Today’s Wall Street Journal has a commentary by Richard D. Fisher, Jr., a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, discussing claims of Chinese work on a military space plane of some kind and its implications for US national security and space policy. (Those without a WSJ.com subscription can read Fisher’s essay on his center’s web site.) Fisher strings together evidence from Chinese military publications, blogs, and other sources that suggests China is developing something called the Shenlong, or “Divine Dragon”, spaceplane. (More of this evidence is discussed in a previous essay by Fisher, which includes some photos that suggest the Shenlong right now appears to be roughly equivalent in size and capability to the X-34 or X-37.)
To Fisher, Shenlong is an ominous development, giving China the ability to strike quickly and without any defense: “A larger unmanned space plane based on the Shenlong could easily be designed to carry out precision ground-attack missions at speeds and at altitudes that would avoid interception.” He adds: “Today the U.S. has no capability to deter China’s potential use of military space planes.”
It’s difficult to gauge how accurate these claims are—Chinese military planning is hardly transparent, as Fisher notes—but assume for the time being that these claims are accurate, and China is indeed developing a spaceplane of some kind for military applications, including weapons delivery. How, then, should the US respond? “At a minimum, Washington should delay the planned 2010 retirement of the Space Shuttle until a new space plane can replace it, as a way to retain a deterring potential military capability,” he argues. In his earlier essay, he added, “It may instead now be necessary to consider retaining one or two Shuttles and to develop defensive and offensive payloads for them, until a less expensive and perhaps smaller unmanned or manned space plane can be developed.”
That’s a difficult recommendation to take seriously. The shuttle is expensive, hardly responsive, and all but disowned by the military for nearly two decades. How the shuttle could “deter” any Chinese military spaceplane isn’t at all obvious. If the Pentagon was truly concerned about the threat posed by such a Chinese capability, a better approach might be to put more money into the Falcon program, both for the small launch vehicle and hypersonic cruise vehicle that could have “prompt global reach” (or, sometimes, “prompt global strike”) capabilities. However, Fisher doesn’t mention Falcon in his essays, and only makes a passing reference to the X-37.