, and because Congress for years has not demanded any accountability over its production (such as grilling Pentagon brass about the omissions and mistakes in the report), the report has only limited utility.

Although we have no way of knowing, it seems highly likely that the US intelligence community produces much better internal reports on these subjects that—one would hope—are carefully reviewed and checked internally. There is probably a highly classified report on the Shenlong spaceplane somewhere at the CIA, just as there are certainly many highly classified reports on Chinese ASAT capabilities (hopefully only the real ones).

For those of us who do not have access to these materials, and also do not read Chinese or have contacts there, our ability to find out what the Chinese are really doing in space is quite limited. It requires us to search a large number of Western media sources in the quest for information. We could hope that the US government would produce more reliable and accurate information on this subject than the media, but clearly that is not the case.

Ronald Reagan once said in regards to Soviet weapons claims that we should trust but verify. But what do we do when we cannot trust nor verify the claims of a report by our own government?