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China’s anti-satellite weapon test January 24, 2007

Posted by genchan in China, General, Government, Security.
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The militarization of space has begun – so warn some overly concerned pundits. Militarization of space? Has the militarization on earth been so advance that we are now taking it to the next stage?

Not exactly. But at least the concern is real. This is about the latest news on China first reported by an aerospace trade magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology (story here) that the Chinese successfully shot down one of its own aging weather satellite (Fengyun-1C) with a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile on Jan. 11.

With this news, it is now known that the US, former USSR and China are the only three countries in history to have anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) capability.

Before we get into the implications of China’s action, it is necessary to note that while the test marked the first successful use of a ground-based weapon, it is not unprecedented. A quick check on Wiki will reveal that the exploration of anti-satellite weapons dates back to the 1960s with the US and USSR separately engaging in the development and deployment of such space weapons. The USSR tested theirs by spewing out pellets from one satellite to destroy another in orbit and the US, though failed in their test fire in 1983, was successful in intercepting its own satellite P78 SolWind in September 1985 using a kinetic energy weapon launched from an airborne plane.

US’s ASAT program was made part of its broader Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars” to use ground- and space- based systems to protect the country from nuclear missiles. That unilateral action raised the stakes with the USSR sparking fears of a new arms race at that time that prompted a shift in the minute hand of the doomsday clock to 3 mins to midnight in 1984 (BAS).

While the tests carried out by the US and USSR can be framed within the context of the Cold War, why is China test firing theirs at a time like this? And now that China has proven its capability, what implications would it have on international relations and the future use of outer space?

The fact that a missile was launched from a Chinese base and destroyed a Chinese satellite in space while keeping mum about it does not reflect well on a growing power that has pledged to rise ‘peacefully’ and take responsibility for its actions. The opaqueness of its military and space programs and rocket technology including its status as a nuclear power inevitably add to the problem. It is therefore only natural that other countries have voiced their concerns and called on Beijing to explain its military intentions in space. When a country behave in ways that other countries fail to comprehend, it immediately raises doubts and concerns more so in areas related to security. This could add further tension to a strained Japan-China relations as Japan sees the matter as a security threat (Japan Times, Jan. 20, 2007).

It should have taken precautions by alerting other countries of its move since it should know very well that such acts would not go undetected and would certainly affect relations with other countries. Keeping silence about it while denying that China has any ambition to militarize space would only leave doubts on those fearing an attack in space. What was China trying to prove? Was it trying to surprise the world that it now has space offensive weapons or was it just a reckless act trying to get rid of its defunct satellite from orbit? 

If its a cheap shot at removing one of its aging satellites, it is indeed a reckless act. This is because blowing up a satellite in space at a height of 850km from earth will contribute to space debris that will continue to remain in space for at least a decade. This is on top of some 14,000 pieces already floating around since Soviet’s Sputnik I launch in 1957, with about 200 new pieces added every year (The Japan Times, Jan. 22, 2007). As quoted in Defensetech.org, the Chinese test could “lead to nearly 800 debris fragments of size 10 cm or larger, nearly 40,000 debris fragments with size between 1 and 10 cm, and roughly 2 million fragments of size 1 mm or larger,” and that “roughly half of the debris fragments with size 1 cm or larger would stay in orbit for more than a decade.”

It is not only the concern of space junk per se but how such debris with some smaller pieces travelling at about 29,000 kph could cause damage to other orbiting satellites, the International Space Station (ISS) and shuttle missions in space. NASA’s space shuttles have rerouted their paths a dozen times since the Challenger exploded in 1986 and the ISS also had to maneuver several times to avoid space debris (Japan Times, Jan. 22, 2007). Eventually, meteors will no longer be our only concern.

The most pressing concern for most nations, however, is whether China has the capability to blow up spy satellites and GPS tracking satellites orbiting at higher altitudes (about 20,000 km up). The US has a network of these satellites in orbit and depends heavily on them for information gathering/reconnaissance and guidance including its operation of missile defense system. The Newscientistspace reported that the Chinese test is a low technology and can be easily applied by other countries as well. It is hard to conceive China as a credible threat since it would require more testings and much more advanced systems to come close to directly challenge the US. Thus, it would be somewhat premature to immediately conclude that China is capable of or intends to destroy Western strategic satellites, though it does give the country some leverage of holding Western satellites hostage at least in theory. If anything, it clearly shows China’s resolve to beef up its military capabilities in the hope of acquiring a place among the great powers in sync with its growing economic clout.

Nonetheless, if left unattended, the problem could escalate with the US and Japan upgrading their satellites with defensive and/or offensive capabilities, effectively contributing to a new arms race in space. A return to the Cold War ages with China and the US at opposite poles would be the last thing we want.

To avoid such escalations and prevent other countries from having any great ideas, its high time the Outer Space treaty, where the US and China are signatories, be upgraded to include a ban on ASATs testing or the use of lasers to take out orbiting satellites. There should be binding rules that would guarantee the use of space only for peaceful means.

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Comments»

1. Shingen - January 24, 2007

There are more than just spy satellites at risk.

The US (and ergo Japanese) Ballistic and Theatre missile defence (BMD/TMD) systems rely on satellites to function. They are now shown to be vulnerable.

Furthermore, if the Chinese could destroy the GPS satellites, then it would theoretically blind US operations. China is developing an independent system with the EU.

That said, I do not see the testing of an A-SAT as surprising at all. It is clearly a reaction to unbalance in the security dilemma created by US pursuit (once again) of a BMD system. This is just part of an inevitable arms race that certainly did not start with the Chinese.

What is really upsetting is that the Chinese are strong proponents (with the Russians) of keeping space demilitarised… So much for that.

2. genchan - February 4, 2007

Hi Shingen. Many thanks for visiting and leaving me your interesting comment.

3. Shingen - February 4, 2007

A pleasure 🙂

4. Ken - April 25, 2007

Nice post, made for some good reading…

The most pressing concern for most nations, however, is whether China has the capability to blow up spy satellites and GPS tracking satellites orbiting at higher altitudes (about 20,000 km up).

Here’s the thing, though: Even if China could knock out one GPS satellite, so what? There are 30 satellites in the GPS constellation, with 24 needed for full operational capacity. The system can run with limited resources with 20+ satellites. It can run on a very limited basis with 15 or more.

In other words, the system is redundant by 6 satellites. This means China (or whoever) has to knock out 7 GPS satellites before they even begin affecting the operational capablilities of the GPS system, and even then, they still have a few more to go before it starts giving them the blank spaces in coverage they’re looking for.

So…is there a chance of knocking 10 or so satellites out before a retaliatory nuclear strike devastates their launch pads?

That’s why the DOD isn’t so worried about this right now…

5. genchan - May 3, 2007

Hi Ken, thanks a lot for dropping by and leaving your interesting comments.

6. Idetrorce - December 16, 2007

very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
Idetrorce


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