A new Chinese satellite monitors US forces in the Pacific

Geostationary satellites, operating from higher altitudes, span a larger field of view compared to those in low Earth orbit, in addition to offering constant observation of specific geographic areas, a capability that LEO satellite constellations cannot replicate.

In the recent fall, General James Rainey of the US Army issued a telling warning: “Our ability to conceal ourselves, essential to our combat strategy, has become obsolete.” This statement preceded China’s deployment of the Yaogan-41.

This advanced Earth observation satellite, launched into space on December 15, 2023, has taken up position in geostationary orbit. The Yaogan-41 is anticipated to possess the exceptional ability to detect, identify and monitor vehicle-sized targets in the extensive Indo-Pacific area, marking a milestone in surveillance capability reminiscent of the 1980s song “Somebody’s Watching.”

The question of whether General Rainey, in charge of Army Futures Command, was aware of the upcoming Yaogan-41 launch at the time of his statement remains unanswered. However, his forecast for continued vigilance on the US military in the Indo-Pacific reflects the contemporary operational reality in that region.

Clayton Swope, Deputy Director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), located in Washington, DC, has outlined the capabilities of the Yaogan-41 in his recent work, titled “No Place to Hide.” Hide).

Swope points out that although China proclaims Yaogan-41 to be a high-altitude civilian satellite for agricultural data collection, weather forecasting and disaster management, there are precedents for satellites under civilian names for national security or military purposes.

Other satellites, such as Gaofen-4, Gaofen-13 and Gaofen-13-02, which are optical devices located in geosynchronous orbit overlooking the Indo-Pacific, are believed to have surveillance capabilities with resolutions ranging between 50 and 15 meters. On the other hand, it is estimated that the Yaogan-41 reaches a resolution of up to 2.5 meters.

This improvement in resolution capability, combined with the Gaofen satellite constellation, suggests that China now possesses the unprecedented ability to accurately and persistently identify and track U.S. and allied naval forces in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Expanded Capabilities: A New Horizon in Satellite Surveillance

Swope points out that the Yaogan-41’s superior resolution potentially gives China the ability to detect and track smaller objects, extending its range not only to ships but also to air elements such as fighters and bombers.

To contextualize this capability, Swope recalls an incident in 2021 where a Google Maps user managed to locate an elusive B-2 Spirit bomber in flight over Missouri, using images provided by Maxar Technologies’ low-Earth orbit satellites. Despite its design to evade radar and thermal sensors, the B-2 cannot hide from visual detection in broad daylight. This vulnerability extends to the Air Force’s B-21 Raider, considered by the Pentagon to be a critical deterrent against Chinese aspirations in the Pacific.

Geostationary satellites, operating from higher altitudes, span a larger field of view compared to those in low Earth orbit, in addition to offering constant observation of specific geographic areas, a capability that LEO satellite constellations cannot replicate. While LEO satellites orbit the Earth in about two hours and observe a specific point for only minutes, GEO satellites maintain a fixed field of view, synchronized with the Earth’s rotation, resulting in a more detailed and significant accumulation of data.

Swope explains: “With a 15-meter resolution sensor, it is possible to detect large vessels and even some smaller ones… If the Yaogan-41 has a 2.5-meter sensor, the question arises whether it is possible to visualize aircraft. And if a specific aircraft cannot be identified, is it possible to detect the atmospheric signatures it leaves behind?” This analysis opens the possibility that Yaogan-41 can identify vehicles or even the traces left by them on the Earth’s surface, which indicates that, although the presence of large objects such as ships does not represent a radical change, the ability to track objects. The size of an airplane could represent a significant change in surveillance and reconnaissance tactics.

Spatial synergy: The convergence of surveillance technologies

The recently deployed Yaogan-41 is not the only asset in China’s space surveillance arsenal that deserves attention. In parallel, Ludi Tance-4, a satellite equipped with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) launched in August, stands out as the only one of its kind in geostationary orbit worldwide. SAR satellites, known for their ability to penetrate clouds and provide nighttime images, complement the Yaogan-41’s optical capabilities with a resolution of 20 meters. This capability is sufficient to accurately monitor large vessels or formations, boosting analytical depth, especially when integrated with advanced artificial intelligence algorithms.

The basis for estimates about the capabilities of Yaogan-41 and other Chinese optical satellites is derived from publicly available information. China, which revealed data on the first of the Gaofen optical satellites in 2015, has seen significant improvements in the resolution of these devices since then. According to Swope, Chinese researchers in open access reports expected to reach a resolution of 2.5 meters for sensors in geostationary orbit as early as 2020. “We believe they have achieved this goal,” says Swope.

Analysis of the Yaogan-41 launch, compared to previous missions, reveals a notable evolution in China’s cargo capacity to space. While the previous satellites were launched using the Long March 3B rocket, with a capacity of 2,000 kg to geosynchronous orbit, Yaogan-41 was catapulted into space with the Long March 5, more powerful and capable of carrying up to 4,500 kg. The increased size of the Yaogan-41 cargo fairing, 50% longer than usual on the Long March 5, suggests a larger satellite and, therefore, an expanded optical sensor capacity for higher resolution.

The inclusion of the Yaogan-41 and its constellation of remote sensing satellites in discussions at the Space Mobility Conference in Orlando, Florida, underscores growing U.S. concern over China’s advance in military space reconnaissance. Chief Master Sergeant Ron Lerch of the Space Systems Command Intelligence Directorate specifically cited the Yaogan-41, which can be interpreted as confirmation of the capabilities described by Swope.

This pervasive surveillance capability poses significant strategic challenges for the United States in the Pacific. The strategy of dispersing and distributing forces across vast oceans and island chains, seeking to complicate enemy attacks, is compromised by the Chinese ability to persistently detect, track, and identify these forces. Such a level of surveillance questions the viability of tactics such as Agile Combat Employment, challenging the premises of US operational strategies in the region.

Strategic adaptation to advanced surveillance

The entry into service of the Yaogan-41 imposes on the US military the need to reevaluate and adjust its operational tactics, not only to mask its intentions but also to evade detection. This scenario could encourage greater reliance on diversionary maneuvers and force projection from positions outside the Yaogan-41’s perceptual range. An increase in the use of underwater platforms and a conglomerate of small unmanned vehicles is anticipated, seeking to preserve the capacity for free movement, the element of surprise and effectiveness in attacking strategic targets.

“Recognizing our constant exposure to surveillance is crucial,” says Swope. The awareness of being permanently under observation and the need to develop effective strategies under this scrutiny represent the first step to adapt to this new operational reality.

Swope further stresses the importance of adopting a layered defense and attack approach. Each layer of defense may present its own weaknesses, but together, these layers complement each other to cover vulnerabilities. “It’s like stacking slices of Swiss cheese: each one has holes, but when you put them together, the holes don’t go all the way through.”

Aside from deception tactics, neutralizing an adversary’s control and chain of command can undermine its intelligence capabilities. Moving forward, incapacitating the Yaogan-41 and other Chinese space assets through kinetic or other actions could neutralize these advantages. Proponents of expanding satellite constellations in LEO orbits argue that few expensive satellites in GEO orbits are attractive targets.

However, even accepting this premise, the Yaogan-41 provides China with a critical capability to gather information on the movements and positions of US forces prior to any conflict.

“Satellites in GEO can be destroyed quickly,” Swope admits, “but in the pre-conflict phase, China could gain relative certainty about the location of American assets.”

In a potential preemptive strike scenario by China, the Yaogan-41 plays a crucial role. “If that possibility is considered, the satellite may be an easy target, but it could still serve its purpose.”

The deployment of Yaogan-41 to geostationary orbit represents a significant challenge to the operability and survivability of US forces in the Indo-Pacific.

“While there is no magic bullet against Yaogan-41,” Swope concludes, “it is not necessary to completely neutralize this capability. It is enough to devise and apply multiple layers of defense to mitigate its impact.”

Under the ever-present eye of China, adaptation and innovation in defense and concealment tactics become imperative for U.S. forces in the Pacific and beyond.