[FPSPACE] Is there another PRC ASAT test in the near offing? A speculation

Peter Pesavento pjp961 at svol.net
Fri Jan 4 18:07:47 EST 2013


Article about the possibility of a PRC ASAT test in January 2013.  I am not
convinced by the information offered in this blog article that such a test
is near-imminent, and it should be considered speculation.

 

http://allthingsnuclear.org/is-january-chinese-asat-testing-month/

 

Gregory Kulacki is the China Project Manager for the Union of Concerned
Scientists.

 


 <http://allthingsnuclear.org/is-january-chinese-asat-testing-month/> Is
January Chinese ASAT Testing Month? 


 

January 4, 2013

In 2007 and 2010 China conducted anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons tests, both
on January 11. Rumors circulating for the past few months suggest that some
within the U.S. defense and intelligence community believe China is
preparing to conduct another ASAT test.

The first  <http://freebeacon.com/china-to-shoot-at-high-frontier/> media
report on these rumors appeared in October. China's Ministry of Defense
<http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/china-rejects-allegation-effort-destroy-orbi
tal-craft/> challenged the information in that report, but in November
contacts in China told us an announcement about an upcoming ASAT test was
circulated within the Chinese government. We were unable to find a public
statement confirming plans for a test in the Chinese media or on publicly
accessible Chinese government websites. Then, just before Christmas, a
high-ranking U.S. defense official told us that the Obama administration was
very concerned about an imminent Chinese ASAT test.

Given these high-level administration concerns, and past Chinese practice,
there seems to be a strong possibility China will conduct an ASAT test
within the next few weeks. What kind of test and what the target might be is
unclear.

The Obama administration has three choices: it can make a quiet diplomatic
effort to persuade China to cancel or at least postpone the test, it can
publicly call on China not to test, or it can remain silent until China
conducts the test and then complain about it afterwards. The Bush
administration took the latter approach and the space environment is much
worse off for it.  Despite having seen the ASAT system tested at least twice
before the Jan. 11 2007  <http://www.celestrak.com/events/asat.asp>
destruction of the Fengyun 1C, the Bush administration did not communicate
its concerns to China, and we will never know if this
<http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10736700802117346> might have
influenced China's decision.

The Obama administration should try to dissuade China from conducting the
test. China may decide to test anyway, but it might see value in canceling
or postponing the test to discuss these issues with the U.S. The Chinese
Foreign Ministry routinely expresses support for diplomatic efforts to
create an international space security framework. This approach is also in
line with U.S. Defense Department policy. Its
<http://www.dtic.mil/whs/directives/corres/pdf/310010p.pdf> Oct. 2012
Directive on Space Policy, which lays out the range of approaches the DOD
will take to mitigate the threat posed by the development of systems that
can interfere with satellites, says it will "support the development of
international norms of responsible behavior" in space. Acting to prevent
irresponsible behavior before it happens is a clearly preferable approach to
supporting international norms than waiting to act until after they have
been violated.

High-level intervention in both countries is needed to stop the test and
start discussions. Remarkably, there are no regular channels of
communication on space issues between China and the United States.
<http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nwgs/Kulacki_US-China-coop_Nature_6-
23-11.pdf> Congressional opposition to scientific and commercial cooperation
with China in space shut down
<http://allthingsnuclear.org/engaging-china-on-space/> potential talks on
human space flight that
<http://allthingsnuclear.org/obamas-problems-with-china/> could have led to
a bilateral dialog on space security.

If China fails to respond to bilateral efforts, the administration should
issue a strong public statement prior to the test to increase international
pressure on China to cancel it.

What Kind of Test?

The Chinese ASAT test in 2007 targeted an aging Chinese weather satellite in
a low earth orbit approximately 850 km above the earth. The ASAT interceptor
struck and obliterated the one-ton satellite, creating a
<http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_weapons_and_global_security/space_weapons/tec
hnical_issues/debris-in-brief-space-debris.html> large field of space debris
that will present a danger to spacecraft orbiting near that altitude for
decades.

The 2010 test was conducted as a
<http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/13/world/asia/13china.html?scp=4&sq=China+mi
ssile&st=nyt> missile defense test, destroying an object that was not in
orbit, so it did not create any long-lasting space debris. The intercept
occurred at a much lower altitude than the 2007 test, and targeted a mock
warhead launched by a ballistic missile rather than a satellite in orbit.
But China reportedly used the same launcher and the same interceptor in both
the 2007 and 2010 tests. Chinese defense and aerospace analysts contend that
there is no technical distinction between ASAT interceptors and missile
defense interceptors that work above the atmosphere, and have
<http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_weapons_and_global_security/international_inf
ormation/us_china_relations/anti-satellite-asat.html> argued since the 1980s
that they are essentially the same technology (and
<http://allthingsnuclear.org/aegis-as-asat/> U.S. analysts agree). That the
second test used the same technology in a non-debris creating way may
indicate that China now understands the problems associated with tests that
destroy satellites.

It is not clear what kind of test may be planned, if indeed one is in the
works. There are
<http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nwgs/physics-space-security.pdf>
different types of technologies that can be used as ASAT weapons and a
satellite may not be destroyed at all. The planned test could be of the same
technology as the 2007 and 2010 tests but in a missile defense or flyby
mode, or a test of technology that doesn't destroy a satellite.

The  <http://freebeacon.com/china-to-shoot-at-high-frontier/> first U.S.
media report suggested that the next Chinese ASAT test, if it occurs, could
be at a much higher orbit than the 2007 test. U.S. government sources
informed us that some U.S. defense and intelligence analysts think China may
attempt to strike a target at an altitude close to the medium earth orbits
(MEO) used by U.S., Russian, and some Chinese navigational satellites, which
orbit at about 20,000 km above the earth.

Such a test could be interpreted as a signal China wants to hold U.S. GPS
navigational satellites at risk, much as the 2007 test was interpreted as a
signal China intends to attack U.S. satellites in low earth orbit. But there
are good reasons for China not to destroy a satellite at this orbit,
including that China plans to use this part of space. Creating debris, as it
now understands, would threaten its own satellites. Over the next several
years China plans to place more than twenty
<http://www.beidou.gov.cn/xtjs.html> new navigational satellites in MEO.
Together with the satellites already in orbit, these new launches will
complete a Chinese satellite navigational system with capability similar to
the U.S. GPS constellation, providing Chinese civil, commercial, and
military users with valuable location and timing services.

Moreover, as we showed in a
<http://allthingsnuclear.org/does-a-high-altitude-asat-test-make-sense/>
previous post, significantly reducing the capability of the U.S. GPS system
would take a large-scale and well-coordinated attack, so much so that
targeting these satellites may not be an effective strategy.

Ma Xingrui, the General Manager of the China Aerospace Science and
Technology Corporation ( <http://www.spacechina.com/n25/index.html> CASC),
<http://scitech.people.com.cn/n/2012/1228/c1007-20042583.html> recently
compared the strategic significance of China's new satellite navigation
system to China's nuclear arsenal. Given the large size of the investment,
and the  <http://scitech.people.com.cn/n/2012/1228/c1007-20039164.html>
economic and
<http://military.people.com.cn/n/2012/1231/c1011-20061772.html> military
importance of this system to China, it is questionable whether China would
ever actually use the ASAT interceptor it is testing to launch a large-scale
destructive attack in MEO, or any other area of space where its satellites
operate. China's emerging space capabilities may be fewer and less capable
than those deployed by the United States, but they are just as valuable to
Chinese military planners and the Chinese leadership. Over the past several
decades China has invested considerable financial, technical and human
resources in the development of a comprehensive set of civil and military
space programs.

China's space program is still in the formative stages of its development.
Both the United States and the former Soviet Union conducted
<http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_weapons_and_global_security/space_weapons/pol
icy_issues/a-history-of-anti-satellite.html> equally high profile ASAT
testing during comparable stages in the development of their space programs,
and both eventually decided to stop destructive ASAT testing. Hopefully,
China will eventually come to a similar conclusion. Beginning a meaningful
bilateral dialog on space security between the United States and China could
hasten the day.

 

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