Will facility monitor U.S. missile test flights?

Observers Say Tarawa Tracking Station Expands Chinese Eavesdropping

Inside Missile Defense May 13, 1998 Pg. 5

The People's Republic of China completed construction of a satellite tracking station last fall on Tarawa Island, part of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. While China has insisted the station is simply part of its commercial space tracking and command system, independent observers believe the facility may be used to monitor U.S. missile tests conducted at Kwajalein Missile Test Range in the Marshall Islands or Vandenberg AFB, CA.

According to Chinese news accounts, the tracking station is meant to support Chinese satellite and space carrier rocket launches. These same reports state that the station is equipped with "advanced remote sensing and space telemetry receiving units, satellite orbital measurement instruments and satellite communications equipment."

China and Kiribati signed an agreement on the facility in September 1996. A Chinese firm commenced construction in early 1997 and completed work in October that same year.

The Tarawa station is China's first tracking station built outside the mainland. The station stands under the authority of the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General, established in 1966 to oversee China's three launch sites and all of its space launch and tracking activities. It is manned by Chinese personnel.

The island of Tarawa is situated about 100 miles north of the equator and near the international dateline, which makes it a strategic point for monitoring trans-Pacific communications. Its proximity to the Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands -- approximately 600 miles -- could make it a convenient site for monitoring and tracking U.S. missile flight tests at the Kwajalein test range.

An independent arms control specialist told Inside Missile Defense the Kiribati site has him "puzzled." If the Chinese wanted to monitor Kwajalein missile tests, they could just as easily send intelligence gathering ships into the area, he stated.

In his view, the most likely reason for the site is signals intelligence -- gathering economic intelligence by monitoring communication satellite transmissions from Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, that are otherwise out of reach of tracking stations on mainland China.

An industry source stated that, from a Chinese perspective, the construction of the station makes sense. The Chinese, he said, publicly acknowledge they will be launching a fair number of their own commercial satellites in the next five years, many of which they may position in geostational orbit along the equator. The proximity of the Tarawa station to the equator would make it quite convenient to track those satellites as well as any military satellites launched in the near future. Even if the site does monitor Kwajalein tests, its existence as a station to monitor Chinese commercial satellites is justified, he concluded.

Another expert, Bates Gill, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said at the least the site marks "an unprecedented and remarkable break from past [Chinese] practices.

"China has traditionally prided itself on not interfering or taking advantage of bases abroad or locations abroad for military purposes," he said.

Although this tracking facility is not a military base, "it is a step in that direction, especially if it would have military intelligence gathering purposes," Gill added. He could not confirm, however, that the facility had any significant military application or would be used to track Kwajalein test flights.

The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kiribass) is located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, northwest of French Polynesia and southeast of the Marshall Islands. The country consists of islands of the Gilbert, Line and Phoenix island chains that were formerly British and American protectorates. The islands gained independence in 1979.

-- Michael C. Sirak