The PRC’s Shenlong (‘Divine Dragon’) Space Plane and the Pentagon’s Assessment of China’s Military Space Program

The Pentagon produces an annual report about the People’s Republic of China’s military with regard to its capabilities in space. This report is similar to a Cold War-era document published by the Department of Defense titled Soviet Military Power (SMP), a mix of propaganda showing photographs and illustrations of future Soviet weaponry as well as a justification for U.S. military buildup. The SMP was one of the first documents to display now common things like satellite imagery.

There was a tension in the biannual development of the SMP between the intelligence and military communities, with the CIA fighting to keep certain items secret while the Pentagon pushed for more open disclosure in order to get budget increases to develop its own counterparts to the supposed Soviet weapons-in-development detailed in the SMP.

Today the SMP is replaced by the Pentagon’s annual Military Power of the People’s Republic of China. Unlike the SMP, this report is not published to justify increased defense spending; rather, it is mandated by Congress. The differences between the United States’ relationship with China and its relationship with the Soviet Union are many, not least among which is the United States’ government’s addiction to cheap Chinese credit.

The report’s accuracy is under question as inconsistencies regarding China’s development of laser anti-satellite technology (ASAT), among other systems, has raised speculation that the report is sloppy and ill-prepared thus making its research and prognostications of small value. One item’s absence that has piqued the interest of security analysts is the Shenlong space plane, the H-6K bomber. In photographs shown in Chinese media, the H-6K bomber appears to be clad in heat resistant tiles and resembles a missile. It is too small to carry a significant payload and is likely a test vehicle at this stage. The Shenlong space plane, or ‘Divine Dragon,’ is speculated to be the genesis of a hypersonic, ‘prompt global strike’ weapon.

Though it could only be an experimental program, along the lines of similar ones deployed by the United States in the past, the Shenlong space plane, coupled with other Chinese goals in space, places pressure on Washington to support a race on multiple trails. Dominance on the seas, on land, and in space, as well as economic strength, will decide the course of development in the world’s fastest growing economic region.


[The Space Review]


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