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China and India Take the Lead in Expanding Spy Satellite Networks in Asia

China operated 136 reconnaissance satellites in 2022, up from 66 in 2019. North Korea considers spy satellites a top military priority, alongside nuclear and missile technology. India has expanded its radar imaging satellite fleet from 12 to 16.

In response to the increasingly complex security landscape, countries in Asia, including China and India, are ramping up their efforts to bolster satellite networks for military surveillance purposes. These reconnaissance satellites, operating at an altitude of 500 kilometers, play a crucial role in monitoring military movements, such as troop deployments and missile launches, providing valuable information for accurate targeting during conflicts.

According to the Military Balance report published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, China has significantly increased its reconnaissance satellite capabilities. In 2022, China operated 136 reconnaissance satellites, up from 66 in 2019. Additionally, China is expanding its fleet of electronic intelligence (ELINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) satellites, which are capable of intercepting electronic information.

The People's Liberation Army's intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites have the potential to monitor and track U.S. and allied forces worldwide, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, as highlighted in a report by the U.S. Defense Department. These satellites also enable China to monitor potential flashpoints in the region, including the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea.

North Korea, considering spy satellites as a top military priority alongside nuclear and missile technology, aims to monitor U.S. aircraft carriers in real-time. Although two satellite launches failed in 2023, the country successfully launched a third satellite in November.

Military satellites are capable of identifying even small objects on the ground, making them crucial assets in combat situations. U.S. satellite imagery, for example, is believed to have assisted Ukraine in its initial response to the Russian invasion.

India, engaged in a growing rivalry with China, has also been expanding its satellite fleet. The country has launched a series of radar imaging satellites (RISAT), increasing the fleet from 12 satellites in 2019 to 16. Japan and South Korea are also looking to expand their satellite capabilities, with a focus on monitoring China and North Korea.

Japan has been operating satellites since 2004 for collecting security and disaster-related information. The country plans to increase its satellite network from the current five to nine by fiscal year 2029. Recently, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries successfully launched a new satellite using the H-IIA rocket.

South Korea, on the other hand, launched its first reconnaissance satellite in December and plans to have five operational satellites under its Defense Ministry by 2025. The country has scheduled a second launch for April and a third for November.

Operating these satellites comes at a significant cost. The Japanese government has allocated 80 billion yen (US$545 million) annually for the development and operation of information-gathering satellites. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, commonly used for satellite launches, costs $67 million per launch.

To mitigate costs and save time, countries like South Korea have opted to use private-sector options, such as the Falcon 9, for satellite launches, even though they are developing their own rockets. This approach could potentially lower the barrier for emerging economies to join the satellite race.

While larger satellite networks enable countries to closely monitor specific areas, those being targeted are expected to develop surprise attack capabilities to evade reconnaissance efforts. For instance, North Korea is focusing on solid-fuel missiles, which can be launched more quickly, as well as submarines.

To ensure that defense spending remains manageable, countries will need to enhance their reconnaissance capabilities efficiently. Japan and South Korea are considering the concept of satellite constellations, which involve linking a group of smaller, cost-effective satellites together.

Furthermore, leveraging developments in space for academic research and industrial efforts is crucial. In line with this, the South Korean legislature has passed a bill to establish a new government space agency, modeled after NASA.

  • China operated 136 reconnaissance satellites in 2022, up from 66 in 2019.

  • North Korea considers spy satellites a top military priority, alongside nuclear and missile technology.

  • India has expanded its radar imaging satellite fleet from 12 to 16.


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