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China’s Sensor Tech Surges by US, UK and Australia

A new report shows China has surged ahead of the US, UK and Australia in advanced sensor technologies, raising questions about the future balance of power in crucial command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities.

Citing the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) Critical Technology Tracker, Breaking Defense reported this month that China is “overwhelmingly” ahead in areas such as inertial navigation systems, radar and various types of sensors. At the same time, the source says the US maintains a lead in quantum sensors, atomic clocks and gravitational sensors.

Breaking Defense says that China’s lead in sensors has not yet been translated into global market share, but that is likely to change as the technology is developed.

The report notes that North America has roughly 41% of the US$200 billion remote sensor market today. However, China boasts a strong share of papers in the top 10% of highly cited publications, especially in inertial navigation systems (44%), photonic sensors (43.7%), multispectral and hyperspectral imaging sensors (48.9%), and sonar sensors (49.4%).

Even when combining Australia, the UK and the US as their collective AUKUS, the three Western nations still significantly trail behind China in six out of seven key sensor technologies, with only magnetic field sensors being a close competition, according to the Breaking Defense report.

Advanced sensor technologies are crucial to modern C4ISR systems, which in turn are crucial for many military operations. Sensor-driven networks gather and analyze data from various sources worldwide, providing valuable insights for successful missions.

In a 2020 study by the China Aerospace Institute, Peter Wood and Roger Cliff note China’s C4ISR advancements in aircraft, drones, aerostats and satellites.

Wood and Cliff note that while China has invested heavily in space-based ISR, airborne surveillance and reconnaissance offer capabilities that satellites cannot provide such as superior localization capabilities for electronic intelligence (ELINT) missions and higher resolution versus satellite-based ISR.

Defense resource Janes reported in March 2023 that the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLA-NAF) is expanding its fleet of ISR airframes, including the Shaanxi Aircraft Corporation’s KJ-200 and Y-8J maritime surveillance platforms, from its Laiyang Air Base in Northeast China.

Janes notes that the expansion, which began in early 2022, will allow the PLA-NAF to increase the frequency of maritime patrol missions from the Laiyang Air Base, improving China’s ability to monitor aircraft and vessels operating in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea.

Wood and Cliff write that China is undergoing a process of “unmanification” with the adoption of multiple types of drones at every level, from strategic unmanned aerial vehicles like the Soar Dragon to hand-launched UAVs operated by grassroots militia units.

Asia Times reported this month that the PLA Ground Force (PLA-GF) has developed a new combat drone, the KVD002, which can provide battlefield intelligence, fire support and guide attack helicopters. It’s based on China’s bestselling unmanned combat aircraft, the CH-4, and can carry two air-to-surface missiles and reconnaissance devices.

China’s unveiling of the KVD002 signals growing confidence in its drone operations over the Taiwan Strait, with the PLA integrating unmanned systems into its force structure and actively developing them for all domains of warfare. This approach may be part of a strategy to test Taiwan’s defenses and wear down its air force.

Moreover, Wood and Cliff note China’s progress in aerostats, noting a resurgence of interest in lighter-than-air aircraft for observation and near-space reconnaissance.

They note that Chinese researchers see great potential for tethered aerostats, which can stay aloft at great heights, carry radar and optical sensors for surveillance, serve as communication hubs and perform electronic warfare.

China has been known to operate aerostats in the South China Sea and foreign airspace. In December 2022, Asia Times reported that China may have deployed a high-altitude, long-range airship near Luzon in the northern Philippines.

The airship resembles two high-altitude, uncrewed solar-powered Chinese balloons, the Tian Heng and Yuan Meng intended for stratospheric operations at 7,000 to 20,000 meters.

China has been building an aerostat network over hotspots such as the Himalayas, South China Sea and Taiwan Strait since 2017, with its aerostats fitted with large phased-array radars that can monitor airborne and surface targets within a 300-kilometer radius.

Wood and Cliff note that, as of March 2020, China has 363 operational satellites, more than any other country except the US, with many of them serving military C4ISR roles. They say that the China National Space Administration (CNSA) manages these satellites while the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLA-SSF) maintains links with Chinese commercial satellite imagery providers.

China may already have eclipsed the US and its allies in space-based spying. In August 2023, The Warzone reported that Australian defense contractor EOS Space Systems had monitored hundreds of Chinese surveillance satellites that have made thousands of passes over Australia and surrounding areas, including to gather intelligence about the Malabar and Talisman Saber military exercises.

The Warzone mentions that, as of the end of 2021, China’s ISR satellite fleet contained more than 260 systems, second only to the US, with the PLA owning and operating half of the world’s space-based ISR systems.

It notes that China’s expanding satellite ISR capacity has significantly boosted the PLA’s surveillance capabilities, allowing for greater intelligence gathering and surveillance of potential hotspots in the Pacific, contributing to enemy forces targeting during major conflicts, and complementing the PLA’s existing anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.

Aside from airborne and space-based ISR sensors, land and underwater sensors play a crucial role in China’s overall ISR capabilities.

Asia Times reported in May 2023 about a controversial Chinese simulation of a hypersonic missile attack on the USS Gerald Ford supercarrier which sank the warship and its escorts. Sea-based ISR might have been critical in the simulation, with the PLA using high-frequency direction finding (HF/DF), land-based, coastal, and sea-based radar.

It is also possible that China’s “Blue Ocean Information Network,” an array of radars built on unmanned semi-submersible 250-300 square meter platforms in the South China Sea, played a role in identifying and targeting the USS Gerald Ford and its escorts.

Moreover, China’s advancements in submarine detection technology, such as terahertz sensors and extremely low frequency (ELF) detection, can threaten US nuclear attack submarines (SSN) shadowing Chinese ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) in the South China Sea, raising the risk of nuclear retaliation while putting US SSBNs at risk of attack.

Source : Asia Times