China’s evolving space station raises specter of manned combat operations

Special to, May 9, 2023


By Richard Fisher

China’s Tiangong space station continues to evolve, raising concerns that China’s dual-use civil/military People’s Liberation Army (PLA) controlled space program is covertly developing military capabilities for its space station.

On Dec. 6, 2022, the Chinese publication “Spacecraft Engineering” noted that the Chinese space station could serve as a central support station for a number of other co-orbiting spacecraft, saying:

An image from February 2023 showing China’s space station docked with to the Xuntian space telescope, which during conflicts could allow the space station to target objects in space or on the Earth. / Chinese Internet

“In addition to the sky survey space telescope, there may be more spacecraft co-orbiting with the Tiangong space station to receive in-orbit services in the future, and the Tiangong space station will gradually play an important role as a ‘space home port.’”

As one considers the dual-use potential of major Chinese spacecraft associated with their space station, it is possible to consider that China could also be building capacities for independent combat operations from space.

This would supplement ground-based PLA space combat capabilities but would also provide an in-space redundant command and control capability and prepare the PLA for manned space combat in the critical Cis-Lunar Space between the Earth and the Moon.

Potential dual-use spacecraft “co-orbiting” with the space station could include potential armed versions of the Tianzhou space cargo ship.

On May 5 China undocked the Tianzhou-5 unmanned supply ship from its space station, allowing the cargo ship to fly in formation with the space station until it will be docked at the opposite end of the space station following the next manned crew swap to be launched on Shenzhou-16.

May 10 is the reported launch date for the Tianzhou-6 cargo ship, with Chinese state media reporting just before May 1, that the 13.5-ton cargo craft will have a 20 percent larger cargo volume, increased from 18.1 cubic meters to 22.5 cubic meters.

This will allow for an increase in cargo weight from 6.9 to 7.4 tons; increasing the various stores and provisions for the space station astronauts and their various programs.

Tianzhou-6 can also transport 1.75 tons of fuel, of which 1 ton can be transferred to the space station, leaving about 700kg of fuel to support independent maneuvering requirements.

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