Digital Battlespace

BeiDou constellation reaches fruition to fuel Chinese global ambitions

25th June 2020 - 00:30 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Christchurch

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China launched its final BeiDou (Compass) satellite from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre on the morning of 23 June. This completes the country’s global coverage for its dual-use navigation and timing system.

The satellite was lofted into geostationary orbit by a Long March 3B rocket. The original launch scheduled for 16 June had been delayed because of technical difficulties.

China rolled out BeiDou, a counterpart to the American GPS network, in three phases, with 55 satellites launched to date. The first BDS-1 phase possessed just two geosynchronous satellites (plus spares) and provided a limited active location service within China from 2000 onwards.

BDS-2, sponsored by the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA's) First Department of the former General Staff Department, saw its first satellite launched in April 2011. 

This widened coverage to the broader Asia-Pacific region. BDS-2 emphasised system survivability, division of military and civilian bandwidth usage, laser ranging and integration of micro-electromechanical system technology.

The final BDS-3 phase expanded coverage to encompass the entire world, with the first of these additional satellites launched in 2017. BDS-3 began operating in 2018.

Of the 30-satellite BDS-3 constellation, 24 satellites are in medium-Earth orbit, three in geostationary and three in inclined geosynchronous orbits. The Pentagon’s most recent report on the Chinese military pointed out: ‘The new BeiDou satellites are equipped with radio frequency and laser inter-satellite links, new atomic clocks and other new advanced technologies.’

Yang Changfeng, BeiDou’s chief designer, said: ‘In actual fact, this signifies that we are moving from being a major nation in the field of space to becoming a true space power.’

China is also planning to upgrade BeiDou to make it smarter, more accessible and more integrated by 2035. Today, around 70% of mobile phones registered in China are compatible with BeiDou.

Conceptual image of the BeiDou constellation. (Credit: beidou.gov.cn)

While the network has obvious commercial/civilian functions, and has been marketed to those countries that sign up for Chairman Xi Jinping’s blue-ribbon Belt and Road Initiative, it is even more impotant for the Chinese military.

In fact, it was the PLA that initiated the programme in 1983, and it has been utilising BeiDou in exercises for many years. For example, it improves the CEP of precision strike weapons such as ballistic missiles.

Andrei Chang, editor of Kanwa Asian Defence, noted BeiDou ‘is becoming a key instrument for China to change the balance of military power in the region, accelerate China’s sales of military products, or even to establish quasi-military alliances’.

China claims that more than half the countries in the world have used BeiDou, although its military clients are more difficult to unearth. Certainly, Pakistan is one of them. Thailand uses BeiDou for disaster relief, and military use would be but one step away. China will be keen to divert customers away from GPS to BeiDou, and the ability to now offer global service will be a boon to Chinese arms exports.

The BeiDou system has five main functions: real-time navigation, rapid positioning, precise timing, location reporting and short message communication services. BeiDou will certainly help the PLA immensely as it moves to operate in more far-flung regions of the earth.

A report entitled ‘China’s Space and Counter-space Capabilities and Activities’, prepared for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission and published in March, highlighted military applications of BeiDou.

It stated the PLA Strategic Support Force ‘is responsible for space-based military survey, mapping and navigation operations. Survey, mapping and navigation systems facilitate force movement and logistics, and are used for ballistic and cruise missile targeting and precision-guided munitions'.

The report added that a corps leader-grade base command, probably designated Base 35, is headquartered in Wuhan. It also noted that Tianhui mapping satellites augment the BeiDou system. In fact, the PLA-managed China Tianhui Satellite Centre directs operations and is located in Beijing’s Xibeiwang township.

China’s maiden launch of a new-generation Long March 7A three-stage rocket, which was carrying the Xinjishu Yanzheng-6 satellite, failed on 16 March. This secretive satellite would have been used militarily.

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