DB - Digital Battlespace

Asian nations boost spy satellite capacities

13th August 2019 - 08:00 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Hong Kong


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Asian countries continue to enhance their satellite constellations, with China, India and South Korea all making recent announcements in the space realm. 

China, for instance, successfully launched three additional Yaogan-30 tactical imaging/ELINT satellites aboard a Long March-2C carrier rocket from its Xichang Satellite Launch Centre on 26 July.

State media euphemistically reported that the high-revisit satellite triplet, the fourth in the series, will be used mainly for ‘electromagnetic detection and related technological tests’.

This particular Yaogan-30 Group 04 launch was the 308th mission for the Long March rocket series and it placed the satellites in an orbit 600km above Earth.

The Yaogan-30 series built by the Chinese Academy of Science operates in threes in relatively close proximity so that they can accurately pinpoint signal emissions. It is believed that the remote-sensing satellites in a 35° orbit can locate military platforms such as aircraft carriers via their electromagnetic transmissions.

The first Yaogan-30 triplet lifted off on 29 September 2017, with successive launches on 24 November and 25 December the same year. Indeed, these three planes of Yaogan-30 triplets give roughly 120° of separation to effect reasonably effective SIGINT coverage. This constellation allows the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to pass over an area 19 times per day in vertical-imaging mode, or 54 times a day in off-vertical SIGINT mode.

The addition of the fourth triplet to the same orbital plane as Group 03 leads to an even 60° spacing between each member to further improve the revisit rate. It is expected that further launches will add to the other two Yaogan-30 planes, creating an eventual constellation of 18 satellites.

As mentioned, China is not the only Asian country to be launching satellites. On 22 May, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launched a radar-imaging Earth observation satellite that can capture military-grade high-resolution images in all weathers by day or night.

The indigenously developed RISAT-2B weighing 615kg was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in southern India into a sun-synchronous polar orbit 556km above Earth. It possesses an X-band synthetic aperture radar, and its imagery will supplement pictures obtained from the ISRO’s Cartosat series of satellites, whose coverage is limited by cloud cover.

RISAT-2B has a five-year lifespan. It replaces the Israeli-built RISAT-2 as well as the Indian-built RISAT-1 launched in 2009 and 2012 respectively.

Meanwhile, South Korea named a consortium of Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and Hanwha Systems, along with Thales Alenia Space providing the SAR payload derived from its HE-R1000 product, as preferred bidder to develop new 425 Project reconnaissance satellites with an expected launch by 2025.

425 Project will see four satellites equipped with an SAR and one for high-resolution EO/IR images. KAI announced the success in a stock exchange filing on 5 December 2018, saying it was worth KRW588 billion ($530 million).

The new consortium replaces a preferred bidder chosen earlier, one that comprised LIG Nex1, Satrec Initiative and Airbus Defence and Space. Negotiations between the Agency for Defense Development (ADD) and the latter grouping had broken down after the bidder had apparently asked to lower 29 of 129 specifications required by the ADD.

South Korea currently relies on three Arirang-series (KOMPSAT-3, -3A and -5) reconnaissance satellites to gather intelligence. LIG Nex1 and Airbus are developing the KOMPSAT-6 SAR satellite, but its launch has been delayed by 13 months till 2020. KOMPSAT-7, an EO/IR satellite, is slated for launch in 2021.

Seoul still relies heavily on American intelligence to monitor North Korea, so it is keen to boost its independent intelligence collection capacity.

Of interest, and returning to the subject of China, the country is renting bandwidth on nine US satellites and is benefiting militarily from them, according to a Wall Street Journal article published in April 2019. For example, Chinese soldiers on military outposts in the South China Sea are using a 4G service, while Chinese police are using them in its efforts to stifle internal unrest.

Although US law prohibits US companies from selling satellites to China, there are no regulations covering how a satellite’s rented bandwidth is being used. One such bridge between China and the US is Hong Kong-based AsiaSat, which has funded nine American satellites so far.

The Wall Street Journal wrote, for example: ‘China’s Ministry of Public Security has described satellites as core to police operations. Its records show the ministry relied on a satellite called AsiaSat 4, manufactured by Boeing, and one called AsiaSat 5, made by SSL, as it worked to build rapid-response forces capable of providing real-time audio and video from the field.’

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