The China news agency Xinhua reported on July 27, 2011 that a Long March-3A carrier rocket launched the next satellite in the Beidou global navigation constellation from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China’s Sichuan Province. The launch is the second this year of a satellite for the system and is part of China’s plan to deploy more than thirty satellites, which will provide global navigation much to the extent that the dominant GPS system controlled by the United States provides. There are currently eight Beidou satellites deployed, with Wednesday’s launch adding the ninth. The satellites will provide commercial global positioning for civilian use as well as an enhanced signal for military use, both of which could provide China with a dominant strategic advantage in the Asia-Pacific region.
The seeds of China’s global navigation project were planted in 1983 after a proposal was made by Chen Fangyun to develop a regional navigation system using two satellites in geosynchronous orbit in contrast to the system utilized by the United States’ GPS. In 1989, using two in-orbit DFH-2/2A communications satellites, the two-satellite concept was proven comparable to the United States’ GPS in terms of precision. The Beidou-1 program was approved in 1993 after this successful demonstration using the DFH-3 satellite as the platform, and the first two indigenous Beidou experimental navigation satellites were launched in 2000. The final Beidou-1 constellation consists of four geosynchronous satellites: Two operational satellites and two satellites to serve as backups.
The two-satellite concept achieved similar accuracy to the United States’ GPS, but it did have its drawbacks. On the other hand, it did provide for a China with only two satellites an indigenous, independent, high-accuracy military navigation system that could function in anything less than total war with a major military power as well as support military communications.
Despite the success of the two-satellite system, the geosynchronous system was limited to the Asia-Pacific region in terms of coverage and that along with its other limitations prevented its marketability in certain areas of the commercial global navigation market. To meet this challenge, China formed a private company to develop the commercial capabilities of the Beido system and a announced in 2006 the deployment of a supplementary system to the geosynchronous Beido system.
This second phase, Bediou-2, was envisioned to consist of a constellation of 35 satellites. Five of the satellites would reside in geostationary orbit. The other thirty satellites of the system were to occupy medium-earth-orbit (12-hour, 55 deg inclination, 11,339 nautical mile (21,000km) altitude circular orbits) and use the same navigation principle as the United States’ GPS. These thirty satellites were planned to provide two-levels of service. The first, a public service, would be free to China’s citizens and have an accuracy up to 10 meters. The second service would be a more accurate military signal that would also provide system status information for the constellation and the capability to manage military communications.
The ultimate goal of the Bediou-2 medium-orbit global navigation system was to represent a new regional independence from foreign global navigation systems for China’s civilian-sector and for the use of commerce, and to provide a lucrative income for China’s private subsidiaries, who currently look to systems such as the GPS.
Aside from the commercial applications of Beidou, the placement of an independent global navigation system would give China a considerable strategic military advantage in the event hostilities should break out in the Asia Pacific Region. Most notably, such an advantage would be useful in countering foreign naval forces and with particularity those of the United States. Of late, China has been posturing its desire to obtain the ability to eliminate United States’ aircraft carriers through the use of it Dongfeng 21D ballistic missile. With an active GPS such as Beidou in place, China could theoretically use that capability in combination with drones to accurately guide these anti-ship missiles to their targets. Such an advantage could prove useful in deterring or hindering the ability of the United States or even India to project air power to intervene with any military operation China decides to take againt Taiwan, the Philippines or any other interests China has in the South China Sea.
Of course, the military utility of Beidou would not be limited to engagements with the United States. China’s neighbor India as well as Vietnam and Taiwan itself could find itself a target of munitions guided by the Beidou system, and given China’s heavy reliance in its doctrine of using missiles to destroy fixed targets, the utility of Beidou is apparent.
All this is overshadowed by China’s proven ASAT capability. With the ability to destroy or disable satellites within the United States’ GPS system, either through direct-ascent ASATs or ground-based lasers or ECM, China can selectively deny military GPS coverage for the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Such a move would leave China as the only power within the region with a viable global-positioning capability for military use. Moreover, the loss of GPS coverage would also deny consumers the use of global-positioning service in the Asia-Pacific region and leave China’s system as the only viable option to fill the void for consumers and international commerce. Therefore, China in essence could in one action gain a significant military and economic dominance in the Asia-Pacific Region.
Of course, this all presupposes that China will attempt to assert itself militarily against its neighbors in the near future, but if it chooses to do so, it is likely that it will be prepared to assert the advantage offered by its global-positioning system while denying the same capability to its adversaries. With the potential that exists for China to gain the upper-hand in the Asia-Pacific region the need for the United States and its allies to bolster the security of their collective space assets, including GPS is apparent, as is the importance to resist veiled diplomatic overtures by China and others that would otherwise compromise that security.
Thanks to Mark Wade and Encyclopedia Aeronautica for the background on the Beido navigation system.