China has launched its latest weather satellite. The new satellite might have the clandestine capability to detect missile launches, if undisclosed sensor and telemetry equipment has been built into its payload. If the satellite has that equipment, two planned follow-on launches could complete a regional launch detection and missile warning capability for China by 2006.
The Fengyun (Wind and Cloud) 2C weather satellite was launched Oct. 19 from China's Xichang Satellite Launch Center on a Long March 3A booster. The satellite has both infrared (IR) and visual imagery sensors and is in geostationary orbit. China's new satellite could be the beginning of a rudimentary launch detection and early warning system. Visual and IR sensors are not uncommon on meteorological satellites, but IR sensors can also be used to detect and track ballistic missile launches by their exhaust plumes. Minimal modifications or enhancements to the satellite's IR sensor suite would be required for it to be able to detect ballistic missile launches in Asia. China has launched seven weather satellites since 1988. The Fengyun 1 series consisted of four satellites in polar orbits, which are not useful for launch detection/warning. The Fengyun 2 (FY-A and FY-B) satellites were placed into geostationary orbits, similar to the Fengyun 2C. The Fengyun 3 series, scheduled to be launched by 2006, will carry more sensors and be more advanced than the previous satellites. The Fengyun 2C has been touted as China's first modern meteorological satellite, and is the third in a series of geostationary weather satellites. It was developed and built entirely in China. Its geostationary orbit — it remains over a single point on the earth — is necessary for constant observation and monitoring of an area. The satellite's position at 105 degrees east longitude enables it to view the entire Asian landmass. Its orbit altitude of 22,300 miles (35,786 km) makes the Fengyun 2C an impractical satellite for imaging anything smaller than clouds, but it would be capable of detecting heat anomalies — which could indicate missile launches — in the region.
The satellite's position would limit any potential launch-detection coverage to the Asian landmass. It could detect launches from India, Taiwan, Pakistan, Russia (east of the Ural Mountains), the Koreas and Japan, for example, but would be unable to detect events in the Western Hemisphere. Currently, China has acknowledged no dedicated space-based launch detection capability. At least three satellites are required for reliable, accurate launch detection. China's plans to launch two additional Fengyun 2 satellites by 2006 would give them such a capability. Launch detection from space can be used to provide warning against incoming missile attacks and to track foreign missile tests. If the Chinese have built a launch detection/warning capability into their latest satellite, it would be consistent with their emerging role as a more serious regional power — and be in step with their program of modernizing their military and making it more technologically advanced. Having the ability to track missile developments in the region and to warn against theater ballistic missile attacks is a further and necessary step in this direction.