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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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Nuclear doomsday – 5 mins to midnight! January 23, 2007

Posted by genchan in General, Globalization, Nuclear, Security, World.
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Though my focus is on events in the East Asian region, I found this extremely interesting and decided to blog about it since it has ramification for both the region of my interest and the world at large.

To begin, how much of us are even aware of such a thing called a doomsday clock (pic above)? I for one was unaware of it until I read about it recently. Just a few days ago, Japanese TV made a documentary in line with this clock timeline to highlight the dangers of nuclear weapons and how close we have come to a nuclear doomsday.

Certainly, Japan would know best as it is the only victim of nuclear weapons in the world. Every year, Hiroshima and Nagasaki reminds us of the destruction caused to mankind that has continued to reverberate decades later.

The doomsday clock is an indicator of how close our world is to a nuclear catastrophe. Created and ‘maintained’ by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists(BAS), it “evoked both the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero)”. BAS was founded by University of Chicago scientists who were directly involved in the Manhattan Project (that gave birth to the world’s first atomic weapon) and therefore realized the consequences associated with nuclear force. Because of the organization’s reputation and the fact that its board of sponsors include 18 Nobel laureates, the clock plays an important role in ‘assessing’ the vulnerability of our world to nuclear threats, health epidemic and global warming.

Since the US rained two bombs on Japan, the former Soviet Union have tested theirs and until late 1980s, the world were divided into two blocs – the West vs the East, with each trying to outperform the other under what we have come to accept as the Cold War period. The end of the Cold War marked a new beginning as it effectively stopped the nuclear arms race between the two poles. If the minute hand was at 6 mins to midnight in 1988, it was at 17 mins (11:43) in 1991 (the furthest ever).

The future was supposed to be bright as the US and SU agreed to dismantle their large stockpile of nuclear warheads and as the world move from bipolarity to multipolarity and militarization to economic development.

Yet today, we are nearer to doomsday than ever before. The world did change after the collapse of the Berlin Wall but it did not change for the better. BAS justify their decision to shift the minute hand this year as below:

The world stands at the brink of a second nuclear age. The United States and Russia remain ready to stage a nuclear attack within minutes, North Korea conducts a nuclear test, and many in the international community worry that Iran plans to acquire the Bomb. Climate change also presents a dire challenge to humanity. Damage to ecosystems is already taking place; flooding, destructive storms, increased drought, and polar ice melt are causing loss of life and property.

Currently, both the US and Russia still hold large quantities of nuclear arsenals. Russia has 15,000 nuclear weapons and the US still has about 10,000, with each side having more than 1000 on high alert that can be deployed in minutes. “Both countries would need to dismantle one weapon a day for the next 25 years to even approach the stockpile size of any of the other nuclear weapon states” (BAS website).

Countries possessing nuclear weapons have also grown in number. At present, there are nine countries possessing nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, France, Britain, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Libya would have been the tenth if not for their decision to abort and dismantle their’s. If Iran succeeds and joins in, it would not only increase the number but contribute to more complication especially when the US considers Iran as a rogue state and part of the axis of evil. Terrorism is another fear of weapons falling into the wrong hands. This is not to mention the possibility of accidents coming from a misfiring due to miscommunication, malfunction or system deterioration.

If nuclear proliferation starts spliting up the world again, dismantling of nuclear stockpiles (one of the recommendations of BAS) would be the least thinkable. Already, various moves have been taken in furthering ballistic missile defense system that could lead to an unending cycle of arms race.

This is the ugly side of the rise of globalization and the use of high-tech such as nano-technology. Information is shared easily and weapons are shrunk down but yet packed with more force. As our world become ever more connected in time and space, we become even more vulnerable to desolation.  

We might need to ponder what will happen when the hand strikes twelve. It would certainly be worse than the Cinderella story of the chariot turning into a pumpkin. While Cinderella does not have the power to turn back the clock, we do. The doomsday clock has been adjusted 18 times since 1947 and its time for us to adjust it as far back as we can for the 19th time or else….