Smack dab in the middle of a string of peaceful international summits, China has gone and hosted a major arms exhibition. The annual Airshow China in Zhuhai lasts through November 16, and it's managing to coincide with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation regional summit in Beijing, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Myanmar, and the 2014 G-20 Summit in Australia.
The symbolism of having a major arms show spotlighting China's military technology is not lost on observers — especially since China has already unsettled its neighbors lately with its aggressive diplomatic and military posture.
One new development that is attracting attention in the defense industry trade press is the unveiling of a new Chinese prototype launch vehicle, the Feitian Emergency Satellite Launch System, or FT-1. The launch vehicle is a solid-fuel rocket smaller than but roughly comparable to Europe's Vega and Japan's Epsilon rockets, and capable of deploying a satellite of up to about 650 pounds.
What's attracted the notice of observers is that the rocket itself fits in a tractor trailer and can be launched from just about anywhere. It would be awfully expensive to add that kind of capability just for amusement, so why would China think it needs a road-mobile satellite launch system?
The manufacturer, the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), says that the launcher is a "space emergency response system" intended to quickly replace a downed or nonfunctioning satellite. The ability to drive on the road is supposed to increase launch site flexibility by allowing the launch site and launch vehicle integration — the process of connecting a satellite to a launcher — to be separate.
This makes a certain amount of sense. NASA's gigantic crawler that took the Saturn V rockets and Space Shuttle from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad does the same thing — but it's about a billionth as mobile as a truck. So maybe the Chinese just figured that trucks are better than crawlers, and that truck-sized things are easily moved by trucks.
However, not everyone is convinced. Normally when a country develops a solid-fuel rocket like the FT-1, it's a sign that the country is trying to develop or improve its ICBM force. Solid fuel is the propellant of choice for military systems because it is easier to store and use than the liquid-fuel alternative. Making a road-mobile space launch system would then seem to suggest that China is actually trying to get better road-mobile ICBMs — and choosing an arms show spanning three regional summits to remind its neighbors who's the boss in Asia.
Except the Chinese did that last month when they tested — you guessed it — a road-mobile ICBM, the DF-31B. And so the unveiling of the FT-1 could be a strategic signal of sorts, but it would be like showing off your academic chops by reapplying to the same program you just successfully graduated from.
Road-mobile missiles play an important role in strategic deterrence. They're hard to find and eliminate, and are therefore a way for a country to make its nuclear deterrent less vulnerable to a first strike or counterattack. But the reasoning for using something road-mobile in a space launch is a little less clear. Launch sites are generally big, fixed installations that are vulnerable to attack. But realistically, the only kind of fight in which the vulnerability of space launch sites would be a factor would be a major conflict with another military power that is swatting your satellites out of space.
And even then it wouldn't make much sense. The FT-1's 650-pound maximum payload is small — a weather satellite might be 10 times as heavy — and besides, major launch vehicles are so large that road mobility isn't really an option.
China did demonstrate an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon in 2007, creating a huge plume of space debris deadly to satellites and astronauts — and the launch vehicle for that was even smaller than the FT-1. This has led some to speculate that the real reason China would pursue the FT-1's technology is to have a road-mobile ASAT that could take out enemy satellites without the need for a launch base. This is roughly mirrored by the US decision to down one of its own non-functional satellites shortly after the Chinese ASAT test during Operation Burnt Frost. In Burnt Frost, the ASAT weapon was fired from a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
So, fair enough — a mobile satellite launch system that allows small payloads to be integrated far from the launch site may suggest an anti-satellite system is in the works. But is China really choosing to hint at its ASAT capabilities at the same time it's meeting with fellow spacefaring and strategic rivals America and Japan?
Similar systems in development may hint at the answer. DARPA is pursuing an airborne launch system on behalf of the Defense Department called the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA). In one sense, it's like the FT-1 — a way of transporting a fully loaded launch vehicle and using it to put a small payload into orbit without the need for a big, complex launch facility. This would theoretically offer a number of benefits, including getting ahead of launch site weather conditions and reducing costs. However, like the manufacturer of the FT-1, DARPA isn't mentioning any ASAT applications in its press releases.
This kind of air-launch technology is also being pursued by private companies in the US, one of the better known examples being Virgin Galactic. Richard Branson's team is, in addition to developing SpaceShipTwo for the tourist market, working on a satellite launch vehicle called LauncherOne. Much like DARPA's ALASA, LauncherOne is a system with a launch vehicle that would be carried to altitude by another aircraft and then released, at which point it would fire its motor, fly higher, and place a small payload into space.
Does this mean Branson is trying to develop the kind of ASAT capability that would be important in a high-intensity conflict with a major global and military power, perhaps in order to ransom the world's satellites like a James Bond villain?
No. Because sometimes a rocket is just a rocket.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
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