HELSINKI — The People’s Liberation Army has established new facilities to improve its space domain awareness capabilities, according to a report.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force’s (SSF) new Base 37 is charged with boosting missile early warning capabilities and identifying, tracking and analyzing foreign space objects, according to the report published by the China Aerospace Studies Institute Sept. 11.
China created the PLASSF in 2015 as the 5th branch of the PLA and charged it with integrating and overseeing areas such as space, cyber, and electronic warfare. While still not fully understood, its overarching goal is assessed to be obtaining information dominance and providing strategic support to the PLA.
Base 37 will improve the accuracy of the country’s domestic space object catalog and likely has similarities to the U.S. Space Force’s Delta 2 and Delta 4 space domain awareness units.
“The new base will improve the PLA’s ability to provide early warning of incoming ballistic missiles to joint forces, and track and identify space objects’ location, maneuvers, and operating environment,” according to the report.
Base 37 combines new and existing facilities and likely has tracking stations and other installations in the provinces of Shaanxi, Shandong, Xinjiang, Yunnan, Hangzhou, Qinghai, and Hubei. Beijing and Chongqing municipalities also host facilities.
It may also be integrating data from space-based missile early warning satellites. A number of China’s classified Tongxin Jishu Shiyan (TJS) satellites in geostationary orbit are thought to be for early warning purposes.
The report’s initial analysis does not reveal Base 37 to have a role in operating on-orbit systems, such as satellites reported to be fleeing, imaging and approaching U.S. satellites. It does not operate China’s robotic arm-equipped movable satellites like Shijian-21, which towed a defunct satellite to a GEO graveyard orbit, and Shijian-17. The report however confirms it is active in integrating and analyzing related data.
Based on a review of the base’s technical reports and patents, the report suggests that the first priorities for Base 37 have been to increase the accuracy of China’s space object catalog, establish an internal collision early warning system, and improve identification and tracking of key perceived threats.
China’s space activities have expanded greatly in recent years, in turn demanding greater space domain awareness capabilities. The country conducted 14 orbital launch attempts in 2013, rising to 55 times in 2021, 64 times in 2022, and could reach 80 launches across 2023. During this time China has constructed a modular crewed space station and plans to build a low Earth orbit megaconstellation.
The report also notes that Chinese papers discuss perceived threats. These include highly-maneuverable Starlink satellites, very low orbit space objects, and geosynchronous Earth orbit debris.
The establishment of Base 37 has implications for the U.S. Opportunities include the possibility of greater cooperation in the realm of space domain awareness and more direct contact with regards to conjunction warnings. Notable challenges are possible greater Chinese distrust of U.S. on-orbit operations, such as activities in the GEO belt.
The report also notes that China does not yet have on-orbit space situational awareness systems beyond small, experimental systems. This this will likely change in the coming years however.