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. . .And Races Into Space
The Wall Street Journal Asia

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on January 3rd, 2008

China's military has long harbored ambitions of dominating space, as last year's satellite-targeting exercise showed. Now comes news that Chinese engineers may be much further along than previously thought in achieving one of their major goals: building a military space plane.

On Dec. 11, an anonymous blogger posted a photo of a new Chinese space plane on a Chinese Web site devoted to military issues. The photo -- the first and only of the plane -- shows a small spacecraft with heat shielding similar to that on U.S. and Russian space shuttles. The Chinese characters for "Shenlong," or "Divine Dragon," are stenciled on its side. Over the next four days other Chinese military enthusiasts posted additional photos, virtual computer-design models, physical table-top models, and some project data on blogs and other Web pages. All of these items, taken together, diminish the possibility the Shenlong is a professional or amateur Internet hoax.

There are dangers in relying too much on Internet sources of unofficial Chinese military data, as it is a proven playground for Chinese disinformation practitioners. But China's aspirations for space-plane technology are well known, and if it's genuine, the new photo offers a startling update on Beijing's progress toward that goal.

From the posted material, the Shenlong appears to be an unmanned, liquid-fuel, rocket-powered craft designed to test China's space-plane technologies. On and after Dec. 11, multiple web posters who appear to have some knowledge have reported that it is funded under China's "863 Program," which was created by top scientists in the mid-1980s to accelerate China's military modernization as a response to Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. The space plane's design and testing are reportedly being led by the 611 Institute, which designs combat aircraft for the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation, a government-owned company. According to other Web postings, this program is supported by multiple Chinese, state-run technical universities.

The involvement of fighter aircraft design institutes, plus previous statements of Chinese spacecraft design officials and related military-engineering literature, suggest that China wants its space planes to perform military, even attack, missions. There have been no previous statements about the Shenlong program per se, but researchers have spoken more broadly about what they hope a space plane would accomplish. In May 2002, Chinese Academy of Sciences member Zhuang Fenggan told the Beijing Youth Daily that China's space plane should be able to go in and out of the atmosphere and would serve as a "space combat weapons platform." Mr. Zhuang also noted that among the key technical requirements for a space plane were "high stealth" and "precision strike."

In the September 2005 issue of Contol Technology and Tactical Missile, a journal sponsored by the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, three experts from the Center for Precision Guidance Technology of the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics noted, "The greatest advantage of a space-based ground attack weapon system is its high speed and short re-entry time. It is extremely difficult for the enemy to intercept such a weapon."

A larger unmanned space plane based on the Shenlong could easily be designed to carry out precision ground-attack missions at speeds and at altitudes that would avoid interception. Nor is Shenlong necessarily the only space plane on the drawing board in China at the moment. Some data since 1997 indicate that another ongoing Chinese space plane program may be based on the aborted French Hermes space plane of the early 1980s.

The "space bomber" concept itself is an old idea -- German engineers tossed around the possibility during the Second World War. Over the course of the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union developed nearly a dozen combat space-plane concepts, but none ever made it off the drawing board. China's interest in space planes likely began when Qian Xueshen, an early leader of U.S. missile programs like the one that eventually became the Titan II ICBM, was deported to China in 1955, where he was promptly put in charge of China's missile programs by former premier Mao Zedong.

Mr. Qian's space plane concept of the late 1940s led to the U.S. space shuttle of the 1970s. In the 1990s, the 611 Institute's competitor, the 601 Institute connected to the state-owned Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, designed a small space plane that was never built. Indeed, posting of the Dec. 11 photo may have been a private attempt to honor Mr. Qian, who celebrated his 96th birthday on that day.

The Shenlong photo appears to demonstrate that the Chinese are now much further along in the development process than any of their "competitors." Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reportedly favored the development of a U.S. space combat platform, but this idea was dropped, thanks to opposition from the U.S. Congress and the shifting priorities of the war on terror. The U.S. could reinvigorate the program by basing a new model on the experimental Boeing X-37 small unmanned space plane program. But since that program has limped along for over a decade, such an outcome seems unlikely.

Today the U.S. has no capability to deter China's potential use of military space planes -- as far as can be determined the U.S. does not have weapons packages for the Space Shuttle. Nor does anyone else. Russia recently dropped its small Klipper manned space plane program and the EU's Hermes space plane was abandoned in the early 1990s. At a minimum, Washington should delay the planned 2010 retirement of the Space Shuttle until a new space plane can replace it, as a way to retain a deterring potential military capability. China's unwillingness to comment on its military space plans, coupled with the Shenlong space plane, confirms its larger aversion to military transparency. The U.S. and its allies have little choice but to develop the capabilities to defend their interests and assets in space.

Mr. Fisher is a Senior Fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia.

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