Closing the Tech Gap: China’s Spaceplane

That’s right, the rumors appear to be true. Beijing is joining the United States as the only nations with reusable spaceplane designs that are actually conducting test flights. Beijing reportedly sent its Divine Dragon — or Shenlong — space plane aloft for a successful atmospheric test flight in January, 2011.

The U.S. uses its two X-37B spaceplanes for incredibly long missions doing super classified work in place, one can only guess that China’s Divine Dragon will be used for similar purposes.

Now, what’s the real news in this year and a half old story? Well, according to DT’s go-to China expert Andrew Erickson, its the speed at which China is closing the gap between the fielding of advanced technology compared to the U.S. Remember when then-defense secretary Robert Gates last year dismissed China’s new J-20 stealth fighter by saying that the PLA is about 20 years behind the Pentagon in terms of technology? The launch of the Divine Dragon less than a after the X-37B made its first space flight may be an indicator that China is closing that double decade technology gap, according to Erickson. (Notice how the Divine Dragon shown above looks remarkably similar to the X-37B? I would bet that plenty of useful info on the American program ended up in China as a result of cyber attacks — a key enabler to China’s ability to close the tech gap quickly.)

Here’s an excerpt from one of his latest analysis pieces on China’s military rise, titled Shenlong ‘Divine Dragon’ Takes Flight: Is China developing its first spaceplane?

Beijing may be entering the spaceplane era faster than many would have predicted. A similarly-militarily-relevant system appears to be emerging with the development of China’s own vehicle. Multiple Chinese-language media outlets state that on 8 January 2011, China completed a test flight of the Shenlong (神龙/Divine Dragon) spaceplane.

The test flight announcement from a Sha’anxi TV station came within a month of the U.S. X-37B orbital vehicle’s return to earth after its first test flight and come almost simultaneously with China’s test flight of its J-20 fighter prototype. This reflects China’s growing technical proficiency in the aerospace sector. It hints at China’s pursuit of space systems that can potentially switch quickly between civilian and military missions.

Shenlong’s test also reflects a shrinking time gap between when the U.S. first reveals a prototype military system and when China publicly shows a system comparable in type (if not equivalent in capabilities or immediately operational). For previous aerospace developments, China typically revealed its systems’ existence at least 15 years after the U.S. first showed its analogous platforms (Exhibit 1).

The immediate implication is that in some areas of space operations, China may be attempting to emulate the U.S. and develop advanced capabilities that could give it strategic advantages; as well as to reveal selected development efforts in order to further patriotism at home and deterrence abroad. Given the high U.S. reliance on space-based C4ISR capabilities, Chinese space platform developments such as Shenlong warrant close attention.

Exhibit 1: Gap in years between first unveiling of select U.S. and Chinese weapons systems

Now, what are the strategic implications of China fielding its own spaceplanes? Here’s what Erickson has to say.

At a minimum, Shenlong appears to be a technological development/validation program. A successful Chinese spaceplane program would have two key strategic implications. First, on the broad level, it would signify that the Chinese space program has come one step closer to being able to build a Space Shuttle-type capability. On a related note, further test flights, particularly if they involve X-37B-style maneuvering by a larger derivative of Shenlong, would also strongly suggest that China’s command and control system for space assets has become much more capable, with commensurate implications for both military and civil space operations. Which service would control Shenlong remains uncertain, as GAD, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and even the Second Artillery contend for control of operational space assets—and some Chinese thinkers argue for the formation of a separate Space Force (天军). Not surprisingly, as Kevin Pollpeter informs us, PLAAF-connected writers are already citing spaceplane development as yet another reason why their service should handle space operations.

Second, spaceplanes confer a number of capabilities that conventional launchers cannot offer. First of all, they are reusable and their payloads can be changed between missions. These features offer versatility and may even offer some cost savings, especially for reconnaissance missions. Rocket boosters for putting a spaceplane in orbit might cost ~US$150-200 million.

Spaceplane costs also include the spaceplane itself (with robust structure and shielding), extensive post-flight refurbishment, integration costs, possible manpower costs for flying the spaceplane, payload costs, and recovery costs. Launching a relatively small satellite with a spaceplane as opposed to on a single-use rocket may not realize large costs savings, but it is an option that Chinese planners would likely want to have available eventually.

Larger future iterations of Shenlong could materially enhance China’s space-based C4ISR capabilities through both on-board sensor systems and the ability to deploy microsatellites and other sensor systems that boost space situational awareness. Spaceplanes can also rapidly change orbits to hinder tracking, survey different areas, or potentially avoid an opponent’s anti-satellite (ASAT) systems. During its maiden flight, the X-37B was said to have changed orbits, confounding amateur spotters for several days until one located the craft in its new orbital path.

Finally, a spaceplane’s ground-based status could allow it to sidestep international agreements restricting the deployment of weapons in space and add to its appeal as a potential ASAT platform. Many Chinese writers see the X-37 program as evidence of American determination to develop anti-satellite (ASAT) capability and engage in a space arms race. At the same time, according to Stokes and Cheng, “China’s counterspace program appears to parallel interest in countermeasures [e.g., kinetic kill vehicles, as demonstrated in China’s 11 January 2007 ASAT test and 11 January 2010 missile defense test] against advanced U.S. long-range precision strike capabilities that would transit space, and are expected to be in place by 2025,” which might include the FALCON HTV, the X-37B, and the X-51A.

Read the full report over at China Sign Post.




  • Tad

    Regarding the bar chart. The Chinese continually surprise the US media and political leaders to the upside. Maybe the US should stop being surprised and learn to expect more from the Chinese.

  • DGR

    The question needs to be raised. Are they making this stuff from scratch or stealing our tech? To me this sounds more like a technology gain via less than nobal means. Not doubting that they have the capability themselves, but can anyone remember a year in the last 10-15 where there wasnt a major breech in a firewall that originated from China or Russia? Off the top of my head I know I cant.

    Not trying to underestimate there ability to make it themselves, but with all those hacking attempts it makes me cautious after reading a story like this. A 16 year technology gap is mighty hard and expensive to jump overnight……

  • Brian

    China stealing secerts from us? I find that hard to believe.

  • dddd

    I mean this in a totally nonpartisan way–the HASC is about to lose their minds.

  • Joe

    To Mutually Assured Destruction…been missing you since 1989…looking to be reunited and it feels so good.

    Love and kisses

    The US Airforce

  • Prodozul

    They wished for a spaceplane equal to the US and out of respect they named it Shenlong (Shenron)…

  • KLAC

    No one can take China Space seriously until they meet or exceed Western and Russian launch capability. Not even as good as ULA and SpaceX.

    The X40, X37A/B goes back a decade and it is not clear what the USAF does with it the X37B.

    It is frustrating that China can do a prototype in a few years after the US spends 10-20 in R&D on a program. Freeloaders.

    • Jeff

      Freeloaders? Where do you think the funding for our space program came from? Or our military budget and ObamaCare for that matter.

      • Skyepapa

        They don’t give us anything. Don’t confuse paying interest for legitimate loans with gifts. Does the bank have a right to send people to take naked pics of your wife just because you sold them debt and now pay timely principle and interest payments on a mortgage loan?

      • warspony

        The Federal Reserve (private corporation) holds more U.S.A. debt (over $2 trillion) than China and Japan combined ($1 Trillion a piece). Who’s your “daddy?”

    • Laurens-Bancroft

      China’s space capabilities are not as good as those of SpaceX? While we are rooting mightily for Elon Musk’s effort to succeed, we’re pretty sure the PRC has had more than 2 or 3 successful launches. We’ll never understand the western world’s desire to perpetually underestimate the Red Dragon.

    • tiger

      I can’t take a US Space program seriously that needs to hitch rides to space & cares more about Muslim outreach than flying.

    • jonathan

      I bet China knows lol

  • Simple Man

    The Chinese have been the most aggressive spies in the United States for many years. It is a pipeline sometimes directly from our labs to theirs.

    They commit both direct and indirect espionage and have no respect for intellectual property regardless of its application.

    On our side we are fat, dumb, and happy and seem to have lost the culture of national security that kept most of the USSR’s intel organizations frustrated during the cold war.

  • Pete

    i don’t see all the fuss about this…..

    “The basic technology for a reusable space plane is half a century old”

  • The photo of this Chinese space plane showed up about four years ago.

    Not sure if its launched from the Long March rocket as the article suggests. The photo shows it hanging off a BADGER bomber, that could be its deployment system. It might be to lift micro payloads in to LEO like the Pegasus.

  • Mitch S.

    Safe to guess espionage has helped China imitate some of our systems.
    But I’ll venture to guess that the greatest benefit China gets from its spying is not knowing how we make our stuff so they can counter it, but knowing the capabilities of our stuff so they can counter it by other means.

    For example if I were trying to counter the F22 and knew the capabilities of its stealth, weapons etc, instead of copying it I could focus on improving the sensing abilities of my 4th gen planes and building lots of them (and w/o stealth they can carry more weapons).
    I might “borrow” some stealth tech to make a bomber/interceptor to penetrate airspace but wouldn’t try to make a fighter much less a CAS platform out of it…

  • Lance

    More fear mongering from the China is going to kill us crowd. I think our X-37 is bigger more complex and is better than the TU-16 towed Dragon which looks very small and alot lower tech than the X-37 is.

  • Brian

    You must defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance.

  • 4FingerOfBourbon

    Maybe china should get their own fucking tech…..

  • Josh

    We can’t expect the Chinese not to steal our tech if we let them. The problem is on our side not theirs.

    • Mastro

      Yeah some IT security would be nice- I got a feeling they USB our plans out an hour after we make them.

  • SamIAm

    Yes yes a few pictures and we are comparing its abilities to ours, which we don’t even know what it does. How can yallll make some of these claims, do y’all know something about this plane then I do? Besides I might be wrong, but I bet it is the same as every other Chinese knock off I buy

  • ski

    How old is the SR-71 blackbird? No comment. Does any one play poker? Hint.

  • cr9527

    are you guys discounting the age of the space shuttle?

    ShenLong, if similar to the SS, will be 30+ years behind…

  • Mzungu

    Without some good data and real facts, the analysis is nothing but data manipulated by the writer to fit his narrative. The graph is just plainly misleading.

    The Space Shuttle(a space plane) pre-dates the Chinese space-plane at least by 20-30 years. That’s not counting X-15 or the like. There is a huge difference between delivering a “grapefruit” size payload to orbit than what x-37 may be capable of. For all we know the Chinese space-plane may just be sub-orbital.

    Also, nuclear submarine is more like 20 years not 16(1954 for nautilus vs. 1974 for Type 091). The author needs to look beyond the hulk of a vehicle to really analyze the capabilities. Remember the vacuum tubes in the Mig-25?

    Beyond that I think they are another 10 years behind in experiences. US have been fighting one war or another every decade or so since WWII, the operational experiences and practices is really what is going to win those wars, it’s not just gadgets, but how the man use those gadgets. Not that, both Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il-sung can hold off USA pretty much with bamboo sticks and the right political strategies.

  • SamIAm

    Mzungu I agree with you I would like to point something out regarding the mig. Yes still had tubes but I beg the question if nucler bombs did drop and the emps followed who’s planes would still be flying

  • Dfens

    A 20 year gap between the US and China would be significant if it didn’t take us 20 to 30 years to field new aircraft or armored vehicles. But let’s continue to pay so called “private companies” billions more if they fail than we pay them if they produce successful weapons on time and on budget and then marvel at the mystery of why new weapons take so long and cost so much. Let’s always pay our defense contractors $1.10 for every $1.00 they spend designing new weapons, because damn what a great approach to contracting that has been. Why ever go back to what worked during the Cold War when we have a winner system like that one.

  • Matt

    Nick the people are saying down with the man because the man picked our pockets to protect us from these threats. The man sat on his ass and developed welfare programs instead.

    • Nick T.

      There’s a reply system for a reason. I’m not denying that the government and Wall St. have been taking more than their share (And accidentally the economy) for their purposes, but something tells me that Chinese invasion of US was the last thing on occupy’s mind. Plus, if one should got to DoDBuzz, there are articles almost daily on how buggered the acquisition system is, and the many plans on how to try and fix it. After all, bad acquisition has cost the US more than anything.

      • Dfens

        The Department of Defense has become the clearning house for corporate welfare. They write the checks that make the $25 to $30 million dollar salaries of Boeing and Lockheed’s CEO’s possible. If they worked for the government, they could never make a salary like that, but they can sure empty the tax coffers quickly as “contractors”. And they are worth every penny, naturally.

    • Haha

      The ‘man’ spent over a trillion dollars to invade and occupy a POS dump in Iraq when it was the AQs in Afghan/Pak region who attacked us on 9-11. Instead of our guys being greeted in Iraq with flowers and candy, they got greeted with IEDs. We spent ten years doling out reconstruction aid to people in Iraq who hate our guts. The whole time we were jerking off in Iraq, we neglected China who have risen to the second largest economy in world. The ‘man’ did not protect us from real threats, and ignored the economic threat. That is why people are pissed.

  • Robert Norwood

    Jeezus, with all the time and effort they spend stealing our information they ought to be able to close the gap. As for the plane being smaller remember, they’re smaller.

  • Simple Man

    The Chinese work in the same manner as the Russians, only with greater stealth and effectiveness. They got the plans for the W-84 nuclear warhead somehow and leapfrogged their existing technology.

  • Jim

    Haven’t we, as a country learned anything regarding how we view other countries? As I recall, we pretty much said the same thing about the Soviet Union AND Russia; yet who was the first into space with a satellite? Soviet Union/RUSSIA! Our “brains” said “oh, Russia won’t have a nuclear weapon for years–Riiiight. Exploded one, what a year or two after ours? What is it going to take for our “brains” and “leaders” to actually WAKE UP and acknowledge that we do not know everything nor do we have the sole handle on any technology? Add to this, how about keeping SECRETS Secret.

  • Craig

    Seriously? Do you all really believe that all their tech is stolen? You probably also don’t believe that we do the exact same thing. How many strategic assets have we lost one way or another spying or playing world cop in another Country? Then we actually get mad when that Country refuses to return our tech! Really? What about all the advanced weapons systems we sell to other Countries that are our ally today, but maybe not tomorrow? It’s happened over and over again in the middle east. Not only that, but China can freely or not so freely (use a proxy) in some cases to just buy that same tech on the market. Seriously why do we sell our military tech to other Countries. My favorite stupid idea! Selling weapons systems or weapons of any kind to Taiwan!! Taiwan regardless of any rhetoric is as much a part of China as Hawaii is part of the United States. The people in Taiwan are not Taiwanese. (no such thing) They are Chinese. Relations between Taiwan and the mainland have been steadily improving. Some day our government geniuses are going to wake to their “Oh chit moment” that all that tech we sold to Taiwan is in China. Do you really think China’s anger at us for selling weapons to Taiwan is genuine? Sure they can put on a good front and even take some actions to appear genuine while at the same time already having people in place in Taiwan to at minimum give them full access

    • tiger

      Everybody has spies. Even our “allies.”

    • passingby

      Craig, write this down: War is a racket.

      You also need to know 3 different groups of people in the US – the money masters, the puppets (govt officials, the media), the sheeple (from sheep + people) in this weapons + narcotics sales business (the most important business to the US).

  • Haha

    More tech and manufacturing jobs have been outsourced to China in the last decade of GWBush than under Clinton. It was done in the name of the free-enterprise system and ‘capitalism’. How do you like laissez-faire capitalism now?

  • butte Sailor

    In a communist state the media is controlled by the government, if they say it exists it exists, most news is for internal consumption i.e. look how good we are doing. Its like life in the navy 35 years ago if its painted and the brass shines it works.

  • butte sailor

    Chicken Little Syndrome no the sky is not falling . In a communist state the media is controlled by the government, if they say it exists it exists, all news is for internal consumption. The Chinese has had 3 manned space flights from 2003 this is with using some Russian technology and computers. Conversely, in the same number of years The U.S. completed 2 space projects, Mercury and Gemini and landed men on the moon with the Apollo project using slide rule technology . If the Chinese want to use a space plane maybe they will book some seats from Virgin galactic

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  • madmemere

    Get serious – -“Are the Chinese stealing our US technology”? They don’t HAVE to steal it – -Clinton and obama-soetoro have been “giving” it to them, right along! To paint a more “realistic picture” – -China has been dedicated to building it’s “military might”, for more than two decades; if you “wonder what their objective is”, wonder no longer. Their plan, all along, has been to “take over the USA” and anyone else they can!

  • HIA

    No way China can overtake USA in technology!!

    • blight_

      I’m sure nobody thought the fractious German states would unify into Prussia and then Germany; or that Britain would rule the world for a thousand years, or that Japan could never adopt the ways of the west because they were too Asiatic for modern technology.

  • Genghis

    You all forget that the Father of Pasadena’s JPL was a Chinese who was also the Father of China Space Program.

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