China trails US in space race but surges ahead in tactical responsive space launches

Tactically Responsive Space Launch assesses a country's space resilience during challenging situations, such as conflicts, and China excels in this aspect.
Ameya Paleja
Stock image of a rocket launch
Stock image of a rocket launch


The US is still ahead of China when it comes to space resilience but has fallen short in a "low-likelihood, high-consequence scenario" of quickly launching or replacing satellites in case of a conflict, according to researchers at Georgetown University's Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET). The observation was detailed in a 47-page report titled "Defending the Ultimate High Ground" published recently.

Beijing has been pushing for supremacy in multiple technological areas ranging from hypersonic weapons to quantum computing in the past decade. On the space front too, the country has ambitious plans such as setting up a base on the Moon and floating its own space station around the Earth.

China's advances in space tech

Researchers Corey Crowell and Sam Bresnik at the CSET used publicly available information about launch vehicles, space launch events, and the number of satellites placed in orbit to determine the advances made by the country over the past decade.

The researchers found that China had doubled its number of satellites in orbit in the last four years with 419 new ones being launched since 2019. In addition to absolute numbers, the country was also placing these satellites in diverse orbits such as the cislunar orbit for its Queqiao communications satellite and elliptical Molniya orbits to extend coverage of Earth's Northern Pole.

In the past decade, China has completed construction and begun operations at its fourth launch complex while also introducing five new liquid-fuel and 11 new solid-fuel launch vehicles which have multiple variants as well.

Despite these significant advancements, the country still lags behind the US in terms of technological superiority, with the exception of one area: tactically responsive space launch (TRSL).

Where is TRSL necessary?

TRSL is a measure of space resilience for countries in low-likelihood but high-consequence scenarios such as a conflict. Higher capabilities in the TRSL domain allow countries to quickly replace their space infrastructure.

Beijing has been building its TRSL resilience through smaller and mobile launches made possible with the use of solid-fuel vehicles. In contrast, the US uses liquid-fuel rockets which require extensive infrastructure.

China trails US in space race but surges ahead in tactical responsive space launches
US rocket launches are infrastructure heavy and need months of preparation

China's first successful demonstration of TRSL dates back a decade when it launched the Kuaizhou-1 in 2013. These launches are made possible by the use of transporter erector launchers (TELs) which can carry pre-filled rockets on mobile platforms such as specialized trucks and then raise them vertically for launch.

The Kuaizhou-1A can be launched within seven days of arriving at its site and requires nothing more than an area the size of a basketball court for a launch that could potentially put it into orbit with a small constellation of satellites, the South China Morning Post reported.

The Kuaizhou-1A and Long March 11, both capable of TRSL, have been involved in 30 successful launches so far. In sharp contrast, the US has only made one TRSL demonstration in 2021 and will make another attempt later this year. Solid fuel rockets in the US are available through Northrop Grumman but are based on technologies three decades old and not compatible with TELs, the SCMP report added.

Increasing spending on these technologies could help the US regain its advantage but the task is getting bigger by the day. China's objective is to achieve mass production and storage of these rockets in the future, allowing potential customers to conveniently select a rocket and proceed with their launch, akin to purchasing it from a supermarket.

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